Following Ernst Lubitsch and Vincente Minnelli, Otto Preminger will be celebrated with a complete retrospective of his films during the 65th edition of the Festival del film Locarno, August 1– 11, 2012.
Otto Preminger was a master of Hollywood cinema who, like Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, came from Europe, and whose work, like theirs, demands and rewards repeated viewings – or, for some, offers a re-discovery. For Preminger is both a major and popular auteur (a number of his films were commercial hits on their release, and remain timeless classics) and a filmmaker for the “happy few”, a quintessential auteur for cinéphiles, for whom mention of his films – or rather, more or less distant, more or less accurate, memories of them – prompts whispered conversations between screenings at cinémathèques all over the world. Some of the thirty-eight films directed Otto Preminger (1905-1986) have acquired immortal fame: with Laura first in line, but more due to the mythology surrounding film noir and the unforgettable presence of Gene Tierney than for its director’s imprint; Carmen Jones (long unavailable in France due to a stupid lawsuit brought by Bizet’s descendants, but screening at the Festival del film Locarno, after the opening of the Cannes film festival the same year); Anatomy of a Murder (for the brilliant James Stewart); The Man with the Golden Arm (for Frank Sinatra in his best role ever, and for the Duke Ellington music)… These well-known titles, major successes in American film history, all bear the imprint and personality of a filmmaker who inspired widespread admiration, for sometimes rather contradictory reasons, i.e. he was as praised in “Cahiers du cinéma” (Rivette and Godard, then Biette and Daney) as he was by the “mac-mahoniens”, the cinéphile group involved in the magazine “Présence du cinéma” and the its leading lights, Jacques Lourcelles and Michel Mourlet, who included him in their choice of « four aces » alongside Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang and Joseph Losey. This was before Preminger sank into relative obscurity and critical indifference, which can be explained by the problematic nature of his late career.
For although Laura has almost never disappeared from cinema screens since its release, it had become difficult – before the advent of DVDs and cable TV channels – to see or see again, and especially on the big screen, such masterpieces as Saint Joan, Advise and Consent and The Cardinal or simply to get to watch Preminger’s last film, The Human Factor (1979).
What does Preminger symbolise today? In an age of triumphant auteurism and flamboyant “stylistics”, his films represent the height of classicism, and are built upon an art of balance, a brilliant gift for composition and narration that encompasses individual destinies and History with a capital H, violence and restraint, cold intelligence and emotion, lofty scepticism and humanism.
But the art of Preminger is above all an art of invisibility, which doubtless impeded his recognition as an auteur. Preminger is undeniably the filmmaker who pushed Bazin’s notion of “montage interdit” (montage forbidden) to its furthest degree of perfection, by creating films not composed solely of single takes, like Hitchcock’s Rope, but providing the illusion of continuity through a flow and harmony within each shot and sequence. Preminger is the classical filmmaker par excellence, because his art disdains showy experimentation (which was not always the case with Hitchcock – e.g. Vertigo), and uses a mastery of cinematic language to serve truth, realism and dramaturgy. A film like Exodus (undoubtedly the finest and most representative of Preminger’s 1960s films) thus flows like a long, majestic river, espousing the film’s take on the sweep of History which embraces both the large scale and the individual destiny
The filmmaker who knew too much
Otto Preminger was born in Austro-Hungarian Wiznitz in 1905. He learned directing in Vienna, through working with Max Reinhardt, before exiling himself to the USA in 1934. Initially he worked in the theatre in New York, then in film in Hollywood.
What is puzzling is the variety of subjects and genres Preminger dealt with, the – apparent – heterogeneity – of a body of work that falls into several distinct periods. Preminger made five films before Laura, the first in his native Austria (Die Grosse Liebe), the others as B movies for Fox, all of which the filmmaker disowned; then that inaugural masterpiece Laura (1944).
For Laura is a mythical film if ever there was one. Its genesis was stormy, and the final film was the fruit of a stormy relationship (following a row between Otto Preminger and Daryl Zanuck, the film was in fact begun by another director (Rouben Mamoulian) before Preminger could finally take control of the film and finish the project that he himself had initiated). The magnificent result signalled the true start of Preminger’s career. This detective story about the attempted murder of a brilliant young publicist is both an absolute classic of film noir and the inaugural masterpiece in a series of psychological studies centred around a fascinating female character.
