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.

A Fever in the Blood (1961) ****

Blistering B-film from writer Roy Huggins (TV’s The Fugitive) that marries political chicanery to legal jiggery-pokery in a movie that races from one twist to another. In his role as producer Huggins calls upon actors he made stars from the television series he created – Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (77 Sunset Strip), Jack Kelly (Maverick) – and gives Angie Dickinson (Oceans 11) the female lead. Huggins’ brilliant premise is to ignore the dilemma of the man, Walter Thornwall (Rhodes Reason), nephew of a former Governor, wrongly accused of the murder of his wife. Instead the film concentrates on accuser District Attorney Dan Callahan (Kelly) and Judge Lee Hoffman (Zimbalist Jr), both of whom, running for the vacant Governor post, stand to make massive political capital from the publicity surrounding a sensational trial.

Former buddies, Callahan and Hoffman are now bitter rivals after the former had reneged on a promise to support the latter’s bid for the political post. Also throwing his hat into the ring is Senator Alex Simon (Don Ameche) whose wife Cathy (Dickinson) once had romantic yearnings for Hoffman. The only one of the trio who had anything approaching a conscience is Hoffman and that is immediately tested when the Senator offers him a bribe to stand down from the race, which the Judge, after an appeal from Cathy, does not report to the authorities. There is another ploy open to Hoffman. Should he find reason to declare a mistrial, that would sabotage Callahan’s bid since he would not be riding high in the media after convicting a celebrity killer.

The picture jumps from intense politics, the wheeling-dealing and the wrapping up of votes, to a  trial in a packed courtroom very much in the Perry Mason vein with surprise witnesses, shocks, objections sustained or overruled, clever arguments, dueling attorneys, and last-minute evidence. A witness has Thornwall running away from the scene of the crime and when his wife is painted as a nymphomaniac that provides ample motive.  Further evidence pushes the defendant into a worse corner. But all the while over the trial hangs the stink of political machination.

There are another half-dozen brilliant twists not least of which is Judge Hoffman letting conscience go hang and embarking on a couple of dodgy endeavors himself including what amounts to sheer blackmail. The District Attorney, one of the sharpest tools in the box, reacts to every setback with a cunning that would have been criminal had it not been legal. Also hanging there is potential adultery between Cathy and the widowed Hoffman.

The writer in Huggins is a past master at shifting the cards in the deck and this has so many twists and turns it feels like a whole series of The Fugitive crammed into one episode. There is as much self-awareness of the underbelly of politics as in Advise and Consent (1962), as much deceit and corruption, as much principle disguised as honor. But the plot here is so tight, the characters dealing with twists and turns that the movie has no requirement for the depth of characterization that would have been brought to the picture by a Henry Fonda or Charles Laughton. Huggins proves you can have just as much fun without the big boys. None of the stars with the exception of Angie Dickinson made a dent on the Hollywood A-list but they are all perfectly acceptable, and once Huggins tightens the screws plot-wise the last thing on your mind is wishing for a better cast.