The Truth And Soul Of Putney Swope

by Rachel Bellwoar

Like a pirate ship, descending upon the ad agency from above, Putney Swope opens with a helicopter landing, but it’s not the person onboard who’s going to change the company. Charley Cuva’s music implies as much, but a high five changes the song and the tension. Bud Smith’s editing never misses a mark and we no longer see the person as a threat.
It’s an inside error, not an outside force, that brings about Putney’s promotion. When the head of the company dies, and his employees finish picking his pockets, they quickly call for a vote on who will replace him as the boss. Thanks to a rule against voting for yourself, Putney (Arnold Johnson) wins by a landslide.
One close-up on Putney’s mouth later and the entire make-up of the room has changed. For women not much is different (Putney discovers two of his employees about to have sex and it’s the woman who gets fired, not the man, after giving a sob story), but Putney comes in as a revolutionary force, refusing to do business with cigarettes or war toys and renaming the company Truth and Soul, after hiring a team of black creatives. That some of his employees are carrying doesn’t seem to him hypocritical but those are the sort of flaws in the revolution that start popping up.
There’s one scene, in particular, that feels like a turning point, but Putney gives nothing away. There’s no hesitation. No visible qualms. Has Putney changed, or is this the “truth” part of Truth and Soul?
Directed by Robert Downey Sr., Putney Swope is first and foremost a film with style. Black & white (except for the commercials, which are done in color), the ads are meant to be experimental, but nobody seems concerned that there isn’t a censor around that would let them air on basic cable. This is a satire, and one rife with character actors who understand the value of line delivery. Sound, as much as visuals, make a difference in this movie and every voice is distinct and memorable. That’s why it’s such a surprise when you realize Arnold Johnson was dubbed (and by Downey Sr. himself, inflecting a gravelly tone).
As fast paced and off the wall as this film can be, there is a progression of events and running jokes, like Putney’s bodyguard not being fit for the job or characters claiming they heard it on the drum, a sort of vibration network.
While some of Vinegar Syndrome bonus features are better than others (and there’s some overlap in information), it’s an exhaustive effort. I especially enjoyed Brad Henderson’s interview with cinematographer, Gerald Cotts (and how Vinegar Syndrome dealt with it being an audio interview by having the woman from the cover art slowly rise up from the bottom of the screen). A controversial image in itself, the ‘Archival Article and Promo Gallery’ is another treat for getting to see the ways the middle finger was manipulated, or the woman’s image used separately, so it wouldn’t cause offense.
Available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Vinegar Syndrome, Putney Swope also includes two commentary tracks by film critic, Sergio Mims, and Downey Sr., and various interviews with Downey Sr. over the years.

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