3.5 out of 5 stars

For many people, Robert Downey Sr., who died earlier this month, will have been a vaguely familiar face from small roles in films such as Boogie Nights (1997) and To Live and Die in L.A (1985). But for much of the 1960s he was busy as a writer and director (and occasionally cinematographer) of decidedly un-Hollywood counterculture movies, of which Putney Swope is probably the best-known example.

Now rereleased by Arrow Video in a clean restoration with just a few visible print changes, it’s the kind of film that could only have been made in that decade; mixing political awareness with childish humour, and sharp satire with heartless mockery that many would find unacceptable today. (There’s a lengthy stammering joke, for example). Imagine a blaxploitation version of AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) written by Monty Python and you’re getting there!

This highly episodic film doesn’t have much of a plot at all, as many scenes are seemingly included for fun rather than as elements of a longer narrative. But it does have a high concept which provides a jumping-off point for a series of gags and sketches. When the chairman of a New York advertising agency unexpectedly dies in the middle of a meeting, the board must vote for a replacement, and its only black member—the eponymous Swope (Arnold Johnson), until then merely the agency’s music director—is elected by a surprising landslide. (“We all voted for him because we thought no-one else would vote for him,” says a disconsolate colleague.)

“I’m not going to rock the boat,” Swope assures the board immediately after his election, before going on to say that “rocking the boat’s a drag. What you do is sink the boat.” And cue a funky Shaft-ish theme as Swope changes the agency’s name to Truth and Soul, replaces nearly all of its white staff with a motley crew of 1960s black stereotypes, and loses all their clients.

The inversion of what were, then, established racial roles is a pointed running joke throughout the film—there is now a single, token white account manager (paid less than his black colleagues, naturally), a white messenger boy, a white chauffeur, a white maid at Putney’s home verbally abused by his black wife (Laura Greene)—and is especially striking when the white account manager pulls rank on the white messenger boy, an unusually subtle moment for Putney Swope. Even the oppressed often find someone else to oppress.

Swope is irascible (he loves firing people) and impossible to read. By halfway through the film he’s dressing like Fidel Castro, and he differs from his predecessors in refusing to handle accounts like tobacco and toy guns (the previous, white, cheerfully amoral management had believed that if you “deny a young boy the right to have a toy gun… you’ll suppress his destructive urges, and he’ll turn out to be a homosexual… or worse.”) But he’s certainly no social justice campaigner either. He cynically rebrands a window cleaner as a cola to sell in the ghetto, and may simply enjoy beating the white capitalists at their own game.

Indeed, clients do drift back, attracted by the success of Truth and Soul’s rule-breaking TV ads. We’re shown several of these (and some are available on YouTube) in colour, while the main part of the film is black-and-white. The best is that for Face Off acne cream, a parody of sentimental first-love commercials, though there’s also a bizarre genius in the ad for Lucky Airlines with its ecstatic dancing women, bare breasts, sitar music, and a George Harrison lookalike bearing no discernible relevance to the product at all. Sadly we never get to see an ad for the combined mousetrap-crematorium product one of the agency’s clients is launching.

Meanwhile, a subplot featuring the Dr Evil-like President Mimeo (Pepi Hermine) and his manipulative confidant Mr Six (Lawrence Wolf) is a little more linear than the rest of this chaotic, surreal movie—though that isn’t really saying much!—with a comedic tone that recalls Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964). It’s tempting to see Mr Six as Henry Kissinger, though Kissinger had only been National Security Advisor for a few months when Swope was released, so that may be coincidental.

Besides theirs and Johnson’s in the title role, a few other performances stand out: Stan Gottlieb as Nathan, an executive at the agency before Swope takes over; Greene as Swope’s wife; and the almost completely silent Buddy Butler as Swope’s Afro’d bodyguard, presumed threatening throughout but eventually revealed as completely inept. None of them are supposed to be remotely credible, however, as they are simply vehicles for Downey’s humour, and some of it’s conventional repartee (“My father started this agency!”—“And you’re not going to finish it!”) but much of it verges on pantomime.

Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this is the character of The Arab (Antonio Fargas), one of Swope’s black hires at the agency, used by Downey to ridicule the way that some American black radicals of the 1960s embraced Islam. The Arab dresses in an absurd Middle Eastern outfit (“who you think you are,” asks Swope, “Lawrence of Nigeria?”); his cousin’s called Sirhan Saran Wrap (a reference to the Palestinian assassin of Robert F. Kennedy); and he prays in a farcical cod-Arabic (“lalilalamixed-media”).

There’s other humour in Putney Swope that today would be see as impossibly racist. Ooe black staffer at the agency suggests watermelon breaks instead of coffee breaks, a Chinese client declares “I’m a happy Chink”—and other satire of black militancy too. So it’s very much a product of its time in every way, and also of its low budget (about $900,000 in today’s money). While there are some slick touches, like an edgy score from Charley Cuva, and coolly elegant opening titles by the New York firm of Chermayeff & Geismer, as well as some dynamic photography, there’s also a ramshackle and slightly stagey feel to much of the movie. 

But naturalism isn’t Putney Swope’s concern. Its goal is to be outrageous, to present the least presidential President of the United States you can imagine (or could before 2016), the least likely corporate culture to thrive in the business world of the 1960s, the least appropriate ads for an era of bland network TV.

Despite its subject matter, it’s not revolutionary or progressive in the sense of proposing a plausible alternative to the state of things; Downey (who was white) delights in imagining an alternate reality that’s partly a distorted exaggeration of the real 1969, and partly a crazy fantasy for the hell of it. And even if it’s less satisfying, taken as a whole, than more conventional movies, there is—as most of the characters in Putney Swope would say—plenty to dig here.

USA | 1969 | 85 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE • COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Robert Downey Sr..
starring: Arnold Johnson, Antonio Fargas, Allan Garfield & Mel Brooks