Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 1962. Otto Preminger Films, Alpha Alpina. Screenplay by Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Allen Drury. Cinematography by Sam Leavitt. Produced by Otto Preminger. Music by Jerry Fielding. Production Design by Lyle R. Wheeler. Costume Design by Bill Blass. Film Editing by Louis R. Loeffler. Cannes Film Festival 1962.
Otto Preminger made waves when he originally released this film, ignoring the “Condemned” rating given by the Catholic Legion Of Decency and releasing it without their approval; when the film made a tidy profit, it drove one of the major nails into Hollywood’s well-established censorship system. Decades later, the content that so shocked the keepers of the red pencils seems tame (like scenes of a gay bar that doesn’t directly link its patrons to an eternity spent in the fires of hell), but what impresses is the impact the film still has, both as political drama and cinematic entertainment. Senate majority leader Walter Pidgeon is looking to install his esteemed colleague Henry Fonda in the position of Secretary of State, and instead of beginning a dry process of vetting and interviews, sets off a three-ring circus-style investigation that involves personality clashes, a full-on Communist witch hunt and the discovery of dirty skeletons in more than one closet. The entire cast is superb, Charles Laughton being especially memorable (in his last major film role) as the cantankerous Southern hyperbole in human form who not only opposes Fonda for the job but takes advantage of every opportunity to enjoy expressing his views on the matter. Don Murray holds down the last third of the film as the leader of the Senate Subcommittee who is assigned the task of finding out whether or not Fonda is the right man for the job, getting himself into deep trouble as a result of his trying to do his job correctly, and Burgess Meredith steals the entire movie with his few scenes as a mentally unstable witness at Fonda’s hearing. The tension crackles from beginning to end thanks to a sterling screenplay based on the novel by Allan Drury and Preminger’s wise decision to keep out of the way of such acting and writing talent by avoiding any obvious directorial tricks. The political arena it depicts is quite timeless, one could see the plot playing out almost identically today, while the human personalities behind the mechanical decisions of power allow even the least educated person on American politics to enjoy the film thoroughly. Look for a cameo by a young Betty White as a member of the Senate.