1963 / Best Director

Film #601: The Cardinal (1963)

Another day, another directorial double bill and this one focuses on a man who we’ve previously met both in front and behind the camera. Otto Preminger first came onto my radar as an actor in forgettable World War II drama The Pied Piper and later as the director of the excellent James Stewart film Anatomy of a Murder. Like with our previous featured director Martin Ritt, Preminger also only received nominations for films of his that were not nominated for Best Picture. The first of these is 1963 epic The Cardinal, based on the 1950 novel by Henry Morton Robinson, which focuses on the life of a Boston priest as he tries to tackle several moral quandaries over two decades.

So as not to confuse matters, we begin the film by seeing Tom Tryon’s Stephen Fermoyle being ordained as a cardinal in 1939 before flashing back to when he was newly ordained and arriving back in his native Boston. The Cardinal is very much an episodic piece with the first part o the film focusing on Stephen’s family life and his need to learn lessons of humility after being praised for his theological ideas during his training. Stephen is sent to a small parish to learn how to be a humble priest from Father Ned Halley whilst at the same time attempting to convert his sister Jewish boyfriend Benny to Catholicism. The relationship between Stephen and his sister complicates after Benny is sent away to war and she becomes a showgirl before later falling pregnant out of wedlock. It’s his sister Mona’s pregnancy that tests Stephen’s faith as he is forced to prioritise the life of her unborn baby and as result she dies giving birth. Re-evaluating his life, Stephen takes a sabbatical in Vienna and finds his vows tested as he falls for a young woman named Anne-Marie however he ultimately decides to return to the church. Anne-Marie returns to the film in its final chapter when Stephen is sent back to Austria to try to convince a local cardinal not to co-operate with the Nazis. This final segment sees Stephen’s beliefs tested once again however he stands strong against the Nazis and the film goes full circle as we return to his ordination ceremony.

When I first approached The Cardinal I was daunted by the fact that the film had a three-hour running time however I needn’t have worried all that much. Thanks to Preminger’s assured direction and Robert Dozier’s punchy script, The Cardinal was a lot easier a watch than I was anticipating. However, instead of watching a film, I felt like I was watching two or three episodes of a classy cable drama albeit one that was released in the 1960s. That being said I do feel that The Cardinal could’ve severely been edited down so its running time was nearer to two hours rather than three. In fact the entire section of the film I would’ve cut out was the story in which Stephen travelled to Georgia to help a black priest to testify against members of the Klu Klax Klan who had burned down his church. Although it was an important tale to tell, I felt it slowed down the narrative and I think it ultimately did nothing apart from provide a diversion between our protagonist’s two journeys to Austria. Preminger’s nomination for director was well-deserved in my opinion as The Cardinal looked fantastic from beginning to end; starting with a fantastic title sequence that intrigued me to what the film would ultimately be about. Furthermore, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film was nominated in a number of Oscar categories including art direction, editing, cinematography and costume design. However, one category that it failed to make an appearance in was for Jerome Moross’s fantastic sweeping score which I felt enhanced every scene in which it appeared.

If there was one area in which The Cardinal fell down in my eyes then it was in the performances most notably the lead turn from Tryon. Tryon isn’t an actor I was aware of before watching The Cardinal and I don’t think he delivered a compelling performance needed to anchor an episodic tale such as the one told in Preminger’s movie. Of the cast there were few memorable performances and Oscar appeared to agree only giving The Cardinal one acting Oscar nod in the form of a Supporting Actor nomination for John Huston. Huston, in his official acting debut, portrayed Cardinal Glennon; Stephen’s superior and the man who appeared any time that the plot needed advancing. Huston was fine but never blew me away whenever he appeared delivering the latest spoonful of exposition before Stephen went on to his next mission. Of the three films at the 1963 ceremony that were nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture I would argue that The Cardinal was the least deserving of being recognised in the main category. Meanwhile, as I already stated in the previous post, I would replace How the West Was Won with Hud and probably get rid of the bloated Cleopatra in favour of Fellini’s seminal 8 1/2. That’s because I feel the low-key Lilies of the Field is ultimately a better picture than The Cardinal; which had its moments but overall was far too baggy and had a rather unremarkable lead turn from the forgettable Tryon.

Next time we go back almost twenty years to watch the film that earned Preminger his other Best Director nomination.

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