Death of a Salesman
The film follows the script of the 1949 play almost exactly.
Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman) returns home exhausted after a canceled business trip. Worried over Willy’s state of mind and recent car crash, his wife Linda (Kate Reid) suggests that he asks his boss Howard Wagner (Jon Polito) to allow him to work in his home city so he will not have to travel. Willy complains to Linda that their son Biff (John Malkovich), who is visiting, has yet to make good on his life. Despite Biff’s promise as an athlete in high school, he flunked senior year math and never went to college.
Biff and his brother Happy (Stephen Lang), who is also visiting, reminisce about their childhood together. They discuss their father’s mental degeneration, which they have witnessed by his constant vacillations and talking to himself. When Willy walks in, angry that the two boys have never amounted to anything, Biff and Happy tell Willy that Biff plans to make a business proposition the next day in an effort to pacify their father.
The next day, Willy goes to ask Howard for a job in town while Biff goes to make a business proposition, but neither are successful. Willy gets angry and ends up getting fired when Howard tells him that he needs a rest and can no longer represent the company. Biff waits hours to see a former employer who does not remember him and turns him down. Biff impulsively steals a fountain pen. Willy then goes to the office of his neighbor Charley (Charles Durning), where he runs into Charley’s son Bernard (David S. Chandler) (now a successful lawyer). Bernard tells him that Biff originally wanted to do well in summer school, but something happened in Boston when Biff went to visit Willy that changed his mind.
Happy, Biff, and Willy meet for dinner at a restaurant, but Willy refuses to hear bad news from Biff. Happy tries to get Biff to lie to their father. Biff tries to tell him what happened as Willy gets angry and slips into a flashback of what happened in Boston the day Biff came to see him. Willy had been in a hotel on a sales trip with a young woman named Miss Francis (Kathryn Rossetter) when Biff arrived. From that moment, Biff’s view of his father changed and set Biff adrift.
Biff leaves the restaurant in frustration, followed by Happy and two girls (Linda Kozlowski and Karen Needle) that Happy has picked up. They leave a confused and upset Willy behind in the restaurant. When they later return home, their mother angrily confronts them for abandoning their father while Willy remains talking to himself outside. Biff goes outside to try to reconcile with Willy. The discussion quickly escalates into another argument, at which point Biff forcefully tries to convey to his father that he is not meant for anything great, that he is simply ordinary, insisting that they both are. The feud culminates with Biff hugging Willy and crying as he tries to get him to let go of the unrealistic dreams that he still carries for Biff and wants instead for Willy to accept him for who he really is. He tells his father he loves him.
Rather than listen to what Biff actually says, Willy realizes that his son has forgiven him and thinks that Biff will now pursue a career as a businessman. Willy kills himself by intentionally crashing his car so that Biff can use the life insurance money to start his business. However, at the funeral, Biff retains his belief that he does not want to become a businessman. Happy, on the other hand, chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps.