Otto Preminger expanded his vision in the 1960s with a whole series of ambitious, expansive dramas with huge casts and big themes. Advise and Consent, an examination of deal making, party politics, and congressional diplomacy in Washington's legislative halls (based on the novel by Allen Drury), is one of his best. Preminger broke the blacklist with his previous film, Exodus, and it rings through in this drama about a controversial nominee for secretary of state (a confident, stately Henry Fonda) accused of being a Communist. The nomination process becomes the center ring of the political circus, with fidgety accuser Burgess Meredith in the spotlight; devious, silver-tongued Charles Laughton cracking the whip as a southern senator with a grudge against Fonda; and party whip Walter Pidgeon lining up votes behind the scenes. Arm twisting and diplomatic hardball turns to perjury and blackmail, and a melodramatic twist gives this lesson in party politics a salacious soap opera dimension. The German offensive in December 1944 became the basis for the all-star Hollywood Battle of the Bulge. Henry Fonda is an officer who predicts the assault, Robert Ryan and Dana Andrews are Army brass skeptical of his intuitions, and Robert Shaw is a German officer leading the tank attack. Shaw is certainly the most compelling thing about the film, especially in his philosophical debates with ambivalent underling Hans Christian Blech. Elsewhere, the movie jumps around to sidebar stories (cowardly James MacArthur becomes a leader, wheeler-dealer Telly Savalas falls in love) while messing around with the historical facts of the battle. There are interesting episodes, such as the Malmedy massacre of American POWs and the Germans' use of English-speaking spies, but overall Battle of the Bulge has the feeling of having been patched together from different scripts. On the physical level the movie comes up short, with the Spanish locations rarely suggesting the wintry misery of the battle, and the use of models and studio sets highly inadequate. A number of war films from this era are compelling on their own terms, but in the wake of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, this one looks antique. Henry Fonda re-created his Broadway hit Mister Roberts for the 1955 film that was mostly directed by Fonda's frequent collaborator, John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine)--an ailing Ford was replaced at some point by Mervyn LeRoy--and the results are exceptionally fine. A perfect cast, including James Cagney's irascible captain, William Powell's thoughtful physician, and Jack Lemmon's Oscar-winning Ensign Pulver, give Fonda the right boost to portray his ennui-burdened officer with dignity, self-effacing humor, and not a trace of self-pity. A wonderful film. Alfred Hitchcock was fond of telling the story about how his father discouraged his son from even the slightest criminal impulse by having young Alfred locked in a police holding cell for a brief period--a terrifying experience Hitchcock never forgot. Much of the fear from that childhood incident resonates through The Wrong Man, which is unique among Hitchcock's films in that it is based entirely on a factual case that occurred in New York City in January 1953. As Hitchcock states in a shadowy prologue, authenticity was his primary goal--including the use of actual names and locations from the case--and the film gains considerable power from Hitchcock's semi-documentary approach (a film noir style that was still in vogue when Hitchcock shot this film in 1957). Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as the financially struggling nightclub musician who is mistakenly identified as a robber when he attempts to cash in his wife's life-insurance policy to pay for her much-needed dental work. Vera Miles is equally superb as the suffering wife, who ultimately cracks under the pressure of her husband's wrongful accusation and the drawn-out process of proving his innocence. Through all of this, Hitchcock pays close attention to the mundane details of police procedure, intensifying Fonda's desperation and the narrative tension that was Hitchcock's directorial trademark. As it happens, the strict adherence to factual detail--no matter how absurd or incredible--also renders The Wrong Man somewhat weaker than Hitchcock's classic plots, since in this case truth is decidedly stranger than fiction. Nevertheless, this is still a riveting film that fits quite nicely alongside Hitchcock's better-known films of the 1950s.
Director(s): Otto Preminger
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