Death Of A Salesman (Blu-ray Review)

Death-of-a-SalesmanArthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is one of the most popular works of theatre of all time.  People may not know what the play or script is about completely, but many get the gyst or recognize the title when its dropped (A lot throughout film and television history).  Previously made into a feature film in 1951, 1985 brought a televised version of the play featuring Dustin Hoffman brining his gravitas to television.  This iteration proved a pretty big success, garnering a whopping ten Emmy nominations that year.  It took home three of them, including statues for both actors Dustin Hoffman (Leading in a movie or mini series) and John Malcovich (Supporting).  The film is being released under the Shout Select banner and isn’t the first television movie under the label.  If you’ll remember, their first was John Carpenter’s Elvis, starring Kurt Russell.  This Blu-ray rendition of the 1985 movie will be available on November 15th.

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Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie) delivers a Golden Globe®-winning performance as he leads a stellar cast, including John Malkovich (Places In The Heart), Stephen Lang (Gettysburg) and Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon).  Set during the post-war boom period of the late ‘40s, the film captures the life of an unstable man on the verge of being incapable of providing for his family, many of whom have failed to live up to their own potential.

I can’t recall Death Of A Salesman, the TV special, as I was only three years old when it aired.  But I do remember a time when TV movies were a much bigger deal and taken much more seriously than they are now.  These were actual competent, serious productions.  People expected a lot more from them, looked forward to them and…actually watched them.  For me, it was always the Stephen King mini-series. There were things of legend like Salem’s Lot and It…but also garbage like The Shining redo.

When I look at when this was produced and see Dustin Hoffman leading the charge, this must have been a huge deal back when this aired on CBS.  Hoffman was a big movie star and coming to TV was something they just didn’t do unless they were desperate or a has been.  I remember it being a MASSIVE deal when Harrison Ford showed up on the TV movie that kicked off the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  While he won an Emmy for his performance as well as a lot of praise, I’m not sure it stands the test of time.  Its a very big performance, one meant for the stage, and also feels a bit like he’s trying to upstage his co-stars. In all honesty, my favorite moments in this were when Hoffman wasn’t onscreen.  John Malcovich and Kate Reid turn in excellent performances that I think go beyond Hoffman’s.

One of the issues I have with this overall, is that while its apparently a completely faithful adaptation, that’s a problem.  It feels too stagy.  The sets look like stage sets.  They also stick in some locations for far too long.  Many of the scenes run too long and static like with a wealth of dialogue.  The material is good, even with Hoffman showboating, its just too slow paced and is just too much like staring at the same photograph forever.  Now, after about an hour this shifts gears and starts going to some different locales and the film starts to pick up by just the fact that it looks more interesting.  Some may not have a problem, but this felt so long where it really didn’t have to by simply making a more tv or film friendly adaptation.  Mediums don’t criss cross like that so easily.  One’s strengths to hold to another.

Death of a Salesman delivers on what it should; performances.  They are all different degrees of terrific and effective.  While I wasn’t a fan of Hoffman’s I can see why it was so lauded.  As a film, it just wound up being way too much like one camera sitting there and watching a play.  The first hour or so runs much too static and slow, hampering it from recovering to the finish.

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Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail:  Death of a Salesman come to Blu-ray in a transfer that looks like a very hands off approach from Shout Factory.  The film features a layer of grain and plenty of specs and such to suggest that possibility.  Detail looks very solid as many of the sets look like set sand show some cuts, scuffs and overall patterns and textures.  Its as crisp an image as this is going to get, but what I like most is how cinematic this TV movie appears because back in the day, this was shot on film just like the movies. The only difference was the cheapness in the production protruding through.

Depth:  Dimensional work is pretty decent here, where it could have been flat.  Its not some 3 dimensional thing where it looks like you’re watching it on stage, but it does feature moments that are close to that.  Actors move freely and cinematically.

Black Levels:  Blacks are deep.  They provide some nice filmic shading and shadows.  Dark scenes find blacks complimentary and giving off a well defined image.  No crushing was witnessed when watching the film for this reviews.

Color Reproduction: Colors are pretty mum here overall.  There is a hotel room and a restaurant that feature some really big reds, but aside from that things are bit more dingy and held to natural grays, browns and such.  Bold, but with no real pop.

Flesh Tones: Skin tones look mostly natural with a hint of a pink tint to them, and aside from some minimal flicker in a few moments, it stays that way for the duration of the film.  Facial details are very good in close ups, showcasing wrinkles, moles, freckles and the like.  Dustin Hoffman’s make-up holds up for the majority of this thing, never truly looking obvious.

Noise/Artifacts: This features a decent layer of grain as well as plenty of specs and dirt.

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Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: The soundtrack here is rock solid and more than gets the job done.  This mono track isn’t asked really to do much as the whole thing is driven by conversation, which it gets the vocals done just find.  Effects sound like live on-set recordings and are nice and clean.  Scoring sounds very solid here and never gets to be too overbearing, complimenting the scene.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension:  N/A

Surround Sound Presentation:  N/A

Dialogue Reproduction:  Vocals are the main crux of this mix and they are loud, clean and prominent.  You get a good crisp sound of the reverberations and diction of the characters.

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Private Conversations (HD, 1:21:19) – A Candid Look behind the scenes at the filming of this powerful and compelling, award-winning production of Death Of A Salesman.  This is a vintage featurette that chronicles the production and features on-set videos as well as interviews with the main players.  You even get some footage of Dustin Hoffman getting his make-up done.

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If you ever wanted to just watch Death of a Salesman without reading a script or going out to a production, here’s your shot.  Shout Select brings the film back with a pretty nice looking little Blu-ray.  The transfer features a very hands off approach and the audio is very complimentary.  There’s only one bonus feature, but its a feature length vintage documentary on making it, so I think that more than suffices in terms of content.  For those interested or that are fans, they should be happy with this release.


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