Sunday, August 9, 2015

Advise and Consent (1962)

Director: Otto Preminger                                  Writer: Wendell Mayes
Film Score: Jerry Fielding                                Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney

Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent is an all-star extravaganza, Advise and Consent, is about the “sausage making” that goes on in Washington D.C. In this case the plot concerns the attempt to confirm the president’s nomination for secretary of state, and the legal and political maneuverings that go on behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras. What makes this film so interesting is how prescient it was at the time. The contention in the Senate is between the hawks and the doves, those want to actively confront the communists versus those who seek to find some way to strike a peaceful end to the Cold War. While the thrust of the film is about the secretary of state, there is a real parallel between the attitudes of Henry Fonda, as the nominee, and John F. Kennedy who was moving toward both peace agreements with Cuba and the Soviet Union, as well as pulling out military support for South Viet Nam. The best-selling novel by Allen Drury was published just prior to Kennedy’s election, but he captured the tenor of the times perfectly, and clearly delineated the powerful forces at work in the political system, strong-arm political maneuvering, smear tactics, and even blackmail. And while the relationship between the parties seems almost quaint by today’s standards, there is a lot that hasn’t changed in fifty years.

The film opens on the steps of the Capitol, with senator Paul Ford reading about the nomination of Henry Fonda to secretary of state. He rushes over to see Senate majority leader Walter Pidgeon at his hotel, but he’s already on the phone with president Franchot Tone. Getting Fonda confirmed may be an impossible task, but Pidgeon is going to give his support to the president and try. When Pidgeon calls Senate minority leader Will Geer, he’s not worried about the nomination because he knows that influential senator Charles Laughton from the majority party already hates Fonda and the nomination probably won’t get past his own party. On the Senate floor, Edward Andrews begins a filibuster to keep Pidgeon from forming a sub-committee, the next step on the confirmation process, but then allows Laughton to voice his displeasure over Fonda to the other members and the gallery full of onlookers that includes wealthy socialite Gene Tierney, who just happens to be having an affair with Pidgeon. At the subcommittee hearing Fonda holds his own as an intellectual who refuses to be drawn into mutually assured destruction with the communists, but Laughton tries to sandbag him by calling witness Burgess Meredith who says Fonda is a communist. Meredith is a mental case, though, and Fonda easily destroys his credibility on cross-examination, at the same time strengthening his bid for the cabinet post.

The only problem is, Fonda did flirt with communism when he was younger. And at this point the plot takes a very interesting turn. Produced during the height of the Cold War, the real idea underlying the film seems to be the lingering hangover from the communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. But that’s not the only idea at play. The fact that everyone has secrets comes to the fore when Laughton tells the subcommittee chairman, Don Murray, about Fonda and then he is blackmailed. As fascinating as the film is, it’s not very compelling, though the last thirty minutes is wonderfully shocking and surprising. Filmed in crisp black and white, it tends to make the story a bit artificial, but at the same time it also wonderfully replicates the documentary footage of the era. And there’s a lot of artistry involved as well. Other than the film stock, the thing one notes immediately about the production is the fluidity of the camera in the hands of Sam Leavitt, who worked on a number of classic films from the late fifties and early sixties. While there is judicious use of editing, masterfully assembled by Louis Loeffler, the film has the distinct feel of something like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in the way that actors are followed as the fast-paced dialogue pulls the camera along it its wake. In a way it can be seen as a precursor to Aaron Sorkin’s The American President and The West Wing.

While Henry Fonda is ostensibly the star, and appears on most of the recent packaging for the film, he’s only in a few scenes. He does a nice job, but it’s a supporting role at best. The actor who carries the picture is Walter Pidgeon. His urbane quality and cultured voice serve him well as the senior senator who attempts to carry out the president’s wishes. This was a comeback film for Gene Tierney, who suffered from bi-polar disorder. She was also one of Preminger’s favorite actresses, but there was little for her to do in this film that any glamorous woman in her forties couldn’t have handled just as well. The surprise for me was Don Murray, who I couldn’t recall seeing in anything previously. He does a nice job as the confident young senator from Utah who is blindsided by a secret from his past, but spent most of his career in television. The other pleasant surprise was Lew Ayres, who I had only known from All Quiet on the Western Front thirty years earlier. Of course Charles Laughton is usually given a lot of praise for his performance as the wicked Southern senator, and he is good, but his menace is tempered a great deal by the frailty he exhibits, as this was his last film before he died in late 1962. In all, Advise and Consent is certainly fascinating as a time capsule, but not quite essential viewing.

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