The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (Otto Preminger / U.S., 1955):

A low-angled shot of Gary Cooper against the Capitol Dome clinches this as Otto Premingerís reconsideration of Capra, just as David Nivenís double-takes made The Moon Is Blue a requiem for Lubitsch. The quandary is to examine a dedicated military man while extolling the need to violate orders, Premingerís long takes gradually match the rigidity of Cooperís Billy Mitchell with that of the U.S. War Department while the supporting characters bounce off both. With the threat of WWI over, the government is determined to keep the air force a gang of "silly kite-flyers" and saddles Brigadier General Mitchell with antiquated equipment, a dispirited crew and rigged demonstrations. Mitchell disobeys his superiorís commands, is reduced in rank and transferred away; he denounces military negligence and is tried for insubordination, itís all a plan to "get his day in court" ("I hope our Army is as invincible in the fields as it is in the offices"). This is where Preminger explicitly states his favorite theme -- the trial is held in an abandoned warehouse, away from public eyes and presided by Charles Bickford, with Ralph Bellamy and Fred Clark playing ping-pong with laws, doubts, and people. The "truth" scarcely solidifies, thereís just Bellamyís counsel manipulating a widow (Elizabeth Montgomery) into the witness stand and Rod Steigerís Methody prosecutor dislodging the malaria-cracked but still laconic Cooper (a clash of agendas, and a clash of performance styles). The only certainty that remains is the need to ask questions. A largely forgotten but key work, reflected laterally in Premingerís own oeuvre (Anatomy of a Murder and In Harmís Way in particular) and elsewhere (Kubrickís Paths of Glory, Rosiís Uomini Contro). With James Daly, Jack Lord, Darren McGavin, Peter Graves, and Robert F. Simon.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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