I could be wrong, but I imagine that this 1940s political drama would feature towards the middle of most people’s ranking of the Best Picture Winners. It is a totally solid film even if it is a difficult film to really love.
It is the tale of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) a man who is one of the people who wants to take a stand against the corrupt nature of politics by running for county treasurer. Although he does not win the election, he later becomes involved in politics and as he rises up the ladder he becomes more and more corrupt just like the politicians that he was trying to stand against. The film is based on the Pulitizer Prize winning novel of the same name and was loosely based on the story of Huey Long.
It’s a film that is equally relevant now as it was then. Political Scandal still exists as does the general feeling that voters want a leader who thinks about the people above personal gain. From recent leaders like Obama, to the worst dictators in modern history like Hitler and Stalin, all have tried to show that they are essentially one of the people.
The film is not a vivid and cheery number: the cinematography is bleak and dull and it’s not a particularly glamorous film. This makes the film successful. In the midst of this glum surroundings is Stark: someone who brings hope to the people with his sincere and honest speeches.
Crawford is great in this role: he plays the role of politician with studied ease. You can understand how he could have motivated the people and won them over with his brilliant rhetoric and public presence. His rise to power and fall from public grace is measured and largely not overacted, although there are a couple of over the top scenes.
The scene also looks at his relationship with Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge). She gives the best performance in the film: balanced, dignified and commanding of the screen, even though her role is not massive. Their relationship is based around her role as his ambitious and backstabbing political aide and the audience can really believe their relationship would work in the way that it does in the film. The film really does succeed in making the two stories (his rise and fall as a politician along with the adulterous relationship) work at the same time, without feeling that one of the stories is being pushed into the background.
For a film made in the 1940s it is not glossy and sumptuous, but instead is one of the first Oscar winners that tries to bring realism to the screen. There are times when the film has its over the top moments that don’t fit into the film’s gritty nature, but on the whole this is a relevant and intelligent film that has aged well over the years and should be essential viewing for anyone interested in political dramas.