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Advise & Consent

Directed by Otto Preminger with Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Gene Tierney, Peter Lawford, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, George Grizzard, Burgess Meredith and Don Murray, black and white, 1962, 140 minutes

Cover of DVD
Cover of DVD
By Carter B. Horsley

Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning book of the same name by Allen Drury, a reporter for The New York Times, "Advise & Consent" is a very taut, very sophisticated political melodrama and thriller and probably the best movie on Washington, D.C. ever made.

It came out in 1962, well into the era of President John F. Kennedy, but not too much  after the Communist-hunting days of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Its controversial themes are closet homosexuals and closet communists.

The movie centers about the controversial nominatiion by the President, played by Franchot Tone, of Robert A. Leffingwell, played by Henry Fonda, for Secretary of State.  Mr.Leffingwell is a very dapper and elegant nominee, modeled closely in the Kennedy mode and his nomination is bitterly opposed by Senator 
Seabright Cooley from South Carolina, played hy Charles Laughton, and staunchly defended by Majority Leader Senator Majority Leader Robert Munson, played by Walter Pidgeon..

Fonda's role is actually quite minimal in the movie, but Laughton and Pidgeon give very, very memorable performances.  Laughton is the quintesssential honey-voiced, cantankerous Southern conservative who is grievously alarmed at the liberalism of Leffingwell.  Laughton's performance, his last, is sensational.  Watching it, one yearns for this movie to be a 24/7 CNN special with no commercial interruptions.  He is mesmerizing in his unctious mendacity and supercilious, arrogant and unignorable ways. He is formidable, wily and full of guile and extremely histrionic.  This is the caliber of senatorial oratory for which history books are written..

Pidgeon is no less noble and the very personification of noblesse oblige - an unhesitating, warrior for principles and for his administration and a natural, national leader who rises above pettiness and party politics and is the national poster man for "Father Knows Best."

This is not an action flick and would collapse were it not for its marvelous script that is razor-sharp.


Charles Laughton, left, and Walter Pidgeon, right
Charles Laughton, left, and Walter Pidgeon, right

The conservatives dredge up a witness, played by Burgess Meredith,  who maintains that Leffingwell was involved with the Communist Party in the past and the plot is thickened when one of Leffingwell's chief detractors, Senator, played by Don Murray, becomes concerned that a homosexual incident in his past may ruin his marriage and his political reputation.  Leffingwell is able to deflect Meredith charges by showing that he had mental problems but subsequently it is revealed that Leffingwell's testimony was not squeaky clean.

With the exception of George Grizzard, who plays a young Senator
named Fred Van Ackerman so ungry for publicity that he won't heed the advice of his senior, the acting in this film is superb.  Grizzard is convincingly obnoxious, so much so that it is hard to believe that he could be a Senator ten years or so after the McCarthy era had run its shabby, dishonorable course.

Franchot Tone plays an ill President deeply committed to having his legacy carried on by Leffinwell and he is very forceful and convincing in his role.  Similarly, Lew Ayres performance as Vice President Harley M. Hudson is extremely dignified and edifying.  Gene Tierney plays a Washington socialite/hostess, apparently modeled somewhat on Pamela Harriman, who happens to be the mistress of Senator Munson.  She is better looking in this film than she was in the title role of Laura several years before and her imperious grace and savoir faire far outweigh her less than perfect beauty.
Peter Lawford plays Senator Lafe Smith, a character some observers have said was based on Senator John F. Kennedy, who was his brother-in-law in real life.

Don Murray's role
as Senator Brigham Anderson who is chosen to chair the nomination committee is perhaps the most sensitive and difficult for the sexual revolution had not yet exploded fully in the United States and homosexuality was not a popular subject and Hollywood had not yet developed a sense of humor about it.  His performance is quite nuanced and he conveys the painfulness of his dilemma very skillfully and compassionately.  He is portrayed as a young, ambitious, Kennedyesque handsome and vigorous politician who ostensibly is All-American in every good cereal-box sense.  A measure of how good his performance is how much sympathy he is able to generate for his blackmailed character, especially given Hollywood's censors.

"Preminger's masterpiece," observed Martin Bradley in his 2006 comments on the film at imdb.com, "and one of the greatest of all American films and yet critical opinion is strongly divided on this one. Some people believe that the melodramatic elements of the plot, (homosexuality, blackmail, suicide), denigrates the film's authenticity and takes away from it as drama but the characters are so beautifully drawn, (and the performances of such a uniformly high standard), that the mechanics of the plot seem startlingly real. By being overt about homosexuality in 1962 the film broke new ground, though the gay characters, briefly seen, are cringe-worthy stereotypes.What makes the film a masterpiece is Preminger's extraordinary mise-en-scene and possibly the best use of the widescreen for dramatic effect in any American movie. By keeping some characters on the periphery of the screen while the main characters in the scene interact in the foreground Preminger creates tensions and psychological relationships between them that cutting would only dissipate."

While this movie does not have the epic qualities of Citizen Kane (see The City Review article) or the bravura of Andy Griffith's performance in "A Face in the Crowd" or the twists and turns of "All the President's Men," it has a narrow focus that is precise and unerring and still very pertinent and extremely sophisticated and professional.


Click here to order the DVD from Amazon.com for 30 percent off its $19.90 list price

 This film is ranked 87th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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