Advise and Consent

Thanks to the fans at a_film_by and a NYT article, I decided to rent Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent, and it's terrific fare. Aside from the fact that much of the dialogue seems to echo--sometimes with unnerving accuracy--recent headlines (John Bolton, anyone?), Preminger manages to make the intricacies of Senate procedure fascinating and, at one point, even exciting (I'm thinking of the sequence where Preminger uses a roll call as a kind of countdown device, while a senator desperately tries to get himself heard). A lot could be credited to Allan Drury's novel, of course, but there've been plenty of novels with thriller setpieces that somehow translate poorly to the big screen.

Large cast--everyone from Henry Fonda (whose salt-of-the-earth persona comes on so strong it's a shock to hear him admit to lying) to Walter Pidgeon (who's simply magnificent) to Franchot Tone (who has this moment of silent comprehension opposite Pidgeon that's very fine) to Burgess Meredith (who seems like the only innocent in the film, and appropriately befuddled) to Lew Ayres (possibly the most intelligent and sensitive vice president in all of history) to Don Murray and George Grizzard, all give excellent performances, not only by themselves but opposite each other (you can believe just watching them that they all have worked--and not just worked but worked in politics--together, for years).

But what sold me to the film, what raised the film beyond mere intelligent political filmmaking, was the senior senator from South Carolina (hiya, neighbor!). Charles Laughton in his last screen role holds this movie as assuredly and thoroughly as his Senator Seabright Cooley holds whatever audience he speaks to, from Senatorial chamber to a small bridge party, in the palm of his hand. He waddles along, like an oversized penguin; declaims to the highest rafters then drops his voice to the merest whisper; throws lecherous sidelong glances at the odd pretty young woman; does the most outrageous, audacious things, and it's all an integrated, completely controlled performance--you can't take your eyes off him for a minute, the very air in the room seems to dim whenever he exits, brightens whenever he pops up; even just sitting at a card table he manages to steal the scene. 

And while Murray's story is strong enough, and Murray is intense and moving as he labors under an impossible predicament (strange how that same 'predicament' seems just as damning--if not more so--today as it was then), and his ultimate fate harrowing (though I for one felt that with this particular subplot I was consistently ahead of the story--knew what the problem was the moment I heard the word "Hawaii," didn't need the visit to the bar, or the letter that followed, at all), Laughton's Cooley somehow tops that dramatic climax with his own little twist--a twist that manages to be dizzyingly idealistic and soberly realistic, both. Murray, in short, was good, was riveting, but Cooley's speech that followed moved me almost to tears.

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