Book into Film – “Advise and Consent” (1962)

While Otto Preminger could be quite intemperate on the movie set, he actually toned down the novel on which Advise and Consent was based. He considered author Allen Drury an “arch-conservative.” So from the outset the film takes a more moderate approach. Where Drury named the U.S. enemy as the Soviet Union, Preminger stuck to the more generic communists. it was a different story when he was trying to set up a picture. Not only did the director cut down on the obvious anti-communist stance but veered away from taking a moral high ground.

In any case, there was a great deal that required to be eliminated- especially from a novel that clocked in at 600-plus pages. For example, the Leffingwell story is effectively dealt with 100 pages before the end of the book.  

More importantly, Preminger made the main character Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) more sympathetic. In the book, he is more of a typical politician, able to talk his way out of anything and proud of such a skill. Various scenes, not in the book, were inserted to make Leffingwell more principled, the main addition being the sequence where the politician confesses to the President (Franchot Tone) that he had lied about previous Communist affiliations. In the book Leffingwell and Van Ackerman (George Gizzard) are allies, but not in the film. More importantly, to rack up the tension, the book has Leffingwell easily defeated in the vote, whereas there is deadlock in the film.

It would have indeed been casting against type had Fonda played Leffingwell as outlined in the novel and the Preminger presentation he has a presidential stature and unusual humility for a politician.

Narrative simplification was also necessary. Van Ackerman carries the blame in the film for the blackmail scheme, but in the book this involves a greater conspiracy. Drury portrays Ackerman as a fairly villainous character with severe personality malfunction but the film treats him in more rounded fashion. Orrin Knox (Edward Andrews), one the book’s main characters, was marginalized in the film.

Preminger added scenes relating to the homosexuality of Brig (Don Murray) in an effort to give the character greater depth and to clarify his motivation and especially to ensure his suicide was a result of his internal conflict rather than the blackmail, as was the case in the book. The letter at the end makes no judgement on him.

Drury tended to show his characters in black-and-white, so that instead of a muscular and inflammatory critique of the politicians, with all their chicanery, but Preminger allows the characters to speak for themselves rather than setting them up to be shot down by an audience. As I mentioned in my review of the film in the Blog, many of the politicians engage in verbal duels and present themselves not so much as cocky but confident, not so much smarmy as charming. Here, the actors are encouraged to become performers without their performances degenerating into ham acting.

As congressional correspondent for the New York Times, Drury had an intimate knowledge of the political scene and it is no surprise that each character in the book was modelled on an existing politician – even the blackmail story was drawn from a real-life incident.. By removing much of the party politics in order to concentrate on the main central issues, and by allowing the actors great freedom with their roles, Preminger was able both to humanise the characters and also ensure they were not easily recognizable as current or past politicians.

As in other films, Preminger set to out create a picture about  a moral issue, not one where there is a right way and a wrong way, although the governing party is shown to be generally uncompromising when it comes to dealing with anyone who steps out of line.

In a film that could be easily have been dogged by dialogue or argument, Preminger’s free-flowing camera movement ensures there is a sense not just of excitement and exhilaration but forward movement. Perhaps this film demonstrates more than nay other the director’s mastery of cinematographic techniques.

Behind the Scenes – “Advise and Consent” (1962)

Just before setting off to film Exodus (1960), director Otto Preminger ponied up $200,000 for the rights to Allen Drury’s inflammatory novel three months after publication. He expected to place the picture with United Artists, with whom he was in partnership over Exodus, but perhaps his remuneration package was too high, for Advise and Consent ended up at Columbia.

Preminger postponed shooting of Bunny Lake Is Missing in order to start on Advise and Consent. But filming of the former was in part delayed due to pregnancy of the proposed female lead Lee Remick.

