Friday, December 4, 2009

The Cardinal

Of the countless functions of cinema, perhaps one of the most suited to the medium is "camera as peephole." The world is filled with closed-off spaces, from the bedroom to the boardroom, which you or I cannot simply enter and experience for ourselves inobtrusively. Writers and visual artists who have access to a cloistered locale can report on their experiences behind socially-constructed veils, but they act as a filter quite different from a camera and audio recorder working in tandem. Likewise, so-called "fiction" filmmaking generally employs a filter distinct from the documentary mode, but even a well-dressed Hollywood set populated by actors can simulate for an audience the look and feel of an otherwise-private sphere they could otherwise never expect to experience at all.

Herein lies the everlasting appeal of the confessional in cinema to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Films like Forbidden Games, the Godfather Hamlet and countless others memorably recreate this oh-so-priviliged space, exploiting its dramatic (or comedic) potential while reminding us that cinema is as much about the unseen (often, the priest on the other side of the wall is heard but never shown) as the seen. Otto Preminger's 1963 The Cardinal uses a confession booth as a key location, but more notably the film as a whole serves as a sort of peephole onto the inner workings of the Catholic Church. Preminger, coming off the popular success of the religious-themed epic Exodus, was allowed an unprecedented amount of access to the Vatican City for this adaptation of the 1950 bestselling novel by Henry Morton Robinson. None other than Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was the liaison between the Church and the production.

The Cardinal is titled for its central character Stephen Fermoyle, a priest played by Tom Tryon who acquired the nickname as a youth, we're told, as he'd been preordained to go into the clergy since his birth into Boston's Irish Catholic community. An academic at heart, he's seemingly more comfortable in an ivory tower delving into his faith's distant history than out in the world helping parishioners live through history-in-action. The interwar setting of the film provides opportunities for Fermoyle to butt up against twentieth-century history, both its events and its changing social attitudes. Tryon plays him as a weak personality who employs strict Catholic doctrine as something of a surrogate spine, guiding his hard decisions no matter the personal cost.

The film is structured as a series of moral tests for Tryon's priest, and for the Catholic Church in general. Whether he (and Catholicism) passes or fails these tests will probably depend on your viewpoint on controversial subjects, though one might guess Preminger's own stances even if he's, on the whole, even-handed in his presentation. Fermoyle confronts bigotry, abortion, his family's desires for him to go against his professed beliefs, and his own ambition. He even turns away from the church for an extended sequence in Vienna, though because of a flashback-framing device, we know that he will eventually return to Rome with honor; all we don't know is just how.
"How" is the fundamental question in successful narrative, and in The Cardinal. Chris Fujiwara, in his Preminger biography the World and Its Double, argues that if The Cardinal "is one of Preminger's greatest films, it is also, inevitably, one of his most underappreciated, since the same things that make it great also make it resist appreciation." Another biographer, Foster Hirsch, introducing a screening at the Film Forum in New York City, calls it "very square" in that it deals with the inner workings of church hierarchy, an unfashionable subject in 1963 or now. But he also considers it something of a litmus test for Preminger affinity; "if you like the film, you like Preminger. If it doesn't get to you, and it won't get to all of you, Preminger is not for you."

I'm not sure if Hirsch's challenge is foolproof; I did like the Cardinal, but to be honest it's the first of his films that has truly captured my fascination. Perhaps it's the circumstances of viewing; seeing the Panavision print secured by the Film On Film Foundation projected on a large screen at a press preview a few weeks ago was naturally more involving than viewing even the likes of Laura or Anatomy of a Murder on videocassette years ago. Perhaps I've just learned better how to view such an auteur-centric film over the years.

If so, it's not small part in thanks to reading books like Film As Film, written by V. F. Perkins in 1972. (And to Girish Shambu for instigating me to read it!) The book is an eye-opening investigation of the building blocks of narrative cinema, and though Perkins draws examples from across the range of classic cinema, from Griffith and Eisenstein to Nicholas Ray and Michaelangelo Antonioni, no director save Alfred Hitchcock gets more citations in the index than Otto Preminger. Two passages single out scenes from The Cardinal. One (page 95-6) takes the instance of a bell ringing upon Fermoyle's arrival in a small, impoverished Massachusetts parish as an example of the richness in meaning available through the use of sound in cinema. The other (page 87-88) contrasts the aptly motivated moving camera in a shot of Fermoyle and Anne-Marie (played by Romy Schneider) cycling through the Austrian countryside against camera movements he considers unmotivated in John Frankenheimer's the Train. Perkins writes of the shot: "Preminger's image does not cease to offer information in order to impose a mood or meaning. Instead the viewpoint is used to provoke, out of all the possible responses to the action, the ones most relevant to the film's design." As I interpret him, he's arguing on a micro leveal that the Cardinal at a macro level is a fully-controlled work from a master who knows exactly the effects he wants to achieve with each shot. Even what is arguably an episodic or unfocused source novel has been tamed and assimilated into Preminger's cinematic worldview.

I am excited to view more Preminger films in the retrospective currently running at the Pacific Film Archive through a lens informed by reading Fujiwara and Perkins, and by my experience viewing and considering The Cardinal. The series ends December 20th with a pairing of two highly-regarded works, Bonjour Tristesse and Bunny Lake Is Missing. In the meantime, a rare chance to see the Cardinal, which was left off the official PFA Preminger program, will occur this Sunday, December 6th at that venue, thanks to the Film On Film Foundation's rental of the theatre. It occurs just after screenings of Heddy Honigmann's the Underground Orchestra and Roberto Rossellini's masterful Voyage In Italy; Frisco Bay cinephiles will need airtight excuses not to be in Berkeley that day!


  1. ben the armington12/5/09, 6:31 PM

    brian! it's like you're reading my mail...i've been going to the preminger series AND reading the fujiwara bio! it's been amazing having the chance to see the films on the big screen while reading about them. did you make it to DAISY KENYON? i really regret missing that one....

  2. I tried my hardest to make it over after work, on Sunday, but failed. By the time I arrived (more than 10 minutes late) the box office was closed. Will have to catch up with it on DVD, or hope it shows up in a film noir series. Will you be attending The Cardinal, tomorrow, Ben?

  3. I'm planning to be there for all three films tomorrow (and all for the first time). I even gave up seeing David Thomson introduce PSYCHO at the PFA tonight because I knew I'd be spending almost eight hours there on Sunday. Brian, your write-up on THE CARDINAL has made me even more excited. Thanks.

  4. Same here. I've been steeping in Preminger all day and looking forward to The Cardinal tomorrow. First thing in the morning I'll link this fine write-up into Frako's.

  5. Thanks Michael & Maya! I'll be very interested in hearing your responses. There was much about this film I wanted to discuss but decided to leave out either to avoid spoilers or because it seemed tangential to the tack I was trying to take here. I may even do a follow-up post if I find I have time.

    Frako's write-up is terrific of course. Here's the link.

  6. box office kinglet ben12/6/09, 11:30 AM

    i happily will be attending THE CARDINAL, in all of it's epic, ass-killing glory! and VOYAGE IN ITALY! If it's any consolation Michael, Steve Seid, while introducing friday's screening of the enduringly bizarre WHIRLPOOL, announced that David Thomson had been obliged to bow out of his appearance due to an onset of the flu stealing his voice.