Best Director Final 50: Otto Preminger for The Cardinal

OTTO PREMINGER FOR THE CARDINAL (1963)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Tony Richardson for Tom Jones

Federico Fellini for

Elia Kazan for America, America

Martin Ritt for Hud

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Preminger’s The Cardinal opens with a bang—well, a bong, really, as the church bells peal over St. Peter’s Square. It’s the ensuing credit sequence, though, that really caught my attention. Preminger borrows from his absent but frequent collaborator Saul Bass’ pithy sense of abstract design, setting the title cards over shots of a lone priest traversing the endless brick landscapes of Rome. After that concise sequence, conveying the journey of a single soul across the abstract and ancient fabric of dogma, I didn’t need the three-hour movie (thanks, Louis Loeffler) that followed. Preminger seems to be doing his best Stanley Kramer impression here, a heavy-handed approach to message filmmaking that Kramer himself could not always pull off effectively. Particularly after writing about Martin Scorsese’s eloquently cinematic meditation on his Catholic faith, I’m markedly less compelled by this film’s ungainly mix of sincere politics and narrative contrivance.

In keeping with its opening imagery, the film is at its strongest in depicting Catholic ritual. Gore Vidal and Robert Dozier’s forthright discourse on faith and servitude fits best in this holy realm, and the splendor of the Vatican and its emissaries clinched the film’s craft nominations: Leon Shamroy’s vibrant cinematography (though he’d outdo himself the same year for Cleopatra), Lyle Wheeler and Gene Callahan’s ornate art direction, and Donald Brooks’ luxuriant costumes (worth the nomination just for the mesmerizing finesse of Father Glennon’s red silk sash). These Vatican scenes also establish a sense of timelessness: I was genuinely taken aback a step or two when the young Father Fermoyle left his studies there and arrived amid the streetcars and tin lizzies of turn-of-the-century Boston.

If the film works well inside the sanctuary of the Church, its forays into the outside world clumsily trip up the whole endeavor. These scenes flip the visual pattern of the opening credits: instead of the sole human element against a rigid backdrop of dogma, Fermoyle becomes the only representative of that permanence in a world of social ills. At first, Preminger wisely places Tom Tryon’s mild performance as the nobly suffering hero (a role destined for Montgomery Clift in a happier timeline) in the shadow of John Huston’s magnificent *credited* acting debut as the effusive Cardinal Glennon. Preminger’s second choice after Orson Welles, Huston craftily reconciles his character’s petty bouts of vanity (particularly his haughty regard for the papal vote) with a sobering humility before human suffering. For as long as Glennon is onscreen, the film still retains both the theatrical and a humane element elements that it needs.

Glennon vanishes during the entr’acte, however, as the story rushes shut off the protagonist’s inner growth and make him a warrior for the Right Side of History. Pitted against the KKK in pre-Civil Rights Movement Georgia and the Nazis in pre-Anschluss Austria, Fremoyle exhibits a 20/20 foresight in choosing and conducting these battles that ultimately reduces him to a cross between Forrest Gump and Mary Sue, undercutting the film’s message about personal faith. The closing scene of the film, with Tryon’s prescient warning about the imminent test of World War II, drives home the reactionary nature of the film’s progressive politics: for all his sincere intentions, Preminger can only endorse the settled narrative of historical morality.

I don’t wish to dismiss Preminger’s work entirely, however. Little of the film’s narrative content remains fresh today, but the observational style for which Preminger became known is on display in pockets of this otherwise pedestrian directorial effort. Showing Klan members whipping a priest and singing Dixie in front of a blazing cross would be decidedly on-the-nose today. Such acts, however, were seldom seen in commercial cinema, even in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Preminger’s unflinching long take of the atrocity reminded me that, on the occasion that he chooses to employ it, Preminger’s visual sense possesses a political power that is wanting in the story itself.

 

THE VOTE

I’ve never had a very good grasp on Preminger’s career arc. I see little connective tissue between the classically stylish Laura and the risqué Code-buster The Moon Is Blue or the brash adaptation of Carmen Jones, or now between any of them and The Cardinal. The one thing I can conclude is that the provocateur streak of the early 1950s seems to have cooled into a committed political progressiveness. In the 1963 race, Preminger finishes behind a pair of deeply personal visions courtesy of Elia Kazan and Federico Fellini. As I said before: between these two worthy visions, Fellini takes the prize for his pyrotechnic display of the creative process, .

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