Putney Swope

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Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, Shaft) is the only Black executive at a stuffy Madison Avenue advertising agency. When the chairman dies unexpectedly, Putney is unexpectedly elected the new boss – because those voting never thought anyone else would to do the same. Putney proceeds to kick out the white majority, replacing them with young, revolutionary types, and renames the agency Truth and Soul.
A bracing satire, taking well-aimed pot-shots at capitalism, power and racism in America, Robert Downey’s Putney Swope is a key entry in counterculture cinema, and a landmark of independent filmmaking, and – after more than a half a century – is still very, very funny.

Picture 8/10

Robert Downey (a prince)’s Putney Swope receives a Blu-ray edition from Indicator, who present the film in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by the Academy Film Archive and the Film Foundation. The restoration was sourced from the 35mm original camera negative and a fine grain master positive. Though a UK release the disc is region free.

Of Downey’s work Putney Swope is probably his more popular film and the one most easily available through the years (at least compared to most of his other work) so I probably shouldn’t be as stunned as I am about how well this presentation has turned out, but I do indeed have to say things have turned out surprisingly well! It's a far sharper presentation when compared to the one found in Criterion's Eclipse set, Up All Night with Robert Downey, Sr., and cleaner as well. The restoration has managed to remove just about every blemish, from dirt to scratches, and the scan has captured every fine detail, right down to the grain. That fine grain is also rendered cleanly, the encode looking exceptional. Gray scale ends up being impressive by showing a wider level of range between the blacks and whites, delivering clean contrast and a smoother photographic look. The image is sharp most of the time but there are instances where things look a bit fuzzy, which looks to have more to do with the photography and ranging from film stock used to the camera simply being slightly out-of-focuss

The in-film advertisements are presented in colour and the colour looks decent yet maybe intentionally undersaturated at times with skin tones looking a little pinkish in some places, yellower in others. These sequences can have slightly dupier look on top of that, but that can almost surely come down to the different film stock that would have been used, with a couple of these sequences looking as though they were filmed in 16mm (these sequences may have also come from the fine-grain source). Those minor things aside, these colour sequences look excellent.

A big alteration over the Criterion presentation is the aspect ratio: Criterion's presented the film in a matted widescreen ratio of 1.78:1 while this presentation (and as far as I can see, all others going back to 2001) present the film open-matte. I don't know which is correct but I would have to lean towards the open-matte presentations since a number of shots look compressed and odd in the widescreen ratio.

(Correction: The HVe edition from 2006 used the same widescreen master that Criterion's Eclipse edition did.)

Considering the film's incredibly indie roots I was really surprised by this. It looks excellent.

Audio 6/10

The film is presented with a lossless single-channel PCM monaural soundtrack. Downey’s dubbing over Arnold Johnson aside the soundtrack ends up being decent. There’s some subtle range to be found in voices and music sounds decent enough, much better than I was expecting. The dubbing over Johnson really stands out, coming out a bit “noisier” and flatter I felt. That aside, this sounds perfectly fine.

Extras 8/10

Indicator packs on a good amount of material starting with two audio commentaries: one from Downey himself, recorded in 2001, and the other by film historian Sergio Mims, recorded in 2019 for the Vinegar Syndrome release. Downey’s track ends up being a bit of a disappointment, saved simply by the information he provides. He talks a little about his very brief career in the ad industry and what elements end up influencing this film, the one sequence around the one infdividual asking for a raise being the scene to set things in motion (it's apparently based on something Downey witnessed first-hand). He recalls stories behind specific sequences, talks about why he ended up dubbing over Johnson (though this conflicts with comments elsewhere on the disc) and even talks about the film’s distribution. It’s an okay track but there is a surprising amount of dead space present and Downey feels resistant to doing the track at times. He ends up admitting at the end it wasn’t as painful an experience as he feared, so there's that I guess.

Mims’ is a bit better though has its own tiny issues. To his credit Mims does pack in a lot here, maybe too much, and he works through it all as diligently as he can. He talks about the production based on whatever research he’s been able to pull up (I suspect some of it is based on Downey’s commentary, though a few things get contradicted here) and examines what Downey is explicitly targeting in his satire. He also covers reactions to the film that include those from the Black community through the years, and he explains how the film ended up becoming the success it was. I even liked a little section where he talks about the film’s distributor and others around the introduction of the MPAA rating system and how this film’s influence lives on. Unfortunately, the track can be a bit disorganized with him jumping around from topic to topic as he tries to keep up with the film. In his defense the film is pretty quick and jumps around itself, but what will happen often is Mims will be talking about one subject that’s not scene-specific only to then cut to talking about something on screen that he wants to cover before going back to the previous topic. Of course, if something else pops on screen he’ll then focus on that, losing all rhythm. This leads to a bit of whiplash and I had trouble keeping up from time to time. It’s clear he had topics planned out but maybe a better-timed script would have benefitted things. Getting past that the material is at least interesting and I’m impressed at what Mims was able to bring up.

There are a couple of video discussions with Downey featured on the disc as well. First is a 16-minute interview from 2001 that ends up covering some of the same topics found in the commentary with the bonus of a cat walking in on the shot at one point. He also expands on comments that come up in the track, like how there was the idea of a Hollywood remake at one point (which never happened, at least that I know of) and he also talks fondly about director Paul Thomas Anderson, who he says knows the 60’s better than he ever did. Downey then appears in a 32-minute Q&A from 2016 where he takes questions on from the audience and covers the ads within the film, why Mel Brooks is listed in the credits (mentioned in the commentary as well), and the casting of Johnson with Downey’s eventual dubbing over him. He’s even asked if he had seen Pootie Tang yet (the answer was, sadly, no at that point). Between the two I think Downey covers a lot of the same material covered in his commentary (if not everything) so if you don’t feel like sitting through the track these are decent alternatives.

Indicator then ports over the 19-minute audio interview with director of photography Gerald Cotts, which was recorded in 2019 for the Vinegar Syndrome edition. Downey mentions location shooting in his commentary and Cotts gets into that here, too, explaining how they were allowed to shoot in the Chase offices on weekends. He also shares some details on his background. Interestingly he contradicts Downey on Johnson’s dubbing. Downey recalls how Johnson had issues with his lines and he was in a panic because he couldn’t recast, but he then mentions that Cotts suggested dubbing over him since Johnson’s beard hid his lips. Cotts doesn’t recall saying that and instead insists that Johnson had a bit of a lisp and could have his feelings easily hurt, which made it a bit difficult to work with him, and I think Cotts assumes at least part of that played into Downey dubbing over him. An interesting conversation and it’s good to get another perspective on the film's production.

Indicator closes the disc off by including the film’s trailer, which is just a couple of the ads from the film (the trailer looks to have been restored). There are also 2 radio spots running 56-seconds total along with a gallery featuring a small collection of lobby cards and posters.

Indicator then of course includes one of their excellent booklets. It starts with a short essay on the film by critic Christina Newland followed by a reprint of a 1969 article on Downey and the film written by Richard Whitehall for the Los Angeles Free Press.  There’s also a reprint of a 1969 interview between Downey and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, their discussion ranging from the art of filmmaking in general to films they each like. Downey even claims he’s been offered money for bigger films but prefers to do his own thing. The booklet then closes with a collection of excerpts from reviews for the film, which were mostly negative around the technical aspects of the film. Vincent Canby’s excerpt—as the notes indicate—is far more forgiving. It’s mentioned throughout the features that his review for the film and Jane Fonda’s mention of it on The Tonight Show helped out in its popularity

A couple issues aside with the commentaries I think Indicator has done an exceptional job with this release's supplements, covering its production and lasting in legacy in a satisfying manner.


Features a surprisingly excellent presentation and a decent selection of features.

BUY AT: Amazon.co.uk

Directed by: Robert Downey Sr.
Featuring: Arnold Johnson
Year: 1969
Time: 85 min.
Series: Indicator
Edition #: 228
Release Date: July 25 2022
MSRP: £15.99
1 Disc | BD-50
1.37:1 ratio
English 1.0 DTS-HD MA Mono
Subtitles: English
Regions A/B/C
 Audio commentary with writer-director Robert Downey Sr. (2001)   Audio commentary with film critic and historian Sergio Mims (2019)   Interview with Robert Downey Sr. (2001)   Audio interview with cinematographer Gerald Cotts (2019)   Film Forum Q&A with Robert Downey Sr. (2016): the writer and director in conversation with Bruce Goldstein at the Film Forum, New York   Original theatrical trailer   Dan Ireland trailer commentary (2014): short critical appreciation   Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials   Limited edition exclusive booklet featuring a new essay by Christina Newland, an archival article on the film, archival comments from Robert Downey Sr., an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits