Friday 4 February 2022

Movie Review: The Best Man (1964)

A political drama, The Best Man infiltrates the back rooms for an unfiltered look at the machinations of high-stakes party politics.

In Los Angeles, a major political party convention is underway with state delegates from across the country gathering to select their presidential nominee. The successful candidate is expected to sweep into the White House at the next election. The perceived front-runner is cerebral former Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda), although he faces tough competition from fiery senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson).

Also at the convention with the potential to play kingmaker is former President Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy). Ahead of finalizing his endorsement, Hockstader meets separately with Russell then Cantwell. Both men have flaws: Russell may be indecisive at key moments and has a reputation as a womanizer. Cantwell is abrasive, obsessed with communists, and will do anything to win. With the race too close to call, both campaigns have the opportunity to resort to dirty tricks, although Russell is reluctant to compromise his principles.

An often rollicking deep dive into the world of bare-knuckle politics, The Best Man exposes hard truths. A busy Gore Vidal script (based on his play) and restless directing by Franklin J. Schaffner combine for a whirlwind tour of the ugly sausage-making factory, where lofty ideals are the first casualties in the battle for power. 

Of course this is a cinematic drama and some elements are stretched beyond credibility to make a point. The candidates are directly involved in sordid details, including the arsenal of toxic mud available to be hurled. They meet directly with gossip mongers and face off against each other in secret meetings to trade threats and insults. The climax finds both Russell and Cantwell invading the convention floor to personally engage in old-fashioned arm-twisting. It all makes for good if far-fetched fun.

Although Fonda and Robertson are equally committed to their characters, Vidal parks his loyalties early with Fonda's William Russell, robbing the drama of a battle-among-equals edge. Other candidates are also in the race, and could have been afforded more screen time. But the front-runner status does sharpen the narrative focus on Russell's suitability for the role of President, his wavering on whether or not to engage in character assassinations either exemplifying a moral and dignified stance, or underlining a lack of necessary spine. 

Stylistically, the film breaks well clear of its stage origins and actively searches for visual variety. Schaffner moves his cameras briskly from the circus atmosphere of the convention floor to the intimacy of hotel suites and tense meetings convened on the neutral turf of basements and nondescript utility rooms.

In addition to Hockstader wielding his authority, the supporting cast features two campaign managers (Kevin McCarthy and Gene Raymond) entrusted with keeping their candidates on-track, as well as the two spouses. Alice Russell (Margaret Leighton) is willing to patch-up her marriage for a shot at the First Lady title, while Mabel Cantwell (Edie Adams) matches her husband's drive and determination but in better clothes. Ann Sothern buzzes around everyone as the self-appointed voice of all women voters.

The Best Man asks the right questions about the qualities of leadership, and despite a cacophonous process, commendably navigates towards surprisingly astute answers.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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