When Wendell Mayes script was submitted in July 1961 to the Production Code for approval, the main issue under discussion was the treatment of homosexuality, and as a consequence some scenes were trimmed or treated in a different manner. In fact, Preminger was more explicit than the novel about same-sex relationships. The Code approved the production with changes on the basis that a revision of the current system was imminent. Preminger was turned down by a number of well-known actors because of this aspect of Brig’s character, before eventually turning to Don Murray.

As mentioned in the review yesterday, Preminger hired actors who had long been out of the business. The blacklisted Will Geer hadn’t made a film in over a decade, Franchot Tone had not been seen on screen since 1951 when he had been involved in love triangle, for Lew Ayres it was nearly a decade, while Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized, had last made a picture in 1955. Martin Luther King was offered the role of a Georgia senator.

Astonishingly since the book and film had taken pot shots at the American political system, beginning late September 1961, Preminger was granted permission to shoot in the Senate, taking over the Russell Senate State building, with the Senate Caucus Room used for the sub-committee rooms. To cut down on shooting time, Preminger often filmed with two cameras and finished filming after two or three takes.  Preminger was racing through shooting in order to release the film in December in the hope of snagging Oscar nominations.

Filming lasted barely three months in total, beginning September 5 and ending on . the early scenes shot included the sequences in Munson’s hotel room (filmed at the Sheraton Park hotel), the White House correspondents’ dinner (the ballroom of the same hotel) and Dolly’s party (at Tregaron, a private residence once owned by joseph A. Davies, an ambassador to the Soveiet Union.

Understandably nervous after such a long time away from filming, and probably doubly nervous to be working with a director known for his titanic rages, Gene Tierney, “though just frightened to death” received nothing but gentlemanly treatment. Franchot Tone, on the other hand, was reduced to tears. Don Murray only once felt the sharp end of the Preminger tongue, but other found that he could manage the director as long as he did not show a weakness. However, Preminger did disparage cinematographer Sam Leavitt and actor Larry Tucker, apparently to demonstrate his fiery side for visiting journalists, fired three crewmen. Arguments with unions set the production back $150,000-$200,000.

Away from the set, Peter Lawford’s involvement in the picture apparently drew the ire of President John F. Kennedy. The Press had a field day after “word leaked out.” There was also concern about Gene Tierney’s role as a society hostess.

Possibly aware of the changing mood in the critical world, Preminger had invited Jean Domarchi of Cahiers du Cinema to observe the shooting.

By the time the film was being prepped for released, Allen Drury’s novel had spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and the author had won the Pulitzer Prize. Drury hated what Preminger had done to this novel, got his revenge by delaying the film’s release. A stage version of the book was not going to complete its run until June 1962 and Drury applied for – and won – an injunction to prevent the film opening before then. Preminger had been aware of the problem and had attempted, while the movie was in the first month of filming, to exploit a legal loophole to allow the movie to be shown in December. (Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 1954 had suffered the same fate). This also put the blocks on RCA Victor’s plans to release a soundtrack album – “for minutes of music…no vocals.”

Sources: Chris Fujiwara, The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Faber and Faber 2008, p280-289; Mark Shives, “Otto Preminger on Advise and Consent,” Movie 4, p26-27; Jean Domarchi, “Voyage a Washington,” Cahiers du Cinema 22, p28-30; “Code Seal to Advise and Consent,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, p8; “Preminger Postpones One; To Start on Advise,” Box Office; January 12, 1961, p23; “Otto Preminger’s Advise Transferred to Columbia,” Box Office, August 14, 1961, p10; “Bunny Lake Is Delayed; Prem Moves Up Casting of Advise and Consent,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Consent Pic Delay Stalls Victor album,” Variety, December 27, 1961, p39; “Lew Ayres into Consent, He and Tierney on Comeback Trail,” Variety, August 16, 1961, p20; “Is JFK Miffed About Lawford Role Or Is It More Pic Ballyhoo?,” Variety, August 30, 1961, p2; “Report Preminger Seeks Early Release of Advise,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p69.