Otto Preminger’s film noirs doubtless deserve a niche of their own, for they never completely obey the genre conventions – symptomatic of the filmmaker’s independence, his artistic vision and his legendary battles with Zanuck. Starting with Laura (1944), that first masterpiece at Fox, Preminger made a series of psychological studies remarkable for their coherence and novel-like density, and which often took the form of film noir. Fallen Angel recounts the moral peregrinations of a conman transformed by love, while Whirlpool is a dark, mysterious story about hypnosis and manipulation, whose dreamlike approach is in sharp contrast to the realism of the film noirs produced at Fox. With every new film, Preminger perfected his mise en scène, using very long takes, skilful crane movements and virtuoso direction of actors (and even more so of actresses).
In 1950, Preminger made the wonderful Where the Sidewalk Ends. Mark Dixon, a cop haunted by the memory of his petty criminal father, accidentally kills a suspect in a fit of rage. He disguises the accident as a settling of scores and tries to get a gang leader convicted for the crime. Unfortunately, both he and a taxi driver – also accidentally implicated as a suspect in the same murder – then fall in love with the daughter of Dixon’s victim.
Although less well known than Laura, this film noir, which re-unites Dana Andrews with Gene Tierney, is however one of Otto Preminger’s masterpieces. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, the emphasis is on male neurosis, the hero’s moral dilemma and his reliance on violence. The title indicates the fine line between Good and Evil. While Preminger is mainly known for his portraits of women and his talent at directing actresses, here the filmmaker offers Dana Andrews, an actor with an anxious, tense performance style, a complex role in which he can express his tormented and somnambulistic personality.
The third phase of Preminger’s career, the most unusual, was marked by independence and great maturity. In 1953, tired of hassles with the censors and fights with the studio ‘decision-makers’, Preminger decided to become his own producer, and thus exert complete total control over his films, from choice of subject to the marketing campaign that accompanied their distribution, thus opening up the way for Billy Wilder, Robert Aldrich and Stanley Kubrick.
An unprecedented contract with United Artists was thus to guarantee Preminger total autonomy as to the content of his films, and the right to final cut. After the era of stars and that of producers, Preminger was thus to promote the image of the director, an authoritarian perfectionist, as the true auteur of the film, indeed its main star. With his bald head, formidable silhouette, Prussian distinction and reputation as a dictator on set, this Austrian Jew was regularly called upon to play spies and Nazi officers. His most famous role remains that of von Scherbach in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, but he also played Mister Freeze in the TV series “Batman”, until another famous Austrian, Arnold Schwarzenegger, took over the role on the big screen in 1997.
Preminger was to symbolically inaugurate this period of freedom and creativity, unprecedented in the history of Hollywood, with The Moon is Blue (1953), a comedy whose content, still scandalous at the time, (a flirtation between an ageing seducer and a young virgin) and especially the explicit dialogue would never have got through the studios’ own self-censorship, as they had little stomach for a boycott by the decency and morals brigade. Contrary-wise, Preminger was quick to realise the free publicity a good scandal, well orchestrated, could generate. The Moon is Blue, a film with a relatively low budget but adapted from a play that had already performed well on Broadway, would thus benefit from the Catholic League of Decency’s fulminations – due to the use of the word « virgin »! – and the film did well at the box-office without Preminger having to make a single cut or concession. The Moon is Blue recounts how an architect tries to seduce, over the course of a single evening, a spirited young woman he meets on the viewing platform of the Empire State Building. His attempts are frustrated by both his ex-fiancée, and the latter’s father, an incorrigible womaniser who ends up proposing marriage to the young woman. This first film following Preminger’s emancipation is not one of the director’s major works. The film is doubtless overly dependent on its theatrical source, which was somewhat dated (people were no longer so shocked by stories about professional virgins) and Preminger’s mise en scène, more functional than usual, did not try to transcend the limitations of a play that is entertaining but too lightweight.
