Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.
Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).
It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one, stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.
Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.
Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.
Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.
The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.
Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.
They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.
J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).
The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.
Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.
Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.
It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.
In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.
It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.
Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.
He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.