The Cardinal (1963)
The Cardinal (1963)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 55 min.

Release Date: December 12th, 1963 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Otto Preminger Actors: Tom Tryon, Carol Lynley, Dorothy Gish, Cecil Kellaway, John Saxon, John Huston, Peter MacLean, Burgess Meredith, Jill Haworth, Raf Vallone, Ossie Davis, Chill Wills, Arthur Hunnicutt, Murray Hamilton, Romy Schneider




asting no time getting into heavily-costumed, ecclesiastic rituals in Rome, “The Cardinal” begins with a flashback to a younger Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) as he’s set to return to Boston as a parish priest. World War I is on the minds of the church, particularly as America is set to be drawn into the mix. “I expect a lot from you,” says the Vatican bishop (Raf Vallone) presiding over the ceremony, as Steve thinks to the future, hoping to eventually rise to the top of the Roman Catholic order – just below the pope, of course. The film also boasts an unusually striking opening title sequence, simply designed but with starkly contrasting cinematography, supplemented by Jerome Moross’ pleasant score.

Back in America, after reuniting with his family – which deals with contention between sisters, who insult one another over social lives and responsibilities and a boyfriend of a different faith – Fermoyle begins work under Monsignor Bill Monaghan (Cecil Kellaway). His job won’t be easy, however, as he must deal with gently converting a Jew, explaining to children why they should go through all the trouble of being Catholic if any random person can get into heaven, squaring away the belief in Adam and Eve with evolution, choosing to interpret fake miracles as God’s intentional persuasions (to be kept secret from the malleable flock), writing a controversial book, and convincing his sister (Carol Lynley) to abandon her true love in favor of religion. “Aren’t you getting a little bit away from the usual instruction?”

“You are an ambitious priest.” The film chronicles the path of Steve as he aspires to be more than a mere clergyman – a career course occasionally thwarted by disapproving superiors, one of whom sends the young man to the snowy isolation of impoverished Stonebury, under sickly pastor Father Ned Halley (Burgess Meredith), to cool his appetite for progress. Along the way, Steve is continually confronted with the evils of humanity (predominantly selfishness and spitefulness and authoritativeness, often characterized by bishops like Larry Glennon, played by John Huston), chiefly exhibited by higher-ranking Catholic leaders, and the bitterness of mortality. He also discovers that his pursuit of biblical teachings are continually at odds with happiness – and that the church drives away those who want the freedom to live their own independent, unjudged lives.

“God is the first cause of everything.” Clearly, as Steve chooses his beliefs over everything else, his God is shown to be relentlessly cruel, and represented by countless fallible humans – each prone to prejudices, bureaucratic quarreling, and gratification from acting upon their own best interests. Curiously, “The Cardinal” doesn’t show Catholicism in a positive light; virtually everything that happens reenforces the notion that organized religion only hurts its followers, and that separation is the sole road to the recognition of its subjugation and to a healthy personal fulfillment – an unexpected admission, perhaps, considering the Vatican’s support, publicly and financially, for the production.

“I pray that there may be another kind of life for me … that will let me sleep nights.” Regardless of the subject matter, producer/director Otto Preminger crafts an epic sort of film (punctuated by the use of an intermission and entr’acte – segueing to Steve’s leave of absence from the church to experience a new world of enjoyment, highlighted by flirtatious Austrian Annemarie [Romy Schneider]). During the second half, it’s more of a character study than an examination of clerical duties, even dabbling with a love story (basically, every female persona in the picture – each conspicuously attractive – could serve as a romantic interest), though carnal desires tend to scare away the conflicted minister. One can’t help but to think that Steve’s decisions are perpetually wrong (alongside fellow bishops and their shortsighted allegiances), considering that he isn’t shown to transform the lives of those around him, in the manner of Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley (from “Going My Way”) or Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan (from “Boys Town”) or Pat O’Brien’s Jerry Connolly (from “Angels with Dirty Faces”).

“Have you so little faith?” By the third act, Fermoyle finally engages in a cause worthy of a theatrical treatment, as he journeys to Georgia to help a black priest fight against violent racism from KKK members and hateful segregationists hiding behind churchly attendance. It’s a small moment, and one that transpires quickly without much visualized flair, but it’s a rare sequence of movie material in the midst of an overlong piece that doesn’t make much of a mark in the realm of award-garnering biographies or historical recreations. “The Cardinal” did go on to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Drama), and it does proceed to delve into Hitler’s rise leading up to World War II and Austria’s plebiscite (another segment featuring long-awaited, potent substance and political commentary, preachy and predictable as it may be), but the film still feels largely uneventful and unmoving. Stephen’s tale just isn’t transformative or unforgettable.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10