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DVD SAVANT

THE Cardinal


The Cardinal
Warner Home Video
1963 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 175 min. / Street Date February 25, 2003 / $26.99
Starring Tom Tryon, Carol Lynley, Dorothy Gish, Maggie McNamara, Cecil Kellaway, John Saxon, John Huston, Robert Morse, Burgess Meredith, Jill Haworth, Raf Vallone, Ossie Davis, Chill Wills, Arthur Hunnicutt, Doro Merande, Patrick O'Neal, Murray Hamilton, Romy Schneider, Peter Weck, Josef Meinrad
Cinematography
Leon Shamroy
Production Designer Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Jerome Moross
Written by Robert Dozier from the novel by Henry Morton Robinson
Produced and directed by Otto Preminger

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Otto Preminger is one of many bigtime directors who isn't discussed much anymore, but who used to be the source of constant arguments among film students. The general point of contention was whether his early flat Fox films were his great achievement, or his later sprawling widescreen dramas.

The Cardinal stands firmly in the second group, which numbers only 4 or 5 films. It takes on controversial material halfway seriously, as opposed to the approved Hollywood 'liberal lite' form championed by Stanley Kramer. It has a large cast of stars but no marquee bait. And it unspools at an unforced, leisurely tempo. The celebrated Laura had been the quintessence of tightly-scripted drama, but by the 60s, Preminger developed a style that tried to remain aloof from the conflict on screen, letting it play out, without enforcing a directorial attitude. An Anatomy of a Murder is famous for presenting its workaday people without placing immediate labels on them, without underlining all the important lines and clues for us. An ordinary viewer might ask where the story is, but critics friendly to Preminger said he was challenging the intelligent viewer to put it together for himself, just as in real life.

Taking on an overwhelmingly big canvas, The Cardinal is not Preminger's best outing, and is probably the least satisfactory of his later epic-scaled pictures.

Synopsis:

A candidate for Cardinal, Father Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) remembers his life in the church. A young priest, he's judged too proud by Cardinal Glennon (John Huston) and sent to a remote parish, where he learns something of humility from the aged Rev. Ned Halley (Burgess Meredith). In Boston, he learns the meaning of doctrine, when he has to help make the decision whether to save his sister (Carol Lynley), or her illegitimate baby, in a catastrophic childbirth. In Rome, he gains knowledge of the complicated politics of the church, and teaching in Vienna, has to resist the temptation of a beautiful young student (Romy Schneider). In the American South aiding Father Gillis (Ossie Davis), he's whipped for trying to oppose the Klu Klux Klan. And he's again sent to Vienna after the annexation by Hitler, to try to keep the Cardinal there (Joseph Meinrad) from compromising the Church's position.

The plum part of Father Fermoyle went to Tom Tryon, previously a lowercase actor known mostly for a popular Disney television show. Apparently the tyrannical Preminger treated him so poorly, it caused him to rethink his career. The Cardinal was not very well received by critics, who were especially harsh on Tryon. After all the abuse, the wonder is that he returned for Preminger's next picture, In Harm's Way, where he reportedly got more of the same!

Otto Preminger had been on a roll of censorship rule-breaking for over a decade. He won time and again against the MPAA, yet was often condemned by the Catholics over the progressive content of his pictures. So, after attempting a national epic for Israel in Exodus, here we have him tackling the 'Catholic question'. The result is the closest Otto came to aping cause-meister Stanley Kramer: our dauntless hero Father Fermoyle bounces from one hot topic to another - the church and abortion, the church and racism, the church and fascism - as if the issues were lined up for him on a Chinese menu.

With five locales and 40 major speaking roles to introduce and flesh out, there's little wonder that the Preminger magic that had made Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent so absorbing, is almost totally lacking. We don't get to observe anyone but Fermoyle long enough for any but a snap judgement of their character, and there's just no nuance to most of the story. Fermoyle himself is a fairly passionless pilgrim moving through a series of soapy adventures. For all the concentration on the Catholic way of life and the inner conscience of the church, Fermoyle never becomes complicated. Also strangely, for a film about a faith, at the end of the picture the Catholicism seems more alien to normal human living than it did at the beginning. The church fails some of its flock (Fermoyle's sister, the Southern blacks) while mostly persisting as a power structure to be defended against all comers, even Hitler. Are the scenes showing the bad judgment of the Viennese Cardinal who encourages cooperation with the Nazis, meant to excuse the Vatican's poor record during WW2?

On the plus side, most of Otto's cast do fine work. Tryon is never bad, just somewhat wooden, as if intimidated by Preminger's screaming fits. Second-up is the radiant Romy Schnieder, who by herself justifies giving the movie a spin. Unfortunately, she's the soapiest part of the film, bringing in the 'tempted Priest' theme. Every hot issue seems to require a sacrifice, and her last scenes are heart-wrenching. Yet one can't avoid the feeling that she was there to provide some sex and spectacle (walks along the river, a ballroom waltz) to enliven an otherwise romanceless story.

I believe Preminger, himself a frequent actor, was the first to tap director John Huston to play a part, and Huston is pretty amusing. He lets the wonderful voice do most of the work, but he wears the Cardinal's robes well, and is very intimidating when laying down the law to the young priest. Preminger regular Burgess Meredith is good as a frail man of the cloth, and Ossie Davis impressive as a priest with a mission. Raf Vallone is so sinister as a bald Italian Cardinal, we have to keep reminding ourselves that he's Fermoyle's friend and champion at court.

In smaller roles are the familiar faces of Maggie McNamara, Dorothy Gish, John Saxon, Jill Haworth (Otto's 2nd of three tries to make her a star), Murray Hamilton and Patrick O'Neal. High on the billing is Carol Lynley, who's all right as the ill-fated Mona, and later, her daughter Regina. More trailer bait is provided by a so-so musical number on a 1918 stage, performed by 'Bobby' Morse. It comes across as time-wasting.

In widescreen and color, The Cardinal is overproduced and underproduced at the same time. The locations are pretty, but both real places and the overlit sets all appear to be under-dressed, with lots of empty space. We see just enough period autos and costumes to indicate the various time periods of the segments, but none are completely convincing. The 'South' looks like a studio backlot, and there's something cut & dried about the big Vienna locations. The versatile naturalism and the effortless illusion of reality of Preminger's previous B&W pictures seems to elude him here: the imagery is postcard pretty, but the average setup very flat.


Warners' DVD of The Cardinal is a dazzling presentation, with vibrant colors and a steady enhanced image that's far above the old laserdisc release. The audio is listed as Dolby Digital Surround Stereo. Jerome Moross'es music is dynamic, but still sounds as if it's about to break out into The Valley of Gwangi every fourth bar or so.

Given their own separate disc, the extras include an original featurette from 1963, the trailer, and a 1991 Preminger family- produced docu on the director's life and career which has a number of okay interviews, but a quality level way below what we're used to. Burgess Meredith is the host, doing an okay job with reams of narration (mispronouncing names throughout, like Raskin instead of Raksin for the composer). Everything is too long, with tedious unedited clips, and unedited interviews. But there are compensations that include Vincent Price's talk about Laura, and a frightening outtake from Saint Joan showing Jean Seberg accidentally scorched by a huge blast of flame while chained to the burning stake.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Cardinal rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Docu, featurette, trailer
Packaging: Card and plastic 2-disc case
Reviewed: February 27, 2003





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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