A timeless sense of honor girds Otto Preminger’s sweeping study of the deviousness of party politics and congressional treachery, and how personal nobility can transcend it. A worthy film but not a great one, it tugs at the Red Baiting fever that dominated the McCarthy period only to introduce a compelling (if implausible) curveball that suddenly turns a political story line personal.
An ailing president (Franchot Tone) names “egghead” academic Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as secretary of state, hoping the appointment will burnish his legacy. The controversial choice offends senior South Carolina Senator Seabright “Ceeb” Cooley (Charles Laughton), who has a grudge against Leffingwell (“I abominate this man…”) and goes full bore against the nomination. Even-tempered House Majority Leader Robert “Bob” Munson (Walter Pidgeon) picks young and dynamic Utah Senator Brigham “Brig” Anderson (Don Murray) to chair subcommittee confirmation hearings, hoping to limit the party infighting.
But Leffingwell, provoked by Ceeb’s machinations, lies about a brief college flirtation with the Communist Party. The result produces diabolical dirty work and even blackmail. But who’s behind it? The answer matters less than the polite but arsenic-laced duel between Laughton’s memorable Ceeb and Pidgeon’s stalwart Bob Munson, both veteran Washington operators who live for gamesmanship. The “Commie” skeletons outed from Leffingwell’s closet — a Ceeb contrivance — fail to account for the lengths that pro-Leffingwell Senator Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard) will go to ensure his way.
Though a pro-system film, Preminger delights in heavy-handed tactics to illustrate how political connivance and personal integrity coexist as two sides of Washington’s paradox-ridden coin.
Though Fonda’s Leffingwell is a bit player, a waste, and the narrative often choppy, Laughton (in his final performance), Pidgeon, and location shooting on Capitol Hill mostly make up for the shortfalls. How much political security and celebrity have changed in the intervening years shows stunningly when Brig and the vice president meet and chat aboard a New York-Washington commercial flight. At the time, the U.S. vice president traveled as any other citizen. Based on Allen Drury’s 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning thriller.