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Iconoclastic director Otto Preminger took on the Klan, the Nazis and the Catholic Church for this 1963 drama that spanned two decades and two continents. The greatest danger of resistance, of course, came from the church, but Preminger was a director who relished a good fight.
Preminger's career is often seen as divided roughly between two periods. His early work, mostly under contract to 20th Century-Fox, is marked by a series of moody films noir starting with the classic Laura (1944) and including such minor classics as Fallen Angel (1945) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). After Fox, Preminger moved into independent production on an increasingly large scale. Later films like Exodus (1960) and Advise and Consent (1962) are marked by name-studded casts and extensive location shooting. The Cardinal clearly falls into the latter category, with a cast including rising stars Tom Tryon, Carol Lynley and Romy Schneider alongside seasoned veterans like Cecil Kellaway, John Huston, Raf Vallone, Burgess Meredith and, in her last film, silent screen legend Dorothy Gish. It also was shot largely on location, with cameras capturing the New England locales in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the Casamari Abbey in Veroli, the Stana Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome and St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Much of the European footage was shot in 35mm but later blown up to 70mm for the picture's roadshow presentation, an inevitable element of epic filmmaking in the 1960s. Beyond the film's size, The Cardinal also represents Preminger's later period in his almost objective use of the camera. He moves his camera and cuts without overemphasizing story details, leaving viewers to put the pieces together on their own, much as in real life.
The film was adapted from Henry Morton Robinson's 1950 bestseller, rumored to have been inspired by the career of Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman. It follows the career of Stephen Fermoyle, a young Irish Catholic priest ordained in 1917 Boston. What follows is a series of challenges as he deals with his sister's romance with a Jew, her subsequent illegitimate pregnancy, the decision to let her die so her baby may live, the temptation to give up the priesthood for love, a battle to let a black priest open a church in the South and an attempt to protect the church from the Nazi acquisition of Austria.
Access to the various churches and cathedrals that figure prominently in the plot would require cooperation from the Catholic Church. Given The Cardinal's controversial subject matter - questioning church positions on interfaith marriage and the sanctity of life and at times presenting it as a hide-bound institution in need of reform - that would have seemed problematic. Nor did it help that Cardinal Spellman was vehemently opposed to any film adaptation. He had, in fact, exercised enough pressure to keep Hollywood from adapting Robinson's novel for years.
Preminger, however, was never one to shy away from a fight, suggesting that attacks by the real-life prelate would help the film at the box office. He first signed Robert Dozier to craft the adaptation and spent three months working with him. Still unsatisfied, he enlisted Gore Vidal and Ring Lardner, Jr., both atheists and neither with much regard for the original novel. Feeling that Vidal had contributed the lion's share of the writing, Preminger submitted the credit to the Screen Writers Guild. They ruled, however, that the credit had to include both Dozier and Vidal, listed in alphabetical order. At that point, Vidal withdrew his name from consideration.
As the production date neared, Preminger began experiencing some pushback from Spellman, who used his influence to scare off members of the clergy approached to serve as technical advisors and keep the crew from filming in any Boston churches. The director turned instead to former priest Donald Hayne, who had served as technical advisor on The Ten Commandments (1956). He helped the production connect with a Connecticut bishop who had no problem making St. John's Catholic Church available to him. Things were much smoother in Europe, where Hayne's connections helped win permission to shoot at several key locations. The Vatican liaison for the European shoot was Joseph Ratzinger, a young priest who would eventually become Pope Benedict XVI.
For the leading role, which dominates the action, Preminger decided not to go with an established name. Instead, he set out to make Tom Tryon a star. Tryon had been an actor for over a decade, with mostly television credits to his name. He was probably best known for playing Texas John Slaughter, a real life Western hero, in 17 episodes of Walt Disney's The Wonderful World of Color. During the screen test, director and actor got along fine, and he ended up doing a better test than two other young actors, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. When people warned Tryon about working with Preminger, he countered that the director had been kind and helpful during the test. "I have a rapport with Otto and we're going to get on just fine," he claimed. (Tom Tryon, quoted in Foster Hirsch, Otto Preminger: The Man who Would Be King). That rapport would not survive the first day of shooting.
