Putney Swope (1969) – Film Review
Director: Robert Downey Snr
Cast: Arnold Johnson, Allen Garfield, Antonio Fargas
By @Roger Crow
Film lovers are like detectorists, scouring cinematic beaches for hidden treasure. There will be a lot of old soft drink cans (mass produced generic flicks with lots of fizz and little originality) but occasionally you hit the jackpot.
I had never heard of Putney Swope until recently, and had no idea it was written and directed by Robert Downey Jr’s father, Robert Downey Snr.
I was reminded of the recent cult success Sorry to Bother You, featuring an African-American guy trying to sell stuff at a call centre using a dubbed voice. This one also features an African-American guy selling stuff using a dubbed voice (Downey Snr).
By a quirk of fate (a sudden death and a vote that backfired for the board members), the eponymous character ends up as the head of a lucrative New York advertising company. And his no-nonsense attitude toward customers means the company winds up becoming even more successful.
Written by Downey Snr and listed in the credits as (A Prince), the tone is wonderfully witty and acerbic. “How many syllables Mario?” Is one of those weird lines uttered by one character, and all the more strange when repeated.
It’s great to see a ripped Antonio Fargas years before finding fame as Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch.
MASH fans will also recognise Alan Arbus, who went on to play Hawkeye’s shrink in that sublime series.
Putney Swope is one of those offbeat finds that is well worth tracking down. It’s occasionally laugh out loud funny, and while a little rough around the edges, sustains the interest more than many so-called comedies with 100 times the budget.
I’m not surprised it influenced other film makers, including Paul Thomas Anderson. While making Boogie Nights, he named Don Cheadle’s character after Swope, and also cast Downey Snr in a role. Fans of the Beastie Boys will also spot a reference in one of their songs.
It’s a counterculture classic that is a must for fellow cinematic detectorists.