• Putney Swope (Vinegar Syndrome) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: June 25th, 2019.
    Director: Robert Downey
    Cast: Arnold Johnson, Stan Gottlieb, Allen Garfield, Mel Brooks
    Year: 1969
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    Putney Swope – Movie Review:

    Written and directed by Robert Downey Sr. (credited on screen as ‘Robert Downey [a prince]’!), 1969’s Putney Swope follows the character of the same name played by Arnold Johnson (and dubbed by Downey). He’s a low-level employee at a prominent Madison Avenue advertising agency and the only black man on the company payroll. When the Chairman Of The Board drops dead in a board meeting and it comes time for the employees to vote for the new Chairman, Swope’s name is put forth as a lark, because no one believes he could possibly win.

    And then he does.

    His first action is to fire all of the current white executives and replace them with militant black employees. His second action is to rename the company to ‘Truth And Soul Incorporated.’ Almost immediately, the company loses pretty much all of their clients but soon enough, they’ve rebuilt a roster and started churning out controversial advertisements, the kind that brings attention – wanted and unwanted – to the agency. As Swope starts stealing some of his employees’ ideas and mistreating those under his command, none less than The President Of The United States declares Swope and company a threat to the very nation itself.

    Not every gag in Putney Swope is a home run, but most of them are. Clever, quirky, unique, often times very funny and just as often noticeably angry, this twisted satire is a pointed take on not only the advertising industry but also how it plays with racial issues and American politics of its day. It is, in some ways, a typical ‘rise and fall’ story as we follow Swope’s emergence as the new ‘hot thing’ in advertising and appreciate his moral strengths as we opts not to get involved with cigarettes, alcohol or other products that could harm people. This admiration doesn’t last forever though, as soon enough he’s mistreating his employees, taking out his personal problems on them and, in some ways at least, becoming as ‘bad’ as the men that he replaced. There are interesting twists along the way to keep things interesting and plenty of humor to keep the audience engaged.

    Visually, the bulk of the film is shot in high contrast black and white but the commercial sequences are shot in full color, which is an interesting tactic on Downey’s part. The cinematograph is solid, it does a nice job of reflecting the film’s somewhat anarchic tone and relaying much of the insanity that ensues once Swope takes over (which happens very quickly – Downey wastes no time setting things up with this film). Subtlety isn’t a strong point here but it works.

    The film also features a great supporting turn from Allen Garfield as well as an undeniably funny cameo from none other than Mel Brooks. And
    Pepi Hermine, from Werner Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small has a fun supporting role here as well.

    Putney Swope – Blu-ray Review:

    Putney Swope arrives on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer that has been ‘newly scanned & restored in 4k from various 35mm pre-print elements’ and presented in a ‘new 4k restoration created by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and The Film Foundation.’ Framed at 1.37.1, the picture quality here is excellent. Some compositions show some more head room than some might prefer, but others would look a bit tight had they been matted. Either way, framing quirks aside the transfer boasts excellent detail and impressive depth and texture throughout. The black and white footage is crisp and clean and shows solid contrast while the color footage reproduces the different hues and tones quite accurately. The image retains the expected amount of film grain but shows very little damage aside from a few white specks here and there. The image is free of obvious compression issues and shows no problems with noise reduction or edge enhancement.

    The only audio option available for the feature is an English language DTS-HD mono track. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. Dialogue can sound a tad flat in spots but this seems very true to source. The score sounds decent, the levels are properly balanced and the track is free of any noticeable hiss or distortion.

    Extras include an archival audio commentary with director Robert Downey Sr. that is quite interesting. He speaks about the circumstances around the film’s fairly random distribution, how he did some of the voice work for it, the people that he collaborated with on the film, where some of the ideas for the story came from, how the film was received and more. The disc also includes a new commentary with film critic/historian/filmmaker Sergio Mims, the same man who Vinegar Syndrome used on their Blu-ray release of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song in 2018. That track was great, and this one is too. Mims does a great job of putting the film into its proper social and political context as well as exploring the details behind the contributions of the different cast and crew members, the film’s connections to live theatre, how it compares and contrasts to other black pictures of the era, the film’s influence and plenty more.

    The disc also includes an archival video interview with recorded in 2001 that runs sixteen-minutes and a second archival video interview with Downey 2008 on that runs eleven-minutes. These cover some of the same ground as the commentary track but are quite interesting regardless as they cover his views on the film industry, how he got into the business, why he made this project and more. Vinegar Syndrome also provides a twenty-five-minute Q & A session conducted after a screening of the film at the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival. Again, it goes over a fair bit of the same material as the commentary and the two interview segments but Downey does get to interact with the crowd a bit here and there which is neat to see. The video quality is less than perfect here but better to have it included than not. Also be on the lookout for a nineteen-minute audio interview with cinematographer Gerald Cotts that was conducted by Brad Henderson. Here Cotts speaks about how he came to get involved with Downey, what it was like working on this picture, his thoughts on the film’s subject matter and how it was controversial at the time and more.

    Rounding out the extras is an original theatrical trailer and a still gallery consisting of a ton of old articles and promotional materials. Menus and chapter selection are also included. As this is a combo pack release, we also get a DVD version of the movie and Vinegar Syndrome packages this with some nice reversible cover artwork.

    Putney Swope – The Final Word:

    Putney Swope is an impressively weird and effectively unique picture, one that deals with not only how the advertising industry deals with and plays off of race, but the counterculture movement of the late sixties at the same time. Vinegar Syndrome has done right by the film, giving it an impressive high definition debut on a disc loaded with extras that document its history and influence.

    Click on the images below for full sized The Putney Swope Blu-ray screen caps!