My head is still reeling from having watched the cult classic Putney Swope (dir. Robert Downey, Sr., 1969) for the first time—it’s such a disarmingly funny and strange movie that after it’s over you’re not quite sure what just happened but you’re pretty certain it was brilliant. The off-beat rhythm of the dialogue, the caricaturish bit parts, and the general zaniness almost recall Preston Sturges, while the irreverence and willful disregard for “good taste”—along with the way the movie is structured out of small strokes, vignettes, gags—look ahead to modern-day sketch comedy. It’s like some sort of blaxploitation screwball comedy. Weirdly, even its “tasteless” bits feel stylish and supremely cool. This is a film that looks and sounds fresher than most comedies of the last twenty years.
Where Poitier had become one of the first black crossover stars because of his utterly refined demeanor, Putney Swope is totally uninterested in advancing an image of black refinement or in winning over white audiences. It is a true black comedy in every sense of the term: a comedy that is about and for black Americans (in spite of its white director) that is radically, aggressively separatist in its politics, that doesn’t want to make friends, that operates under a principle of total anarchy. It inspires laughter, but often the laughter is nervous, confused. Satire is not the right word for a film like this, because as Nabokov pronounced, “satire is a lesson,” and Putney Swope is uninterested in giving us a lesson. It is only interested in making a wild, hilarious mess of things, and it does so ingeniously.