For the role of Tryon's mentor, savvy Boston Cardinal Glennon, Preminger tried to cast Orson Welles, who claimed he didn't understand the character. Then the director's brother, Ingo, suggested another legendary film director, John Huston. It took some persuading. Huston had not done any significant acting since his early stage work in the 1920s. He had appeared in some of his own and his father's films, but only in cameo roles like the tourist who gives Humphrey Bogart a handout in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). A fan of Preminger's work and his politics, particularly his reputation for challenging the censors and his hiring blacklisted writers, Huston agreed to play the part in return for two paintings by Irish artist Jack Yeats. He ended up stealing the film and getting good reviews even from critics who panned the picture. He also received the Golden Globe and an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film started him on a second career as a character actor, which proved an easy way to pick up extra money when he was trying to finance a new project or had overindulged at the gambling tables.
One area on which Huston and Preminger disagreed was the treatment of Tryon, whom the director browbeat mercilessly. The first day of shooting was at the church in Stamford, near Tryon's hometown of Hartford, and the actor's parents and friends traveled to the set to watch him start on what everybody expected to be a star-making role. When 69-year-old character actor Cecil Kellaway kept blowing his lines, Preminger took out his frustration on Tryon and fired him in front of cast, crew, friends and family. As the actor started changing into his own clothes to leave, Preminger called him back to the set to finish the shot, treating the whole incident as some kind of practical joke. After observing behavior like that, Huston advised Preminger to handle the actor gently if he wanted to get a good performance out of him, but the director's version of that was to walk up behind the actor before one scene started and scream "Relax!," which tended to have the opposite effect. Preminger's treatment on this and the later In Harm's Way (1965) was one factor that led to Tryon's giving up acting to turn to writing, a career in which he proved much more successful. In later years, Preminger used to joke that Tryon should thank him for pushing him out of out of acting so he could find his true calling as a writer.
Preminger's temper found other victims, too. Cameron Prud'Homme, cast as Tryon's father, was so terrorized by him he could barely get his lines out. Carroll O'Connor was called in during post-production to dub them. The only actors he didn't try to browbeat were veterans Huston and Raf Vallone and Carol Lynley, because he knew they would have given it right back to him. He also was extremely solicitous of Maggie McNamara, an actress who had fallen on hard times after making her film debut in his The Moon Is Blue (1953).
Despite Cardinal Spellman's efforts, The Cardinal was warmly received by the church, with Cardinal Cushing praising it publicly and the Vatican honoring Preminger with the Grand Cross of Merit. Reviews, however, were decidedly mixed. Although the film was welcomed by the New York Post, whose Irene Thirer called it "pictorially exquisite, intelligently cast, and painstakingly, if not thrillingly directed," other critics were harsher. Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune dubbed it "a mlange of meandering melodrama, mouthed pieties, and pretentious irrelevance."
Still, the film performed well at the box office, which was reflected in the more commercial end-of-year awards. In addition to Huston's award, the film picked up the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama. The Academy® nominated it for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes and Editing. In later years, the film, though not ranked among his best works, has been given a more positive evaluation by critics on the strength of the director's objective camera work, subtle approach to the leading character's emerging spirituality and treatment of controversial issues.
Producer-Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Robert Dozier, based on the novel by Henry Morton Robinson
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Music: Jerome Moross
Cast: Tom Tryon (Stephen Fermoyle), Carol Lynley (Mona Fermoyle/Regina Fermoyle), Dorothy Gish (Celia), Maggie McNamara (Florrie), Bill Hayes (Frank), Cameron Prud'Homme (Din), Cecil Kellaway (Monsignor Monaghan), John Saxon (Benny Rampell), John Huston (Glennon), Robert Morse (Bobby), Pat Henning (Hercule Menton), Burgess Meredith (Father Ned Halley), Jill Haworth (Lalage Menton), Raf Vallone (Cardinal Quarenghi), Tullio Carminati (Cardinal Giacobbi), Ossie Davis (Father Gillis), Chill Wills (Monsignor Whittle), Arthur Hunnicutt (Sheriff Dubrow), Doro Merande (Woman Picket), Patrick O'Neal (Cecil Turner), Romy Schneider (Annemarie), Wolfgang Preiss (S.S. Major), Glenn Strange (Redneck).
by Frank Miller