"Look at him now, will you? Stiff as a board, he is, in that fine Eye-talian suit."—Dennis Fermoyle (Cameron Prud'Homme)
As World War I reaches its peak, bland and sincere Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) prepares for his new assignment in his hometown of Boston. As a newly ordained Catholic priest, Fermoyle takes his duties very seriously. But over the next two decades, he will see his faith tested, his family torn apart, and the world plagued by the horrors of racism and fascism.
Few directors struck fear in the heart of actors like Otto Preminger. Towering over his own films like the love child of Alfred Hitchcock and Erich Von Stroheim, Preminger combined a pragmatic approach to filmmaking, an imposing temper, and a fierce liberal sensibility that pushed him to break boundaries of what Hollywood considered good taste. Although he is best known for his sharp thrillers like Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, it is his sprawling 1963 film The Cardinal that might be considered the most quintessential Preminger movie, with all the strengths and flaws that such a creature entails.
Preminger, although Jewish, approaches The Cardinal with all the pomp and circumstance of a zealous believer in the Catholic Church. Or, at least the principles of the Church, as embodied by Stephen Fermoyle. Through Fermoyle, the film works through a litany of issues relevant to religious institutions in the 20th century. In the early stages, when Fermoyle visits his family in Boston shortly after his assignment to the local church, we learn that his sister (Carol Lynley) is dating (in their mother's words) a "rag-picking Jew" (John Saxon). This boyfriend, Benny, offers to convert, setting up a scene in which the two men have a conversation about reconciling religion and evolution.
That conversation shows a key flaw in the script for The Cardinal: the film is a collection of "issues," where characters merely provide excuses for an encyclopedic look at modern religion. At the center, Fermoyle becomes the embodiment of the righteous man whose decisions are always dictated by his innate sense of moral quality. Take a look at the title graphic for the film drawn by Saul Bass. Do you see how huge the "THE" is? Fermoyle is the one and only cardinal, the true blue mouthpiece for goodness. Around him, other characters seem to turn up in order to provide examples of the questions a righteous man must address on his climb upwards, like a contemporary Pilgrim's Progress. Fermoyle's sister has premarital sex with her boyfriend, then leaves the Church and hangs around with a seedy foreigner (watch out for those tango dancers), and ends up pregnant. When her labor threatens her life, Fermoyle has no qualms about sacrificing her life for the unborn baby, who is quickly adopted and raised by the family—and grows up into the same actress, Carol Lynley!
A strong cast could certainly pull off this sort of melodrama, and Preminger stocks the supporting parts with a fine assortment of actors. John Huston takes his first turn in front of the camera as Cardinal Glennon and steals the first half of the picture. Carol Lynley manages to keep Mona away from becoming a soap opera stereotype. Even Burgess Meredith, who spends nearly his entire part in bed dying in a terrifically maudlin subplot about a fading parish priest, manages to keep things interesting. But none of the supporting players gets more than 15 minutes of screen time, even in this three-hour film. Tom Tryon is front and center of every scene, and his Stephen Fermoyle is just dull. His crisis of faith (as if you did not see that coming) is talked about, but you never really see it.
And worse, he resolves his crisis mostly offstage during the opening scenes of the second act. The morally muddy years between the two world wars all seem to happen offstage, with characters asking each other for opinions about things like Prohibition, while none of it seems to affect the rock of the Church or Stephen's moral rectitude. The second act largely revolves around two "issues:" racism and fascism (with a side plot about a woman who falls in love with Fermoyle, who thanks to Tryon's stiffness, never seems tempted). First, Ossie Davis turns up as a Georgia priest trying to get the Vatican to condemn the rednecks who burned down his church. Fermoyle finally gets proactive, heading off to the town and facing down the Klan. Unfortunately, Preminger, who usually shows a deft hand with dialogue scenes (check out Anatomy of a Murder), turns in a strangely clunky climax. The second subplot, in which Stephen (now a bishop) tries to talk Austrian Cardinal Innitzer (Josef Meinrad) out of supporting the Nazis, fares better, but culminates in a melodramatic sequence in which Nazis attack pious choir singers. Preminger seems to border on camp in scenes like this, and I might think he intends this as satire—if he showed a sense of humor in any of his other films.
You can learn all about the films of Otto Preminger on the second disc of this two-disc set from Warner Brothers. If The Cardinal, in spite of a sharp new anamorphic transfer and a remixed 2.0 soundtrack (surprisingly expansive, considering the film was originally released in mono), may be hard to struggle through for its three-hour running time, the centerpiece of disc two, Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker, may make this set worthwhile. Much like the feature, it may be a little too long, but features a great parade of guest stars. Burgess Meredith, who might have had too much caffeine before the cameras rolled, tells the story of Preminger's career. A tyrant on the set, Preminger was a self-styled crusader who picked film projects seemingly for their level of controversy: drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm, virginity in The Moon Is Blue, rape in Anatomy of a Murder, and so on. Throughout his career, he battled the censors and usually won, even breaking the blacklist by crediting Dalton Trumbo with the screenplay for Exodus. He also became popular in front of the camera for his ability to play, well, Preminger-like brutes like the commander in Stalag 17 or Mr. Freeze on the old Batman TV show. Over the course of the two-hour documentary, stars like Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra reminisce, suggesting that Preminger was much loved in spite of his fearsome reputation. Only Tom Tryon seems to actively dislike him, saying that Preminger "never stopped screaming" and that The Cardinal was "a debacle."
Tryon is overstating the case, as the film is by no means a complete disaster. The Cardinal takes itself very seriously. Perhaps it cannot do otherwise. For Preminger to get away with his points about the evils of the 20th century, he can only suggest how the Catholic Church might contribute to racism, fascism, or whatever. Making this film in 1963, through Hollywood (even though he thought of himself as a maverick), there was only so far he could go. Stephen must be pure and steadfast, almost to a fault, for the narrative to hold together. As a result, The Cardinal, in spite of Tryon's weak performance and the sometimes clumsy moments, still comes across as pretty sincere. And for some viewers, that may be enough to sustain it.
Warner Brothers is released for trying to make a substantial package out of one of Preminger's weaker efforts by including a solid documentary. Cardinal Fermoyle will be judged by a higher authority and will be remanded over to that court until a decision is reached. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker
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