Monday, November 07, 2005

Picked Flick #79: Executive Suite

Among the great, semi-forgotten American films of the 1950s is Robert Wise's Executive Suite, my favorite among his many directorial outings and still an incisive, attentive character drama about the high, hallowed halls of corporate intrigue. "Because it is high in the sky," an anonymous narrator intones over the opening shots of then-modern skyscrapers, "you may think those who work there are somehow above the tensions and temptations of those who work on the lower floors. This is to say, it isn't so." And how. The names of the film's dynamite lead cast are heralded onto the screen by the low chimes of a public clock, and with a lineup this sterling—William Holden, Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters, a surprisingly tough and never-better June Allyson—the gesture hardly feels grandiose. As the movie begins, it demonstrates an affinity for formal stunts like the stark absence of any musical score and the long, tracking POV sequence shot in which the unseen Avery Bullard, president and redeemer of the Treadway Furniture Company, concludes a business meeting in Calhern's office, sends a telegram to his home office, and dies of a sudden stroke on the sidewalk while hailing a cab. From this point forward, however, the movie coils its springs and employs much more modest means in achieving its magnificence: the actors, equipped with great roles and fellows and a drastically under-explored American theme, light into their parts with heroic, muscular conviction. Ingeniously plotted, the film delays each character's awareness of Bullard's death in clever ways, digging into their reactions in some cases—Pidgeon's sorrow, Calhern's duplicity—and cleverly excising these reactions in others, so that we are all the more surprised by their battle strategies for filling the vacuum at the top of the ladder.

Wise, famously, was an editor before he was a director, and as with all of his films, the cutting expertly serves the tone and theme of the film, hastening the ends of key scenes by beats and half-beats, just enough to aggravate the tension. In concert with Ernest Lehman's typically shrewd script, Wise also makes time for unexpected accents and cul-de-sacs in the narrative. When Holden's earnest factory supervisor, now a coalition candidate to take over the company, is called away from a backyard game of catch to keep up with the latest machinations, wife Allyson dons his mitt and takes their son back out to the yard. Throwing and catching some mean fastballs in deep, unedited shots, Allyson keeps up a smart dialogue scene at the same time, which not only constitutes a small and unexpected moment but prudently keeps us guessing about what Holden and his cronies are up to. We know the basic idea; he's collaborating with Calhern, at least, to ensure that crafty, officious fussbudget March doesn't become the top banana, even if March himself capably and unshowily takes top honors in a cast of expert rivals. His prime competition, if we allow the film to teach us that everything is a competition, comes from the unexpected quarter of Nina Foch, Gene Kelly's haughty patron in An American in Paris. Cast here as the late CEO's loyal, proficient, and keenly alert secretary, Foch has one of those roles like Kelly MacDonald's in Gosford Park, watchfully slinking among more obviously dramatic characters, but all the while managing the tough double-trick of clearly delineating a specific character while also serving as the audience's general window into what's happening.

The climax of Executive Suite's script preserves all the slippery power and impressive dexterity of the earlier chapters, and continues to stoke our sense that all of the characters must be closely watched. The closing soliloquy is perhaps the one truly predictable element of the film, but its lucid optimism and core values are still quite rousing. Its grasp of corporate psychology, much less human psychology, seem much richer than in Billy Wilder's glib and opportunistic The Apartment, and the tough, simple confidence of its formal choices register much better with me than the more elaborate noir stylistics of Alexander Mackendrick's celebrated Sweet Smell of Success, which Lehman helped to write. Too, it's one of those movies that you're most likely to see if you pop onto cable TV and find that it happens to be playing, so for most of us, the film is brightly tinged with a genuine sense of discovery. 'Tis pity, though, that this is so.Why we hardly recognize a film this relevant and top-drawer, replete with such famous names ticking off some of their best work, is beyond me, but unlike capitalist profiteering and white-collar backstabbing, it's an easy enough habit to kick. Rent it. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger tim r said...

Hurrah! It's turning up on TCM here in a week's time, so I finally get to see it. (Totally unavailable here on any other medium.) Can't wait!

2:19 AM, November 08, 2005  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

it is really great. I had wanted to see it for some time and finally managed. It's one of those amazing ensemble pieces where everyone does great work instead of one of those where there are hit and miss performances.

great stuff. I love Robert Wise. Not perhaps a popular choice for cineaste lovin' but I love him all the same.

6:24 AM, November 08, 2005  

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