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CARDINAL, THE(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriters: from the novel by Henry Morton Robinson/Robert Dozier; cinematographer: Leon Shamroy; editor: Louis R. Loeffler; music: Jerome Moross; cast: Tom Tryon (Stephen Fermoyle), Carol Lynley (Mona Fermoyle/Regina Fermoyle), Romy Schneider (Annemarie), John Huston (Cardinal Glennon), Ossie Davis (Father Gillis), Raf Vallone (Cardinal Quarenghi), Dorothy Gish (Celia Fermoyle, mother), John Saxon (Benny Rampell), Burgess Meredith (Father Ned Halley), Chill Wills (Monsignor Whittle), Arthur Hunnicutt (Sheriff Dubrow), Cecil Kellaway (Monsignor Bill Monaghan), Tullio Carminati (Cardinal Giacobbi), Josef Meinrad (Cardinal Innitzer), Cameron Prud’homme (Din Fermoyle, father), Maggie McNamara (Florrie Fermoyle, sister), Bill Hayes (Frank Fermoyle, brother), Jill Haworth (Lalage Menton), Jose Duval (Ramon Gongaro), Eric Frey (Seyss-Inquart), Robert Morse (Bobby), Peter Weck (Kurt von Hartman, Annemarie’s husband); Runtime: 175; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Otto Preminger; Warner Bros.; 1963)
“It’s nothing more than a kitsch take on the good and bad of the Catholic Church, but it has the chutzpah to pose as a work of art.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Well-executed in its visuals but hokey for the most part sprawling and chaotic epic religious drama that’s based on the best-seller novel by Henry Morton Robinson; the risible screenplay is by Robert Dozier. Otto Preminger (“Laura”/”Advise and Consent”/”Skidoo”) keeps the three-hour film overloaded with episodes and with a parade of colorful costumes, but at least offers some dazzling camerawork to prevent the viewer from catching a few winks. It’s the interminable story of a Boston working-class Irish-American kid working his way up through Vatican channels to become a Cardinal; it was marred by sensationalizing both personal and worldly events. It’s nothing more than a kitsch take on the good and bad of the Catholic Church, but it has the chutzpah to pose as a work of art.

Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon, who later became a novelist) is being ordained in 1939 in Rome as a Cardinal and reflects on his rise through the ranks, beginning in 1917 when he became a lowly curate in the Boston area. Stephen mishandles his sister’s (Carol Lynley) marriage plans to the love of her life, the Jewish dental student and WW I soldier (John Saxon); as a result she leaves her bigoted mom’s and motorman father’s home and takes up with a sleazy lapsed Catholic dancer (Jose Duval) in a club act, gets pregnant and dies when Stephen follows the dogma of the church instead of the more human brotherly response to save her life after a traumatic childbirth. The scholarly Stephen is assigned by the acerbic Cardinal Glennon (John Huston) to a poor and remote church, run by the ailing and administratively failed but kindly priest, Rev. Halley (Burgess Meredith), in order to get rid of his pride. When this works out well, the Cardinal recognizes the scholarship of Stephen and promotes him to be his secretary and a Monsignor. He then pushes him to be a secretary in the Vatican, but the doubting priest takes a two year leave of absence to teach in Europe as he’s still troubled about not helping his sister when she asked and wonders if he’s suited to wear the collar (purely a Hollywood shtick version of a priest). In Vienna, Stephen meets the cute spoiled student Annemarie (Romy Schneider) and falls in love without breaking his priestly vows, but returns to the folds of the church. In the Vatican he’s guided by his scholarly mentor Cardinal Quarenghi (Raf Vallone) and becomes a skilled diplomat. When a black priest in Georgia (Ossie Davis) asks him to get the Vatican to take a stand against segregation and his reactionary anti-American superior, Cardinal Giacobbi (Tullio Carminati), refuses to help, Stephen goes without the Vatican blessing to rural Georgia and the KKK, who burned down the black church, whip him, a cross burns, a Klan member plays the harmonica and the others sing Dixie. That has to be such an outrageous scene that perhaps only a Ken Russsell could have topped its camp value. With that, Stephen returns to Rome and is appointed a Bishop. In 1938, Germany invades the Catholic country of Austria and Cardinal Innitzer (Josef Meinrad) supports them. The Vatican sends the German speaking Stephen to Vienna to get Cardinal Innitzer to say it was his personal decision to support Hitler and that it was not the Church’s. Stephen hooks up again with the now married Annemarie, whose nervous banker husband suddenly jumps out the window to commit suicide rather than face the Gestapo who have come to take him away because he’s part Jewish. That scene was more like a Harold Lloyd comedy sketch than the tear-jerker dramatic effect it was supposed to elicit. Preminger, a Jew, then has the gall to give us a false history lesson by whitewashing the Church’s marriage with the Nazis, as he has the Nazi-loving Cardinal Innitzer suddenly realizing after a Nazi rampage on his residence that Hitler is a bigoted monster and after compromising the Church’s principles retreats back to the Church’s call for universal tolerance.

The film’s cardinal sin is, however, in how tedious and overlong it was. After all is said and done, we learn little how the Church operates, the world events are handled in such a haphazard way to be rendered useless and the acting by everyone except Huston was stilted. Films like this one are the reason Preminger is rarely mentioned in film schools these days.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”