The main problem resides in the fact that although several of his masterpieces are drenched in irony, Preminger never displayed a talent for pure comedy, despite having, in 1948, completed the last film of Ernst Lubitsch, who died at the start of shooting, That Lady in Ermine (subsequently screened in competition at the Festival del film Locarno). But Preminger does not have the comic genius of a Billy Wilder, of whom the film often reminds us. Although William Holden is excellent, as is Maggie MacNamara, a discovery of the director’s, the “outrageous” role played by David Niven is fairly uninteresting, and has aged particularly badly.
The actor was later to redeem himself in one of the best roles of his career, working once again with Preminger, on Bonjour tristesse in 1957.
Fortunately, Preminger’s subsequent films are of another calibre altogether. An impressive list of pure or near enough masterpieces, from 1954 to 1962: River of No Return, Carmen Jones, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, The Man with the Golden Arm, Saint Joan, Bonjour tristesse, Porgy and Bess, Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent.
River of No Return (1954) is all too often forgotten in accounts of Marilyn Monroe’s career. Yet it allowed her, far better than elsewhere, to demonstrate her talent and show how moving, and what a good actress, she could be, far removed from the clichéd pneumatic dumb blonde or the wounded animal that directors less talented and less scrupulous than Preminger would exploit her as. It was Otto Preminger’s only western and his first film in Cinemascope colour, and proved to be as inspired by Canada’s wide-open spaces and this new format as he was by black and white and studio filming for the psychological dramas. This splendid action film is above all the story of a moral journey in which a man with a chequered past (Robert Mitchum) must regain the admiration of his young son, and falls in love with a warm-hearted whore. Preminger’s long takes and the subtle camera moves, Mitchum and Monroe’s performances, along with the intelligence and serenity that emanate from River of No Return make it a classic Western.
However undervalued and unappreciated, Saint Joan (1957) is one of Otto Preminger’s most sublime films, in which the director confirms his brilliance as a director of young actresses and master of female psychology, alongside his flair for intelligent literary adaptation. His elegant mise en scène, characterised by long takes, solves the problems of moving from stage to screen with supreme assurance. Saint Joan is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, adapted for the screen by the novelist Graham Greene and Otto Preminger. The two men modified the construction of the original, deciding to tell Joan of Arc’s life through a series of flashbacks (the film opens with an ageing King Charles VII visited by Joan’s ghost during the night), but retained all the spirit and beauty of the text. Of all the film adaptations of Joan’s story (and we know how many there are), this is the least religious. The combined scepticism and irony of Shaw and Preminger offers a human depiction of the Virgin of Orléans, full of sympathy and melancholy. Obviously the film would not be the same without Jean Seberg, a seventeen year old girl from the Mid- West, with no stage or screen experience whatsoever, chosen from several thousand candidates auditioned all over the world. Jean Seberg proved to be a brilliant actress. Preminger confirmed his stellar reputation as a great director of actresses, having already obtained wonders (sometimes in painful ways) from Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell and Jean Simmons. Jean Seberg-Joan was thus to become a splendid Preminger-style heroine, intelligent but torn apart by her conflicting aspirations, roiling with fever and passion beneath that angelic appearance. Although it is tempting to think only of Jean Seberg’s unforgettable performance in association with Saint Joan, it would however be an injustice towards her fellow actors, who were as experienced as Seberg was not. Richard Widmark delivers one of his most original performances as the Dauphin, a far cry from the hardboiled types or neurotic gangsters that had established his reputation in Hollywood. The rest of the cast were excellent actors from the British stage and screen, led by the Shakespearian John Gielgud. Saint Joan was a bruising failure on its release, and Jean Seberg’s performance was deemed completely bogus, doubtless because it was ahead of its time. The criticisms of Jean Seberg were particularly cruel and unfair. Undaunted, Preminger entrusted his protégée with the lead role in his next film, an adaptation of the Françoise Sagan novel, Bonjour tristesse: another masterpiece, misunderstood on its release, and which failed to enjoy the success that had been hoped for. Jean Seberg turned to France and featured in the first film by a young Cahiers du cinéma critic and great admirer of Preminger: Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle. Far removed from Hollywood, it was this film that was to make Jean Seberg a star and an enduring modern icon the world over.
