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.
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
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
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
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:
Supplements: Docu, featurette, trailer
Packaging: Card and plastic 2-disc case
Reviewed: February 27, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson