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Saturday, February 18, 2012

THE CARDINAL (1963)

Producer/director Otto Preminger’s red-jacket Bildungsroman is all downhill after Saul Bass’s sublime credit sequence. What wouldn’t be? There’s nothing fancy to Bass’s modest gem: Cardinal-in-waiting Tom Tryon goes for a walk. But what a walk! And over what grounds! The patterned pavement & monumental columns, the endless fights of stairs & public spaces of Vatican City. It’s mesmerizing stuff, beautifully composed: visually by Bass; musically by Jerome Moross. (The whole film is stunningly shot by Leon Shamroy, but it’s unclear if he did the opening.) Of the film proper, little more is remembered than John Huston’s wily turn as a no-nonsense Boston Cardinal in the first half. But that does the film few favors since it's only in the second half, when we move past Father Tryon’s personal struggles and start dealing with the Catholic response to issues like Civil Rights in the South or Nazis in Austria that the film gains interest. (Tryon is dutiful, but simply lacks the presence to hold our attention the way Paul Newman did for Preminger in EXODUS/’60. And painfully, both he & Preminger knew it.) Two scenes in the second half really stand out, showing just what’s been missing. A meeting between a black priest (Ossie Davis) and two Cardinals (idealistic Raf Vallone & realistic Tullio Carminati) on race relations & the Catholic Church in America brings out an intellectual debate that lifts the film as much as the magnificent pseudo-Vatican settings where the discussion takes place. And later, a terrifying street riot in Vienna between a Catholic youth group and a crowd of Nazi Brown Shirts & thugish sympathizers might have been worked up by Preminger’s old boss, the great master of massed stage movement, Max Reinhardt. And how bitterly ironic to be staging the very sort of demonstration that forced them both to leave the country they had given so much to. Little else rises to these levels, but a lot is worth seeing especially in the second half of this undervalued pic. And now that so many homes have decent-sized WideScreen monitors, it’s possible to get a sense of how Preminger’s reticence with close-ups & editing served his unusual style.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Shamroy, who got inside the Vatican for real on THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY/’65, was up for 1963 Oscars on both this film and CLEOPATRA. Called up, he whispered to presenter James Stewart, "Which one did I win for?’ That’s from OSCAR 'A' TO 'Z'/Charles Matthews, a great reference book by a film expert who brings knowledge, critical faculties & taste to a subject that rarely gets any of them.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Beginning with THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM/'55 Preminger & Bass revolutionized graphic design for film posters, but apparently the message never got thru in Spain & Italy as per this gussied-up version.

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