Preminger, despite his satisfaction with his work on the film, was quite hard on himself about Saint Joan. In his autobiography, he maintained: “I had to recognise that I was solely responsible for its failure, for having misinterpreted the George Bernard Shaw play, by surrounding the dramatisation of the legend of Joan of Arc with religious passion. It was basically a highly intellectual reflection on the part religion played in the history of mankind.”
Too subtle, but above all too intimist to reach a wider audience, Saint Joan may occupy the position of the rejected, outcast child in the Preminger filmography, but is also a favourite among his real admirers, as Jacques Lourcelles wrote in his “Dictionnaire du cinéma – les films”.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is both one of Otto Preminger’s finest films and one of the finest to emerge from classic Hollywood cinema in its last heyday. This courtroom masterpiece offered James Stewart one of his greatest roles. Anatomy of a Murder deconstructs the judicial machinery and is the portrait a lawyer who employs all his intelligence and professionalism to serve a cause that does not deserve them. Here Preminger makes virtuosity, his own concern as a filmmaker, the very subject of his film, alongside a critique of it.
Advise and Consent (1962) may be considered Preminger’s final absolute masterpiece, in which formal perfection and intelligent story make for an ideal combination. Advise and Consent is Preminger’s second ensemble film, after Exodus. Once again, the multiplicity of characters, opinions and points of view is intended to recreate a reality examined in all its entirety and complexity. The film opens with the American President’s announcement of his nomination of a new Secretary of State. Before being voted on by the Senate, this choice must be examined by a commission of enquiry that soon reveals the communist sympathies the candidate held as a youth. The film offers a chronicle of the events that take place over the few days between the start of the enquiry and the Senate vote. Highly informative and particularly instructive as to the functioning of political institutions in the USA, with all the suspense of a thriller, Advise and Consent is constructed via a succession of oratorical confrontations between two or several characters, and reveals a network of wheeling and dealing, tactics, tricks, and even blackmail (a senator, threatened with revelation of a homosexual episode in his past, commits suicide). Although he was a staunch and active democrat, Preminger was not making a political or militant film, but rather a moral film. The filmmaker’s scepticism and lucidity are displayed here at their best. Beyond the moral debates the film raises (should one judge a politician on his past, his integrity or on his abilities?), Advise and Consent records the decadence of democracy at the very heart of American political life (the Senate), beset on the one hand by the Fascist temptation, eroded by stagnation on the other. The back corridors of power and the political arena end up, and the senatorial rituals become a travesty, deflected from their original initial meaning and vocation. The film is equally remarkable for the uniformly high standard of its performances, Henry Fonda, in a brief role, is extraordinary, but it is Charles Laughton who steals the honours, as an elderly southern Senator, absolutely brilliant in what remains his best – and final – screen appearance.
A year after the wonderful Advise and Consent, about the American Senate, Preminger desired to repeat the success of Exodus, a film about the state of Israel, and made a new epic that is both monumental and intimist, this time about the workings of the Catholic Church, with the avowed intention of portraying it as a political organisation and criticising its compliance during Hitler’s annexation of Austria. The Cardinal is told in flashback. During his ordination ceremony as a cardinal in 1939 in Rome, the Bostonian Stephen Fermoyle recalls the main events of his life. A life which might appear edifying, (the young priest discovers humility in a remote backwater in Canada, fights racism in Georgia, becomes a skilled diplomat at the Vatican and tries to convince the bishop of Vienna of the dangers of Nazism) were it not for all the private tragedies caused by the strictness of his faith or his careerist ambition.
When he wasn’t filming opera or theatre adaptations, Preminger liked to deal with major social and historical issues through adaptations of current best-sellers. A commercial strategy that enabled him to deal with sensitive topics, (such as, here, what goes on behind the scenes in the Church), in long films with quite austere subjects, despite the opulence of the means employed, and which often proved lucrative (even though The Cardinal was something of a failure on its release and remains undervalued and misunderstood). In effect, Preminger and his screenwriters managed to transcend fairly mediocre, melodramatic or worthy literary sources, (such as might be the case with Henry Morton Robinson’s novel) to elevate a mega-production to the rank of classic film. Thus The Cardinal is the film of a moralist masquerading as a conventional entertainment. Admirably directed with mordant intelligence, The Cardinal deconstructs the ambiguities of power and faith one by one, even if the Viennese episode, on the Vatican’s anti-Nazi intervention, is shot through with a kind of democratic idealism that Preminger was the first to acknowledge.
Anatomy of a master
We have seen that in the 50s the filmmaker, in an on-going series of masterpieces, managed to find a magical balance between commercial success, audaciously intelligent subject-matter and the classical elegance of his films’ mise en scène. After three transitional films, imperfect but still magnificently directed, (The Cardinal, In Harm’s Way, Bunny Lake is Missing), Preminger’s career was, from 1968 onwards, to take a disastrous turn, as he made films whose formal decline is rivalled only by the silliness of their content (Skidoo, a satire on hippies and the media and Rosebud, about international terrorism, are the biggest turkeys of this sad period). After Bunny Lake is Missing, shot in London in 1965, a kind of response to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Preminger got bogged down in a series of flops or minor films (Hurry Sundown; Skidoo; Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; Such Good Friends; Rosebud) which give the impression his filmmaking had become obsolete, outdated by the audacity of the New Hollywood.
How to explain such a collapse? On the one hand Preminger, who had succeeded in pushing back the barriers of censorship and moral prejudice, found himself on the back foot when American films in the 70s were wallowing in triviality or provocation. How could the refined director of Anatomy of a Murder compete with Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Deliverance, A Clockwork Orange or Taxi Driver? On the other hand, Preminger illustrates, belatedly but vehemently, the theory one might feel is reactionary but which has often proved correct, according to which several of the great Hollywood directors owe a great deal of their artistic success to the interventionism of the studio system, that turned aesthetic and economic constraints into a formidable stimulus to creativity. Jacques Tourneur, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, Joseph Losey and to a certain extent Fritz Lang are the most famous examples of this. Left to himself, Preminger’s opulent mastery ended up stuck in a rut and became corrupted through projects that were both silly and pretentious, and the decline of a particular studio savoir-faire. From a “free slave”, Preminger became a slave to his freedom, and the victim of a position so admirably earned. Otto too late? Not entirely. In 1979, when this formerly great filmmaker was practically written off, at the age of 73 Preminger adapted a Graham Greene novel in England and left a moving cinematic legacy, that, beneath its dark espionage story, hid a bitter observation of a world abandoned to cynicism, duplicity and the destruction of the individual. The Human Factor is a summation of Preminger’s art at the same time as being a farewell. The humour is colder than ever, the conflict between realism and oneirism in the mise en scène definitive and biting (e.g. the striking contrast between the documentary aspect of the start of the film, and the final scene, with its deliberately theatrical setting). A dull British civil servant is in fact a double agent who has decided to betray his country after falling in love with a young African woman and committing to both her, in marriage, and, even more so, to the anti-Colonialist cause. But his duplicity will bring about the death of an innocent colleague (who, suspected in the protagonist’s place, is ruthlessly eliminated) and the destruction of his little family. Scorning grandiloquence, Preminger clearly sets himself against the mythology of the James Bond type spy film. Eschewing the spectacular, The Human Factor is a portrait of an ordinary man broken by his having shown a spark of humanity (the famous human factor) in a totally dehumanised world. Preminger rediscovers the precision and invisibility of his mise en scène, managing to define the narrow world of its main character in just a handful of shots (his office, his suburban train commute, the bicycle ride to his suburban semi-detached). But instead of a British housewife, it is a magnificent young black wife who awaits him (Iman, the future Mrs. David Bowie). The story can now begin. It will end with a magnificent shot, echoing the Saul Bass title sequence, of a phone receiver swinging in the void, a symbol of several disrupted communications. That of the anti-hero with his wife, that of Preminger with the modern world, but also that of the audience with the filmmaker. Preminger was never to make another film. In its disenchantment and deadly beauty, The Human Factor is close to the aesthetic and moral “testaments” of some other great directors, Ford (Seven Women), Lang (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), Visconti (The Innocent). Preminger died on April 23, 1986 in New York.
A book published by éditions Capricci, in French and English, will accompany the retrospective. It will be repeated at the Swiss and French Cinémathèques, partners in this international event for cinéphiles.