20 DECEMBER 1963, Page 16

Cardinal Sins

• The hat, In fact, is the excuse for all the rest of it: gazing glassily into the middle distance, in a way we have long been familiar with when flashback is about to be committed, the new cardinal remembers. He remembers for nearly three hours, of which perhaps two and a half are expendable. The remaining half-hour is made up of moments and performances—Raf Vallone's as the hero's Roman teacher who ends as a cardinal himself, shaven-headed, aged and saurian, fearfully clerical and unlike himself, but still warm and likeable; Tullio Carminati's as another cardinal, a deep, foxy one who fulfils all one's nastier notions about the curia in the bad old days; John Huston's as yet another cardinal, American this time, a 'character' and something of a ham, a man of enormous style with grimaces and grumps that occasionally make his unforgettably featured • face look almost like the late Laughton's occasional hor- rific glimpses of Bostonian Irish domesticity, cupidity, tactlessness, tastelessness and in- tolerance. But good moments don't add up to a good film, and the sheer well-intentioned silliness of the rest is hard to credit, let alone stomach.

Preminger seems' drawn to large religious themes he cannot adequately handle; but in this case it isn't so much the religion (which is taken pretty simply) as the psychology that has gone wrong. The hero is such a dull dog and played so dully by Tom Tryon that one just doesn't care what he's up to. Mr. Tryon has the physique of a Charlton Heston but not, alas, the princely air and features that can give, meaning to almost any nonsense. As an Irish curate come to call at teatime he looks suitable and adequate; but as an outsize cleric, an incisive intellectual, a man destined from the moment of his ordination for high office, he's pitiful. So that everything that happens to him seems pointless or ridiculous: whipped to a pulp by the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, falling in love during a sort of sabbatical year in Vienna, when he's having doubts over his vocation or perhaps (it isn't too clear) over his faith, tracking his erring sister from saloon to speakeasy and finally to death in childbed, or dancing in hired tails at a ball, he never for a moment raises a flicker of belief in his existence.

Nor do his surroundings, most of the time: in a film that aims at realism, the most elemen- tary rules of the realist game are forgotten. A taxi in a rough neighbourhood is so glitteringly new it's clearly driving round the studio for the first time; a prisoner of the Gestapo appears in a suit of the regulation stripes but shiningly- clean and creaseless, a bandbox slave's uniform;

the Catholic side of a street brawl involving a crowd of ape-like brown-shirted thugs suddenly turns out to be the Wiener Jeunesse Choir sing- ing Mozart's Alleluja (soloist and all) with what in the circumstances seems hilarious perfection; and, wildest fantasy of all, in 1938 or 1939, in fascist Italy on the eve of war, when democracy was the dirtiest word in the dictionary, our hero, on being told about his imminent hat, makes a rousing speech about the evils of totalitarianism

and the glories of democracy, America, and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the assembled Romans, who applaud. I've no objec- tion to mixing politics and religion, on screen or off, but you've got to make sense of one .or the other or if possible both. What The Cardinal really turns out to be is a piece of special plead- ing for the American way to heaven.