Wednesday, June 07, 2006


A big Hollywood epic which always looks wonderful but occasionally gets bogged down by overstuffed narrative and underwritten characters. Tom Tryon plays the title character; the film opens and closes with a middle-aged Tryon being made Cardinal in Rome just before the outbreak of WWII, with the rest of the movie consisting of chronologically-ordered flashbacks through his life. We see him in his first parish in his hometown of Boston until his cardinal (John Huston), thinking that Tryon is too ambitious, reassigns him to a rural town to work under ailing pastor Burgess Meredith. After proving his mettle, Tryon is hired as a secretary by Huston and eventually the two go to Rome where Huston wrangles a Vatican appointment for Tryon. However, Tryon is undergoing a crisis of faith and decides instead to take a leave of absence. After the intermission, we catch up with him as a teacher in Vienna who is briefly tempted by Romy Schneider, but instead his priestly calling is reinforced. He gets a Vatican job, travels back to the U.S. to help a black pastor (Ossie Davis) fight the Ku Klux Klan, then upon his return to Vienna, he tries to motivate the local cardinal (Josef Meinrad) to stand up against the Nazis. The episodic nature of the story isn't automatically a bad thing, but the real problem is that the episodes are underdeveloped and we rarely see evidence of how Tryon learns his various lessons. The midpoint crisis is especially murky, as is its resolution. His earliest and most concrete crisis, and the one that sticks with him the longest, involves his sister (Carol Lynley) who wants to marry her Jewish boyfriend (John Saxon). At first, Saxon agrees to convert to Catholicism, but then backs out. Lynley confesses (literally, in the confessional) to Tryon that she's slept with her boyfriend and after Tryon refuses to give her the advice she wants to hear, Saxon goes to war and Lynley winds up doing an vaudeville tango act with a slimy guy who gets her pregnant and offers to pay for an abortion. She chooses to have the child, but complications lead to her doctor suggesting she have a partial-birth abortion to save her own life. Tryon won't give his permission for the procedure, so Lynley dies (though the baby grows up to be raised by her parents--and when we see her briefly as a grown-up, she's played by Lynley). This becomes a sore point for Tryon, who feels responsible for her death, and this seems to be the reason for his crisis of faith, but it's never that clear.

Tryon's performance is often knocked as too wooden, but I think the problem is more in the writing. Like Tyrone Power in THE RAZOR'S EDGE, Tryon is mostly a passive center in the whirlwind of personal events and history surrounding him. Though he's on screen almost constantly, we never really feel like we know him. We also rarely see him use his priestly skills, so the reasons for his rapid rise through the church hierarchy are beyond us. Meredith gets praise from the critics, but he has very little to do but lie in bed and die--for a while, I thought Tryon might borrow a trick from Bing Crosby in GOING MY WAY and cure Burgess with a glass of whiskey and an Irish lullaby. Supporting standouts include Murray Hamilton as a Klan member who has a change of heart, Raf Vallone as a Vatican good guy, Cecil Kellaway as Tryon's first monsignor, and Maggie McNamera and Bill Hayes as Tryon's other siblings. Poor Robert Morse has a ridiculous vaudeville number thrown in for no clear purpose. The movie is beautifully shot by Leon Shamroy and the location settings are used effectively. The last half of the movie, particularly the Nazi segment, does have some power and momentum, but at three hours, it's not a movie for an impatient audience. [DVD]

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