Advise and Consent (1962) ****

Excoriating engrossing political drama in which the unscrupulous take the moral high ground and the principled are destroyed. In other words, the reality of power – gaining it and keeping it and all the skullduggery in between. And it has resonance in today’s cancel culture for it is minor indiscretions from the past that bring down the most upstanding of the species.  

Theoretically, director Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown, 1967) broke one major taboo in touching on the subject of same-sex relationships. But in reality he took an even bolder step from the Hollywood perspective of giving center stage in the main to older players. Many  had first come to the fore in the 1930s or earlier – Walter Pidgeon (Turn Back the Hours, 1928), Lew Ayres (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930),  Charles Laughton (Oscar winner for The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933), Franchot Tone (Oscar nominated for Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935), Henry Fonda (You Only Live Once, 1937). This was the kind of all-star cast you used to get in 1960s big-budget pictures filling out supporting roles. But in this ensemble drama, they all, at various times, hold the floor. And this approach lent the movie greater authenticity.  Even if few viewers today fail to recognize many, that, too, works in the movie’s favor, giving it an almost documentary feel.

Movies about politics are never heavy on plot, so if you’re looking for a thriller in the way of All the President’s Men (1973) go elsewhere. It has more in common with The Trial of the Chicago Seven (2020) with multiple viewpoints and opposing perspectives. What the best movies about politics have in abundance is repartee. Virtually every exchange is a verbal duel, the cut and thrust, the slashing attack, the parry, sometimes a knockout blow delivered through humor. Given politicians spend most of their lives making speeches, even the shortest of sentences, even the bon mots, have a polished ring. And that, frankly, is the joy of this picture, brilliantly written by Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) from the Allen Drury bestseller. In some respects the plot is almost a MacGuffin, a way into this labyrinthine world, where characters duck and dive like a more elevated breed of gangster

A lesser director would have given in to the temptation of filming these duels in close-up.  Instead, Preminger’s direction is almost stately, keeping characters at bay.

A seriously ill President (Franchot Tone), distrusting his feeble Vice-President Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres), decides to fill the vacancy for Secretary of State with highly-principled Senator Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda). This not being the beginning of the President’s term, he can’t just do what he wants, his nomination must go before a committee and then face a vote in the Senate. The Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon) isn’t too happy with the idea, seeing Leffingwell as a dove, likely to appease the growing Soviet threat. Others on the committee, namely Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) side with Munson and the committee hearing turns into a hostile interrogation. The fine upstanding Leffingwell parries well until Senator Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton) introduces a witness Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith) who says Leffingwell belonged to a Communist cell, an accusation Leffingwell denies.

Twist number one: Leffingwell has lied on oath. He confesses this to a friend Hardiman Fletcher (Paul McGrath) who then stitches up the witness. The committee apologises to Leffingwell, which means he is a sure thing for the post, but Cooley smells a rat and starts his own investigation. Leffingwell tries to get out of the job, admitting his perjury, but – twist number two – the President refuses. Munson and Anderson are let in on the secret, the former willing to accommodate the President but the latter outraged and planning to thwart the nomination when it reaches the voting stage at the Senate. Anderson comes under pressure, phone calls to his wife about something from his past that occurred in Hawaii.

And so the stage is set. The pressure builds on Anderson. The President becomes more unwell, making the appointment of Leffingwell more crucial. Aware of Anderson’s intentions, Munson starts whipping up votes, with Cooley doing the same for the opposition. Machinations take over.  And for a movie that was initially light on plot, it ends with three stunning twists, and proving once and for all there is nothing quite so standard as the self-serving politician.

This was the first movie for several years for Henry Fonda (Broadway and television his refuge) and for Gene Tierney (Laura, 1945) – playing a society hostess – who was recovering from mental health problems and the last screen appearance of Charles Laughton. The acting is uniformly excellent and the direction confident and accomplished.  

A slow-burner for sure, but a fascinating insight into the less savory aspects of politics and the human collateral damage.