Golden Globe Award Winner: Best Supporting Actor (John Huston) and Best Motion Picture (Drama) Oscar Nominations: Best Director (Otto Preminger), Best Supporting Actor (Huston), and Best Cinematography (Leon Shamroy).
In 1953, when Otto Preminger became a producer/director, he made a point of choosing projects that not only interested and challenged his artistic sensibilities, but arguably embraced a measure of controversy - a ploy that solidified his image as a crusader of artistic freedom and truth. The sexual flippancy of "The Moon Is Blue," the graphic medical terminology in "Anatomy of a Murder," and the depiction of drug abuse in "The Man With The Golden Arm" as a whole, helped weaken the stranglehold of the Motion Picture Code on taboo subjects, and Preminger continued to cultivate his reputation as a fearless filmmaker for the rest of his career.
Preminger was the Oliver Stone of his generation - every film seems to embrace and/or exploit a hot issue - and the trailer for "The Cardinal" hypes the epic saga as a tale that passes through the Jazz Age, the Great War, World War II, race riots, and an attack by the KKK; there's no doubt Preminger realized these latter scenes - drawn from Henry Morton Robinson's novel - possessed timely resonance and box office appeal.
According to Preminger in his brisk 1977 autobiography (published by Doubleday), "The Cardinal" was originally purchased by Columbia Pictures, but shelved when powerful Cardinal Spellman attacked the book, vainly accusing the novelist of modeling the lead character after Spellman himself. Eventually the director was given the go-ahead, and though the first draft was written by Robert Dozier, Gore Vidal apparently rewrote much of the script; arbitration results by the Writer's Guild led to Vidal declining any credit.
After eighteen months of fine-tuning the script, Preminger began an extensive selection of locations, resulting in a production with a mere two scenes shot inside of a studio; the rest of the film was photographed in Austria, Italy, and Boston, using real homes, cathedrals, churches, palaces, and the summer home of the Pope.
Whereas Oliver Stone's directorial style has embraced more extreme approaches to editing and cinematography, Preminger's works do indeed possess qualities that are consistent from film to film: an extraordinary gathering of the latest acting talent, and a visual and aural acumen that may appear ponderous in the eyes of his critics, but reveal a director that deliberately draws measured performances from his cast, and captures them with visuals that don't draw attention away from the story.
Granted that's a tough challenge with "The Cardinal," but a few heavy-handed sequences aside, Preminger's film successfully balances some wonderful performances with the often stunning locations. Leon Shamroy, one of Hollywood's top cinematographers, produces images of incredible beauty - the lighting within cathedrals and Vatican interiors, is a masterful blend of natural and old style, allowing for fine details without excessive stylization within the wide Panavision ratio. Warner Bros' DVD is simply gorgeous, taken from an excellent print with sharp images and stable colours.
Preminger's use of location sound is less successful, but as he explained to Gerald Pratley for "The Cinema of Otto Preminger" (Castle Books, 1971), he preferred the use of hollow sound "because it's natural… I find that sound that is too perfect is also monotonous. And I am very careful not to destroy it in the end…it adds up to an impression of real life, which is the kind of picture I want to give." That said, in our more modern Digital Age, the dialogue levels sometimes vary, and the location ambience affects the clarity - but Preminger's quest for naturalness ultimately works in favour of a scene, since the actors performances remain more genuine.
Much like his actors, Preminger rarely stayed with one composer, and in choosing veteran Jerome Moross, draped "The Cardinal" music with a balletic quality, and a principal theme that combines Papal nobility and human vulnerability. Though a 2.0 Surround mix, this disc sounds grand, with Moross' score pouring from the speakers, and there's several subtle surround effects which reveal a director (and sound engineer) with an acute dramatic sense; the big scenes roar from the surround speakers, but it's the smaller effects that enhance the film's authentic locations.
Disc 2 contains a vintage promo - a full screen print taken from a widescreen original, as the chopped titles reveal - that captures the diverse locations, with production vehicles bearing Saul Bass' radical title graphic driving through streets. The promo's conclusion is recapped in the seriously short trailer, hyping the aforementioned time periods with a few selective money shots. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Preminger knew he was a brand name, and excerpts from featurettes for "Anatomy of a Murder," "Advise and Consent," and "In Harm's Way" make it clear - through Preminger's inimitable narration - who's supposed to be the real author of these films.
The best addition in this 2-disc set is a 1991 documentary on Preminger, hosted by a jovial Burgess Meredith, and includes interviews with several silver screen greats, like Deborah Kerr, Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, and Vincent Price, plus Ossie Davis, Don Murray, Peter Bogdanovich, Gerald Pratley, Ken Howard, Michael Caine, Marjorie Kellogg, Carol Lynley, and Tom Tryon. Produced and directed by Valerie A. Robins, and written by Thomas J. Wiener, "Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker" covers his early acting years in Vienna (with a rare film clip), his period at Twentieth Century-Fox during the Forties and early Fifties, and his lengthy term as an independent filmmaker who never backed down from a battle with censors, studios, distributors, and actors.
While executive produced by Hope Bryce Preminger (presumably his granddaughter), the documentary doesn't shy away from the director's infamous rage-fests, which sometimes turned his shiny pate deep purple before a staccato outburst; and the doc's final section attempts to address Preminger's reputation as an autocrat with zero regard for actors through supportive comments from actors who delivered some of their best work. A more critical Tom Tryon recalls his ordeal for "The Cardinal," while Michael Caine describes the racial tensions that plagued the production of "Hurry Sundown" in 1967. Amid the more serious items are hysterical anecdotes from Ken Howard (who also does the best Preminger imitation ever), and an interview with German actress Johanna Matz, who appeared in the German version of "The Moon Is Blue."
Much like Joseph Von Sternberg's dual English and German versions of "The Blue Angle," Preminger shot his German version simultaneously, using text translated, ironically, by "Angel" screenwriter Carl Zuckmayer, and the doc features a few scenes for comparisons, with production memories provided by Matz. (In an ideal world, both versions ought to be released in a Special Edition, much like the recent DVD set for "The Blue Angel.")
Title sequence master Saul Bass also gets some attention, and the iconic photos that graced the sleeve of Preminger's autobiography are used to bookend the Bass-designed main and end credits. Using music largely from "Man With The Golden Arm," the doc allows for lengthy takes from the interviewees, and the result is a fairly well-paced doc that offers genuine, affectionate, and sometimes wounded recollections by a wide spectrum of talent and associates who paint a vivid portrait of a Hollywood 'maverick' after his passing in 1986.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan