Executive Suite (1954): 4/5

“It is always up there, close to the clouds, on the topmost floors of the sky-reaching towers of big business. And because it is high in the sky, you may think that those who work there are somehow above and beyond the tensions and temptations of the lower floors. This is to say that it isn’t so,” proclaims famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

And then a bell tolls as the names of the major players zoom onto the screen.

This is the unconventional opening to Executive Suite, which is followed up by an even more interesting scene filmed in first-person perspective. The viewer looks through the eyes of a man as he sends a telegram and then suddenly collapses on the sidewalk.

It just so happens that this is no ordinary fellow. He’s the president of a large manufacturing firm, and he dies after his collapse in the street.

Shifting into the drama genre’s traditional fly-on-the-wall perspective, the film then turns away from the deceased and onto those he left behind.

The matter of who will take over the company is up in the air. The company has five vice presidents of equal ranking. They must battle it out in, as the title suggests, an executive boardroom.

Executive Suite is a very frank and realistic film. It doesn’t sugar coat the business world. Things get rough and conflict ensues when a business is forced to change hands, and that’s exactly what happens here.

However, the viewer isn’t thrown directly into the conflict. The script takes the time to introduce each VP and give a bit of perspective into their lives outside of the company. It then moves into the company vote itself, which is a very high-tension meeting between the VPs – somewhat of an abbreviated boardroom version of the court classic 12 Angry Men.

Frederic March gives a stand-out performance as the one VP who doesn’t seem to have a life outside of the company. March’s character of Shaw is a pushy, sweaty man  who desperately wants control, not only of the company but of every aspect of his life.

Also delivering a great performance is June Allyson, who gets a chance to show the dramatic chops that she isn’t often associated with. It’s a different character for her, and she dishes out a much more effective performance than usual.

My only complaint about the film comes with Barbara Stanwyck. Before you start thinking I’ve lost my mind, as I’m usually raving about her, let me explain: She doesn’t have enough screen time! Not only is Stanwyck’s performance  phenomenal as usual, but her character is very interesting and, in her little screen time, has some of the film’s best dialogue. I would have loved to see more of her character.

The artsy and unusual beginning grabs the viewer immediately, but it’s the still-relevant big business subject matter and the solid cast that keeps Executive Suite from losing the audience.