Cult Cinema: Putney Swope - Reviewed

Andrew reviews Robert Downey, Sr.'s timelessly incendiary comedy, Putney Swope.

Listening to an interview with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson recently, the subject of a then yet to be discovered comic and technical filmmaking wunderkind known as the father of Robert Downey, Jr. came into light.  Soon I happened upon the Sr.’s absurdist, incendiary and brilliantly hilarious masterworks with The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series Up All Night with Robert Downey, Sr. with a handful of Downey, Sr.’s short films and his timelessly riotous, outrageous and savage cult classic, Putney Swope.  The story of a Madison Avenue advertising firm who inadvertently elects the only African American man on the staff, the titular Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson from Shaft overdubbed by Downey, Sr. himself), after the abrupt death of the chairman of the board.  Within minutes of being elected, Swope fires all but one of the white employees before replacing them with black employees, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., produces and airs outlandish commercials before eventually finding boredom being the head honcho.  Shot in rough black-and-white interspersed with color sequences of Swope’s radical advertisements, the film is a take no prisoners free for all which pushes topical buttons of race relations in the workplace, the portrayal of race in film, group think and finally the inability to maintain control after the attainment of absolute power.

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Precluding Sidney Lumet’s Network for its incisive critique of the corporate dynamic and informing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, right down to Don Cheadle’s pornographer Buck Swope and the Chinese kid throwing firecrackers inside a building, Putney Swope remains Robert Downey, Sr.’s breakthrough film for losing none of its polarizing comic power despite forty seven years since its inception.  When it isn’t addressing racial stereotypes, it assails the viewer with wacky asides including a dwarf CEO, a music video of topless women jumping around and a motivational researcher who casually declares ‘beer is for men who doubt their masculinity’.  In short, Putney Swope is all over the map with reckless comic countercultural abandon.   Aside from the direct nods in Boogie Nights, Downey, Sr.’s freeform narrative approach to editing and storytelling interspersed with random anecdotal comic absurdities so bizarre the only healthy response is laughter, most certainly informed the visual language Paul Thomas Anderson would employ in his stab at Thomas Pynchon with Inherent Vice.  Irrespective of the literary devotion to the written word, many scenes in Inherent Vice like the banana fellating gag play with the same sense of comic timing pioneered by Downey, Sr.’s films.  Sound and editing are key in Downey, Sr.’s films with specific lines amplified or redubbed for surreal comic effect as well as the use of music during montage.  Most movies laden with ADR overdubbing are regarded as exemplar of shoddiness but Downey, Sr. is among the few to knowingly use it for comedy and the results are as effective as his early short film work, Babo 73 being one of the funniest. 

While a critical and commercial smash for an underground independent release in 1969, Robert Downey, Sr. never again attained the same artistic or financial heights he did with Putney Swope.  Downey, Sr. has gone on saying Putney Swope just happened to be a lucky find with audiences whereas most of the rest of his work is either difficult to obtain and funding for future projects (which he still hints at today) seems remote at this juncture.  Though still active in film today including having directed his son Robert Downey, Jr. in a number of films, Putney Swope remains the cult auteur’s pinnacle which many number of artists today still consider to be the work of an offbeat comedian and brilliantly incendiary filmmaker to learn from and respect.  Cited as Louis C.K.’s favorite film, it’s a delightfully subversive and at times piercingly incendiary romp of political incorrectness, corporate satire and gleefully surreal sketch comedy with random vignettes so hilarious they rival most of the so-called edgy comedies gracing cinemas today.  


- Andrew Kotwicki