The salesman of the title is Willy Loman, a man in his early sixties, approaching retirement. Despite his long service, travelling from his New York base all over New England in the service of his employers, he has never enjoyed great success in his job. He is in financial difficulties, struggling to pay the mortgage on his house and the instalments on the consumer goods- refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, car- which were becoming popular in the forties but which represented a major commitment, even in middle class households. In order to make ends meet, he has taken to borrowing from his old friend Charlie.
His sense of failure, however, does not derive solely from his unsuccessful career. He also sees himself as having failed in his private life. Although his marriage to his loyal wife Linda has survived, despite the fact that he has on occasions been unfaithful to her, his relationships with his two sons are strained. Biff, the elder, showed promise when young in both the academic and sporting fields, but failed to win a place at university after failing a maths exam at school, and since has become a rootless drifter, alternating between dead-end jobs and petty crime. Biff has been particularly alienated from his father since discovering one of Willy's affairs. Happy, the younger, has been more successful than Biff in his career, but in his private life is a selfish, cynical womaniser.
Willy is much given to violent mood swings, alternating between exuberant over-optimism and despairing pessimism. The younger Willy's optimism was largely focused on his own career, believing that he had a talent for making himself "well liked" which would lead to a brilliant career. The older Willy's hopes are mostly focused on his sons, especially Biff, whom he still believes (in the teeth of all the evidence) to be capable of great things. When his son disappoints him, Willy turns on him fiercely, accusing him of being a "lazy bum". Biff's lack of success in life does indeed derive partly from his own weaknesses, but Willy's unrealistic expectations are also partly to blame; Biff would probably be happiest working with his hands, but Willy tries to pressure him into taking a white-collar job.
The film follows the play in that on a number of occasions the action switches abruptly from the present into the past, as the characters act out episodes from earlier in Willy's life. Some of these episodes, in fact, may exist only in Willy's imagination, particularly those involving his wealthy older brother Ben, who is now dead although that does not prevent him from making several appearances. Ben, in fact, is not really a character in his own right, but rather functions as a symbol of the failures and missed opportunities in Willy's life.
At one time filmed versions of stage plays were done in a similar way to theatrical productions (the Marlon Brando/Vivien Leigh "A Streetcar Named Desire" from the early fifties is a good example), but in the seventies and eighties the general tendency was to "open them up" by filming on location as well as on studio sets, by taking liberties with the playwright's text, often making significant changes to the plot and even introducing extra characters. "Death of a Salesman", although it was made as late as 1985, has a very old-fashioned feel to it. It not only keeps Arthur Miller's plot unchanged, but also follows his text almost literally to the word. There is no attempt to open it up; it is filmed entirely on stylised, deliberately artificial-looking sets similar to those that would be used in a theatre.
Normally I would take the view that the cinema and the theatre are two different media and that one should not try to imitate the other. This film, however, was originally made for television and based on a Broadway production, and works better on the small screen than it probably would do on a big one. It is, in fact, a very good film, despite its old-fashioned, theatrical look. The main reason, apart from the quality of Miller's original play, is the quality of the acting. Dustin Hoffman called the role of Willy Loman his favourite acting experience; it is certainly one of his best, although not in my view his very best. (That remains "The Graduate"). He brings out all the complexities and contradictions in Willy's character, a man who is certainly difficult, perhaps even impossible, but at the same time also tragic and pitiable.
The play has been seen as a critique of the capitalist economy or of the American way of life. That is one possible interpretation, but there is more to it than that. It also deals with the plight of the elderly, especially those whom society no longer seems to value, with the human need, too often disappointed, to aspire to a better life, and with the gap between appearance and reality. On a more personal level it is also a character study and an exploration of the relationships within a family, especially father-son relationships. This means that the supporting cast has to be strong, and Hoffman certainly receives strong support, especially from Kate Reid as Linda, Charles Durning as Charley and above all from John Malkovich as Biff. The result was an excellent production that brought out the various levels of meaning in Miller's play as well as the tragedy of its central figure. 8/10