OTTO’S CARDINAL SINS
Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal and Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story are His and Hers companion pieces: Catholicism the central theme and target, with both respectfully handling their criticisms; both episodic, with travelogue-like transitions between periods; both have “guest star” performers who know what to do with that Catholic lingo. There are, to be sure, some differences and the most crucial is the central star: Audrey Hepburn has been lovingly nurtured by Zinnemann in the latter, and you can see how it blooms in just about every detail of her performance, whereas Tom Tryon as The Cardinal has been browbeaten by Preminger—he’s humiliated into submission, into what some of the nuns wanted to make of Sister Luke. The director’s tirades against Tryon are not only well documented, you also see the affects in just about every detail of his performance. It’s tormenting to watch him in some scenes—particularly the Doubting Thomas moments with John Huston—and come very close to feeling his real agony; his pocky face could be stigmata. What’s deserving of sympathies is that, as skeletonic as he is, he’s adequate as the tour guide he had little choice to become. (Excluding Preminger’s deplorable treatment of him, the biggest mistake may have been in giving him such a lousy haircut, de-accentuating his considerably sturdy handsomeness which we need as anchor.) The critics of influence at the time of the movie’s 1963 release were less than honest in their humorous floggings. In his essay “The Preminger Problem,” Dwight Macdonald derided it as “a Guntheresque tour Inside Catholicism,” and Stanley Kauffmann, in his essay “The Preminger Paradox,” railed that it was “a polychrome heartstring-tugger, nothing else.” They seemed perturbed that despite the blowhard director’s long-term inconsistency as movie maker his real failure was in not revealing the dirt of Catholicism and its inner workings. Whether they deigned to read or skimmed or skipped the Henry Morton Robinson novel, they certainly don’t mention it in their lengthy copy, concerned as they are about others’ opinions and the director’s filmography. Robinson didn’t write, even implicitly, an attack on the Church; as seen through the eyes of a young Francis Soon-to-be Cardinal Spellman, he was writing about the moral and geopolitical issues the Church’s international hierarchy administratively dealt with during the 1920s, 30s and early 40s. Surprisingly, Macdonald and Kaufmann couldn’t move beyond the widescreen trappings to notice The Cardinal is cunning enough for agnostic audiences to deduce what the director was striving for—a period piece on the moral wars caused by expensively robed celibates who, with presumed carnal-free experience in matters of sex and marriage and birth, oughtn’t be dictating to anyone on such matters. Absolutely not the impression the Vatican, said to have helped finance the movie and for which it gave Preminger a medal, wanted but inevitable for viewers who see the self-exposure hidden in all the ecclesiastical chat and reverence. (There are those who believe that in time The Cardinal will be accepted as Preminger’s big one—his subversive magnum opus on Roman Catholicism’s infantilism.) Introduced as Cardinal Glennon at the ivories attempting Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy,” Huston is authoritative and congenial; he has to enforce the obligatory Catholic tests of humility and pride-busting—in self-recognition he says to Tryon, “Ambition is a disease in any man, in a priest it can be fatal; we should begin your treatment at once.” That didn’t stop him from becoming highly indignant that balloting for a new pope went on without him. Love interest for the conflicted Tryon, Romy Schneider emits a Viennese spell of resignation as martyr. Carol Lynley redeems herself after what she pulled in Return to Peyton Place, and in a confessional she’s at her career best. With Dorothy Gish in her last role, Maggie McNamara (looking like Sandy Duncan, several steps down after looking like Jean Simmons in Three Coins in the Fountain), Bill Hayes, Cecil Kellaway, John Saxon, Burgess Meredith, Jill Hayworth, Raf Vallone, Chill Wills, Patrick O’Neal, Murray Hamilton and, uncredited, David Opatoshu. In lieu of salary, Huston received two Jack Yeats paintings. At IMDb, there’s mention that Pope Benedict, as a young man, was the Vatican’s liaison during the production. You can’t help thinking about him as the kind of Nazi ass kisser that Josef Meinrad’s Cardinal Innitzer plays. Robert Dozier did the adaption; Ring Lardner, Jr. without credit wrote Huston’s scenes. Originally given very limited, short-run reserved seat treatment, running at 175 minutes. Filmed in Panavision, with 70mm blowup. (Opened 1/03/1964 at the Woods, running 12 weeks.)
Oscar nominations for best director, supporting actor (Huston), color cinematography (Leon Shamroy, who won that year for Cleopatra), color art direction, film editing, color costumes (Donald Brooks).
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER (Revised 3/2010) All Rights Reserved.