Executive Suite (1954)

Directed by Robert Wise

“Behind the lighted tower windows the conflict of love and power is reckless and daring!”

I love some of those lines that explode onto the screen in trailers. Lines like, “The greatest movie ever made! Explodes with passion and secret love!” They rarely have a connection to the actual movie, but it’s fun seeing them.

Similarly, the lines on old movie posters, like the one above for Executive Suite about “behind the lighted tower windows” are amusing to read.

In this case, it does have a connection of sorts to the actual movie, which is about the struggle for power in the world of business.

This movie has almost an embarrassment of riches – director Robert Wise and an amazing ten stars that would make any movie lover stop and look: William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, June Allyson, Frederic March, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger and Nina Foch.

It may be a little too rich, in some ways. The movie that results is a triple as opposed to a home run. But it keeps your attention from start to finish.

Based on a novel by Cameron Hawley, it was turned into a film script by Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, North by Northwest) and he did a wonderful job.

Given the ensemble nature of the movie and the number of characters involved, he gives each one pretty definite characteristics to fit their role in the movie’s progression, so I don’t imagine there was great depth to those characters on paper.

However, given the acting abilities of the actors involved and the way the movie briskly moves as it evolves, it all works and works well.

The result is a captivating look at boardroom shenanigans as a company is thrown into chaos when its president unexpectedly dies. Who will fill his shoes?

The angling for the top job begins immediately, with one director going so far as to try to capitalize on the uncertainty by selling his shares short before the news of the death goes public. He plans to buy them back when the news gets out and the price drops.

Executive Suite is at heart a melodrama, but not of the love and sex variety. While those elements are there it’s not to a great degree. The melodrama is really in the power battle. But the movies manages to never be too much of a melodrama as to have you roll your eyes. Part of this is due to the performances.

Each star has his or her moment and they make the most of it. One exception may be Barbara Stanwyck, though that has little to do with her performance. Her character is weak and neurotic and that is what Stanwyck plays.

If any of the stars can lay claim to their being “the star,” it would be William Holden as McDonald Walling, a young vice president who is green, idealistic and uninterested in the presidency until he sees Frederic March as Loren Shaw scheming for the job. Shaw is strictly a numbers man and, to Walling, a threat for that reason.

As good as Holden is in the movie, and as inspiring as his final speech is, he more or less plays his usual William Holden character.

The performances that really stand out for me are those of Frederic March, Louis Calhern and Paul Douglas. They really do wonders in this movie, especially Calhern.

Also, as low key as her character is and seemingly in the background to everything, Nina Foch stands out as Erica Martin, the executive assistant.

One last thing … There is yet one more character in the movie, one we never see: Avery Bullard, President of the Tredway Corporation. He is the man who dies. The movie opens from his point of view; we never see him. Throughout the movie, he is the man behind everything, even though he is dead. Almost everything that happens is in reference to him. The characters in the movie are principally defined by their relationships with Bullard.

Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman manage this aspect of the movie very deftly.

Melodrama or not, this is a fine movie, one of the few films that look at life in corporations (and perhaps one of the first) and it holds you throughout.

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