Executive Suite is a story about business; it’s intricacies and the soul-sucking potential it has. That’s all well and good, but it creates a rather pedantic narrative where the audience is blatantly able to figure out the ending and understand that business is EVIL. Thankfully, the cast of A-list stars mask the film’s deficiencies with various subplots that are far more appealing than the overall storyline.
When Avery Bullard, the head of the Tredway Corporation, dies, it becomes a free-for-all as the various Vice Presidents scramble to ascertain their claims to the top position.
Executive Suite is an ensemble character study about the machinations and affairs of a corporation. The script doesn’t enter into soap-opera, in spite of a plotline where a character is carrying on an affair with his secretary (played by Shelley Winters in a subdued and vulnerable role). As the camera goes from room-to-room the audience understands the close-knit community within the Tredway Corporation, and how incongruous said closeness is with their private lives. Everyone has their own desires to be Vice President, except for the Average Joe, played by William Holden, who struggles to decide between his true place with his family or his career. Holden is perfect as the everyman, regardless of how drop-dead gorgeous he is, and it’s apparent that his gumption and desire to return to standard American values is what will allow him to win the day. If you have knowledge of plot conventions, you should realize who will win the Vice Presidency.
Since the trajectory of the narrative is easily sussed out, that makes the actors’ job a lot harder. Really, there’s nothing particularly thrilling about the plot. Its ominous voice-over opening sets up a dark corporate world, and the death of Avery Bullard (told via subjective camera, so the audience sees through the eyes of a dead man) emphasize that corporations equal death. It becomes an ironic bit of dialogue that immediately following Bullard’s death, two of his cronies discuss how Bullard is a young CEO and that past owners worked themselves to death. There’s a bit of corporate Hitchcock throughout the movie, although it lacks the tightly wound character development and intrigue. The set-up may involve who will succeed Bullard, but the actual “meeting” that everyone wants to avoid – with shades of 12 Angry Men – is easily circumvented and forgotten. The crux of the narrative becomes a series of character issues withe alliances made. The stand-out is Fredric March as the slimey Shaw who pulls out as a frontrunner for the Vice Presidency. He’s the perfect example of a corporate head who demands success, no matter what; even if it comes at the expense of the downtrodden Alderson (Walter Pidgeon). Pidgeon turns in a surprisingly award-worthy performance. (The only acting nomination went to Nina Foch who plays all-knowing secretary, Erica.) Alderson has cared for the company through Bullard’s disinterest, and recognition eludes him; he’s a “number two man. Nothing more, nothing less.” I was rooting for Pidgeon throughout, and while Holden’s character is a good guy, Alderson deserved to become the number-one man.
And let’s not forget Barbara Stanwyck, because the script doesn’t seem particularly interested in her! She plays Julia Tredway, lover of the late Avery Bullard and daughter of the Tredway namesake. In all honesty, this film could have sailed on the characters played by her, Holden, and Pidgeon; instead we get a slew of cliché characters that don’t offer up much of interest. Stanwyck’s natural dominance is smothered in favor of a lovesick woman who sits around with arched eyebrows. She offers up a handful of lines and blends into the background, a far cry from the Stanwyck persona we know and love; look at the box cover which has Holden and Stanwyck, implying they’re the leads when they’re one of several (and Stanwyck has the least amount of screentime). It leads to my ultimate problem with Executive Suite: in spite of the flawless acting and the actors assembled, the story doesn’t whet your appetite. The movie is the equivalent of going to a five-star restaurant, with all your favorite foods, and finding there’s nothing special about any of it. The film isn’t terrible, just mediocre and unmemorable; I doubt any of the actors would consider this their highlight.
In terms of the DVD presentation, I was surprised that this was enhanced more than past Warner Archive films. The menu has sounds – the sounds of a bustling metropolis – different from the regular static menus; there’s also DVD commentary with acclaimed director Oliver Stone which won’t blow your socks off but is worth a listen. There’s also a Pete Smith comedy short and a Tex Avery cartoon, both of which have diminishing replay value but are fun tidbits of what was popular around the time period. Overall, Executive Suite is worth a look if you’re a fan of the actors or director Robert Wise.
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