Death of a Salesman [1951]

German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff's 1985 production of Arthur Miller's most famous play appeared squarely and quite hauntingly in the middle of the go-go economy of the Reagan-Bush years. Miller's story, set during the post-war boom period of the late '40s, concerns an aging, traveling salesman named Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman), who despairs that his life his been lived in vain. Facing dispensability and insignificance in a heated, youthful economy, Willy is not ready to part with his cherished fantasies of an America that loves and admires him for personable triumphs in the marketplace. But the reality is far more pitiable than that, and the measure of Willy's self-delusion and contradictions is found in his two sons, one (Stephen Lang) a ne'er-do-well gliding on inherited hot air and repressed feelings, and the other (John Malkovich) a mousy, retiring sort unable to reconcile--or forgive--the difference between his father's desperate impersonation of success and the truth. Schlondorff's remarkable cast explores Miller's rich subtext to great effect, though Hoffman--despite giving us a new model of Willy to contrast with Lee J. Cobb's definitive portrayal a generation before--is a bit insect-like and shrill in his approach. Malkovich, Lang, and Kate Reid (as Willy's long-suffering wife) are perfect, however, and the production is atmospheric and strong. --Tom Keogh

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