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In the opening frames of The Cardinal, with the sound of a bell ringing over a Roman square on the soundtrack, a black-robed, stone-faced clergyman exits a church and walks through a maze of cloisters, colonnades, and crumbling architecture. The title sequence is composed entirely of live-action images (with the exception of the characteristically Bass-ian typeface), but like Bass’ most richly animated title sequences, it functions to suggest the style and course of the film in graphical terms.
The cardinal strides into and out of an elaborate series of frames – up staircases and across ornate piazzas – in a manner that prefigures the character’s professional course from a small Boston parish to the Vatican. Through a series of dissolves, the juxtaposition of staircases and Doric columns creates a tense network of competing horizontal, vertical, diagonal lines. This geometrical clash in the credit sequence is evocative of the knotty moral dilemmas that the protagonist will face in the rest of the film.
Indeed, Preminger’s film is very much a stroll through the problems of being a Catholic. Like the credits, the film itself is rather confusing and all over the place. While the film is another of the director’s controversial message-films, Preminger resists the temptation to being wholly scathing (as in similar of his films, he never quite shows his hand). Nevertheless it exploits every available moral issue to hand: interfaith romance, abortion, Southern cross-burning, Nazis, etc. But as always in Preminger’s work, the film is spared by the surprising richness of the characters (headed by empty-slate Tom Tryon), which includes John Huston, Ossie Davis, Romy Schneider, and Burgess Meredith.