Director Otto Preminger was once lauded for a string of serious and adult-minded dramas that often had large casts and stories with ambitious themes: Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal and In Harm's Way. Exodus and The Cardinal aren't mentioned much these days but Advise and Consent and Anatomy of a Murder are still considered high marks in his career, as an independent producer/director after years at the Fox studio.
Advise and Consent is a hugely enjoyable story of intrigues and back-room maneuverings on Capitol Hill. It does a remarkable job of showing the workings of government from the inside out, recreating credible characters in a believable Washington environment - the Senate floor, the newsroom, offices, hotel rooms, & meeting chambers.
In ordinary hands, Advise and Consent might be just another interminable soap opera ready-made for a television miniseries. It has plenty of interesting characters struggling for power in a glamorous arena, a couple of illicit love affairs and at least one tragedy. Conventional wisdom would consider it wise to 'tone down' some of its more controversial content by dropping the reference to one character's past Communist associations - the movie would sell better if it were about politicians and stayed clear of politics. Also, the homosexual subplot would have to go entirely. There was already plenty of precedent for just switching subject matter when that subject comes up. Crossfire is coming out in a film noir boxed set; to make it acceptable for the screen, a homosexual murder victim was neatly replaced with a Jewish murder victim.
Otto Preminger liked controversy and more often than not used it to attract essential publicity. He had a genuine desire to force the American film industry to 'grow up' by shaking off the censorship that outlawed almost every kind of adult subject matter. His The Moon is Blue in 1953 shocked audiences with the use of the word "virgin" and his Man With the Golden Arm presented in detail the no-no theme of drug addiction. Neither film was really shocking; the intent was to challenge the letter and spirit of the production code, to make serious filmmakers realize that they shouldn't have to work within the restrictions of a kindergarten playground.
Advise and Consent has what might be the first fully-realized, out in the open, real and true homosexual subplot in a major Hollywood feature (post- 1934). Gays aren't likely to be all that impressed, as all we see is the interior of one gay bar, the 605 Club. It looks civilized enough; a Frank Sinatra song is playing. But the incident involves a man with a gay episode in his past, and just the possibility of the truth coming out panics him into taking drastic measures. The forceful message is the tragedy that good lives should be ruined - even though the last word on the man's gay secret labels it a "sin of the past."
Preminger's real strength in Advise and Consent is the evenhandedness of his visual style. A normal analytical director attempts to mold our attitudes and reactions to relevant plot points and details of performance through expressive visuals. Preminger prefers to let things play out with as little editorializing as possible, in unbroken takes if he can. He'll establish a general attitude toward a scene but instead of cutting will set up a composition in which characters can interact without outside emphasis. His style is not exactly standoffish, and it's certainly not neutral. Preminger's overall compositions emphasize spacial relationships, as when the obnoxious Senator Van Ackerman fidgets and darts about in the background as the more rational politicians Brig Anderson and Seabright Cooley stand their ground. Preminger establishes their general relationship but leaves his audience to choose what part of the screen and which character to watch at any given point. It's a lot like good stage direction.
The deep-focus Panavision cinematography helps as well by giving us a broad canvas to observe. In Preminger's wide shots, the only clues of who to look at come from the actors themselves. A new character might break the frame line and enter the scene at any time.
Viewers who like the credible take-your-time evocation of a Michigan town in Anatomy of a Murder respond well to Preminger's completely convincing depiction of Washington life. The camera will follow an actor on a stroll, panning with him to reveal a famous building we've seen 1,000 times in photos, but never from that particular point of view.
Preminger's creative casting is the next major factor. The standouts are Charles Laughton (in his last performance - notice how much weight he's lost since Spartacus) as a supremely devious gamesplayer, and Henry Fonda as a dependably ethical man who seems a bit too willing to tell expedient lies in the Senate subcommitte meeting. The big surprises are in the rank and file. Walter Pidgeon is good in the role with the most screen time, and interacts well with Paul Ford - for once not playing a clown - and Peter Lawford, who is actually quite dignified, even though he's established as a "swinging" bachelor politician. These days, some Trixie would create a scandal, end his career and use his cold corpse as a stepping stone to celebrity status. Franchot Tone's President tries to run the Senate from the sidelines while ignoring his quiet and self-effacing VP, the charming Lew Ayres. George Grizzard is an out-of-control Senator with an inflated sense of his own importance, and Burgess Meredith a sniveling Judas (or tortured soul?). Inga Swenson, the mother in The Miracle Worker is the faithful wife of good-guy Don Murray, a solid statesman with excellent judgment and tact.
In tiny roles, it's fun to see Russ Brown (Damn Yankees) as a security guard, Paul Stevens ("Put on THE MASK!") as a civil servant and Eddie Hodges (A Hole in the Head) as Henry Fonda's son. Hodges gets major billing with the other stars - he must have had a hell of an agent, or maybe Preminger wanted to hook him up with his other protégé Jill Haworth! Will Geer, Edward Andrews, Betty White and Tom Helmore also dress up the screen with their familiar faces.
The movie obviously can't be as detailed as the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, yet it's a little disconcerting to see Wendell Mayes' script reduce Walter Pidgeon's quiet affair with hostess Gene Tierney (looking as serene as ever) to a footnote. I suppose if the film were done now, the key story points would be just as spare, but new writers would add hot bedroom scenes for each of the main characters.
Advise and Consent functions as something of an extended courtroom drama with a couple of knaves trying to control the outcome through blackmail. We naturally suspect Charles Laughton's grandiose, grandstanding and highly entertaining Sen. Cooley. The story is about the relative integrity of the various politicians and how they interact, and it comes to an entirely satisfying conclusion even when a plot loophole pulls the rug out from under just about everyone.
This is one of the few Saul Bass title and logo designs Savant thought was rather trite. Advise and Consent blows the lid off the Capitol Dome, get it?
Warners' DVD of Advise and Consent is a rock-solid enhanced transfer of the handsome Panavision production. The extras are a trailer and an absorbingly thorough commentary from USC's Drew Casper, an overview of Preminger's career ("he was a real gadfly to the production code") and the unheralded qualities of his direction. His research brings out Preminger's reactions to the reception of the film and compares it with both the best-selling book source and a play that was made from it. He also lets us know that many reviewers thought the book and the movie were too conservative, an interesting interpretation. (Spoiler) Perhaps they thought the Senate was "saved" from a potentially radical Secretary of State nominated by a President with poor judgment, and that the story makes Brig's personal sacrifice a lesser evil than having him serve in Government. Hmmm.
For Preminger's part, Casper reports that the director's stated intent was to demonstrate to the public that the President isn't an all-powerful figure in Washington, and that the separation of power is what made America function so well. Presidential power has increased a lot since 1962, it would seem.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Advise and Consent rates: