Saul Bass’ poster for Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962) shows the dome of the Capitol neatly dissected from the building itself, the title emerging as if it were stowed away in a Pandora’s Box, which in some ways, the film is. Open one line of political inquiry, and suffer the attendant maelstrom, personal vendettas enacted in the name of the “public,” skeletons lining every closet, every past and current liaison violently scrutinized. Preminger’s film is governed by contradictions and paradoxes, a self-enclosed political system that nevertheless accounts for the entirety of the United States, though you’d be hard-pressed to find any of these politicians actually making even the slightest reference to the voting body. The rightfully earned cynicism is crystallized early on, when unable to keep up with the impenetrable decorum of a senate meeting, an ambassador’s wife asks, “are there lots of leftists?” “Oh, it’s just a matter of geography,” another answers.
Preminger, consummate master of CinemaScope, is a worthy geographer, his applied fascination for legal process streamlining exposition so that the intricacies of the Capitol develop as the drama does, the two never losing sight of one another. The spiraling, concentric action is spurred by the President’s (Franchot Tone, whose frailty at this interval is concerning) appointment of a new secretary of state, one Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), who himself is a bundle of thinly-veiled ambitions, all residing near the surface of Fonda’s innate benevolence. Leffingwell expectedly splits the senate, eliciting the support of senators Robert Munson (Walter Pidgeon), Lafe Smith (Peter Lawford), and Frederick Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), and attracting the ire of the dandyish Seabright Cooley, played with dripping Southern charm by a Cheshire-grinned Charles Laughton.
This division is subsequently presided over by the senator from Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray), whose undecidedness on the president’s appointment chairs him within a subcommittee to evaluate Leffingwell. The appointee’s stolid answers initially seem to invalidate the naysayers, until Seabright trots in an almost unbearably timorous Treasury Department clerk (Burgess Meredith), who testifies that he and Leffingwell had been members of a communist group while both attending the University of Chicago, a claim the secretary-in-waiting vehemently denies. The intimation of a checkered past would usually be deployed to ratchet up the unspoken tension of the courtroom proceedings; Preminger had done this before, notably in Anatomy of a Murder, where should-be revelatory arguments are instead underhandedly conveyed.
Advise & Consent practically veers in a different direction, however, abandoning Fonda and the stifling formality of the hearings, a thread to be later picked up by Coppola in The Godfather Part II and Scorsese in The Irishman. Leffingwell is a catalyst, and his actual presence isn’t required for all the glad-handing and back-stabbing tradeoffs that ensue, whispers of perjury and inklings of subterfuge. It’s all part of Preminger’s medicine cabinet of bitter pills, of preying on our tendency as viewers to pledge allegiance to characters on matters of a few cinematic tricks, such as the timeliness of their introduction, or the method of their establishing shot. Laughton’s scenery chewing may furnish a handy villainy, but his methods pale in comparison to a blackmailing stunt facilitated by a young demagogue who waxes aspiringly — almost fascistically… — about world peace. And then there’s sadsack Lew Ayres as VP Harley, who’d hate to be president if his ailing superior passes, and doesn’t even really want to be Vice President in the first place. When the walls begin closing in on our sacred President, it’s the responsibility of his party — whichever that may be — to do the same to whoever may be responsible. The feedback loop of politics keeps feeding back and feeding back that any sort of reconciliation is nominal at best.
Preminger renders conservatism and liberalism absolutely superfluous, the way certain characters are arranged within the frame speaking more than any sort of half-baked idealism could. Most descriptors of political identification are nowhere to be found in Advise & Consent, as everything is diluted simply to majority and minority. To think that any of these men are committed to the well-being of the American people is simply delusional; Senate politics is little more than maneuvering, and a proliferation of “contrasting” buzzwords: “communism”, “peace.” Preminger may have been granted permission to shoot on location, but his sprawling Panavision deromanticizes the institution, which comes out the other side as a system of arterial pathways that get knotted up with one another, unless they’re temporarily unified to bear down on an individual. A blackmail plot begins to fester: Brigham Young and his family suffer anonymous phone calls that threaten to make public the senator’s dalliance with a man named Ray while he was stationed in Hawaii.
In a film that has a number of Hollywood heroes walking in and out, Murray develops into the unlikely receiver of Advise & Consent’s teased threats made literal. The film handles even more moving parts than Anatomy of a Murder — equaling In Harm’s Way’s scope — which means it’s both cut short and overlong, the first two acts collapsing into the emotional wasteland of the third act rather than acing the handoff. However, that only seems to be because Preminger has sympathy for those suffering at the hands of the defining taboo, but has to absorb into a larger framework of governmental deceit; his “objective style” renders it tasteful nonetheless. His use of screen space lays the groundwork for such authorial opaqueness, but it can also shift in the other direction as well, building up an environment for a single purpose (like the New York passage, where Brigham is brought into physical contact with his past), but constructing it thoughtfully regardless. The jump from 90-minute nuggets of sparkling noir to widescreen epics suggests that Preminger is one of the few Hollywood directors to have navigated the changing studio landscape with his perennial preoccupations preserved. Advise & Consent hinges on “a Washington kind of lie,” and that sinister politeness can be traced backward throughout the director’s entire career, where characters are caught in the merciless machinations of a world they have nevertheless chosen by their own volition.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.