An intercontinental journey spanning nearly 25 years, The Cardinal (1963) is a masterfully told religious saga. Director Otto Preminger has his fingers on the pulse of perception and the human condition as he tempts the faith of a Catholic priest (Tom Tryon) with ambitions to ascend to the seat of power – from Boston, to Rome, to Vienna and around the world. Along the way the film tackles such grandiose social issues as abortion, racism, celibacy and Fascism.
Co-star John Huston was Oscar-nominated for his role as the caustic Cardinal Glennon who bates Catholic priest, Steven Fermoyle (Tryon) with dreams of greatness.
Plot wise: Steven returns home from taking his vows to discover that his sister, Mona (Carol Lynley) is in love with a Jewish man who is unwilling to give up his faith. Steven’s brother, Frank (Bill Hayes) has abandoned his plans for the priesthood. Mona’s obsession to marry and her family’s denial of her love lead her to a life of wanton debauchery that results in death.
In the meantime, Cardinal Glennon (Huston) is determined to drive all of Steven’s false pride from his soul. To this end he sends the young novice to work in a forgotten, frozen parish presided over by the Rev. Ned Halley (Burgess Meredith). When Halley dies, Steven is recalled to Rome where he meets a black southern priest, Father Gillis (Ossie Davis) who has come to ask for his aid in fighting racism. The Vatican denies Gillis’ request but Steven does indeed take a leave to administer aid. He is attacked and brutally beaten by a sect of good ol’ boys in white sheets.
From this point forward the plot is rather hurried; unworthy of Preminger’s usually sterling attention to pace. One gets the sense that Preminger would have liked another two or three hours to unfold the remainder of his tale which includes having Stephen return to Rome, then travel to Austria to regain is moral center. There, he falls in love with Anna Marie VonHartmann (Romy Schneider) who does not know he is a priest.
But Steven returns to his love of God, leaving Anna to marry a resistance operator during WWII in Nazi Germany who, unfortunately is discovered and jumps out a third story window to his death. The conclusion of this saga has Steven barely able to escape the Nazis, though he eventually does and returns home to his family.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is exceptional. Near reference quality, the image is sharp, refined and with fully saturated colors. Blacks are deep. Contrast and shadow levels are fully realized. There appears to be little in the way of age related artifacts. Digital anomalies are absent. The audio is 5.1 and captures the essence of early stereo recording.
Extras include a masterful feature length documentary on Otto Preminger's life - he was quite the character! The Cardinal is an unusual religious epic; legitimate and introspective, bold and magnificent. It is a film of great emotional power and quiet graceful elegance.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)