#80: Executive Suite
(USA, 1954; dir. Robert Wise; cin. George J. Folsey)
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 sterlingWilliam Holden, Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter
Pidgeon, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters, a surprisingly tough and never-better June Allysonthe
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
casesPidgeon's sorrow, Calhern's duplicityand 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.