Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Otto Preminger (1905-1986)

Born in Bukovina – traditionally part of Dracula’s homeland, Wallachia, but now part of Ukraine – Otto Preminger is yet another filmmaker involved with film noir who was forced to flee Nazism and pursue a career in Hollywood. The most publicly known director of his time next to Hitchcock, Otto Preminger is largely remembered for his taboo-breaking films, which concerned, murder, obsession, perversion, sex, infidelity, drug addiction, homosexuality, and rape. He was physically distinctive due to his bald, shiny head and personally memorable for his tyrannical behavior – he was known to be absolutely horrible to actors. Despite a few efforts towards the end of his career that weren’t well received, many of his films were nominated for Academy Awards and remain classics. His most popular works are generally either film noir or literary adaptations and he wasn’t afraid to step in front of the camera, even sometimes as a Nazi as in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. (Generally, German-speaking émigrés hated being forced into these roles.) Preminger was also a staunch critic of Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare and was the first to openly flaunt the blacklist established by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Though Preminger initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer (he completed his degree in Austria, where the family had relocated), he discovered the theater and was instantly obsessed. In Vienna, he collaborated with theatrical legend Max Reinhardt. Before leaving the country to work in Hollywood, he completed one filmic assignment in German, a post-WWI drama, Die große Liebe (1931). He followed this several years later with his first U.S. film, the romantic comedy and musical Under Your Spell (1936), about a singing cowboy, though the screwball comedy, Danger – Love at Work (1937), begins to exhibit some of his trademark style.

He did some uncredited directing work on Alfred L. Werker’s swashbuckling adventure film, Kidnapped (1938) before following it up with some war-themed comedies, such as Margin for Error (1943), which he also co-starred in beside Joan Bennett, and In the Meantime, Darling (1944). Preminger was next hired to replace famed German director Ernst Lubitsch for A Royal Scandal (1945), a 19th-century Russian comedy about Catherine the Great with Tallulah Bankhead and Vincent Price.

Laura (1944), a film noir starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb, was Preminger’s break out film. A police detective becomes obsessed with a woman while he’s investigating her murder. He follows the two key suspects, her womanizing fiancé, and her elegant, if controlling social patron and boss. Laura was one of the early, important films noir, and established Preminger as a forerunner in the genre. It also introduced his flair for the taboo and the controversial – two of the primary characters are wildly effeminate – actor Clifton Webb was openly gay – and the central plot revolves around infidelity, obsession, perversion, and a woman having her face blown off with a shotgun.

Preminger followed this up with another excellent noir effort, Fallen Angel (1945), again starring Dana Andrews. A con artist and drifter falls in love with an alluring waitress, but she won’t have anything to do with him unless he comes up with some money. He marries a vulnerable, naïve, and wealthy young woman, but meanwhile, the waitress is murdered. The drifter is the main suspect, but with his wife’s support, he investigates the murder.

He returned to the musical with an average effort, Centennial Summer (1946), with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell as two sides of a love triangle at the world’s fair. Forever Amber (1947), his most expensive film, was also his least favorite. Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde returned to star in this unfortunately failed tale of romance and social climbing during King Charles II’s reign. He only agreed to do Forever Amber if he could direct the Joan Crawford-vehicle, Daisy Kenyon (1947). Crawford gives a great performance as a woman involved in – you guessed it – a love triangle. Many films throughout his career center on this triangular, dramatic device. Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda co-star in this “woman’s film,” certainly one of the best of the genre next to Crawford’s Mildred Pierce and Possessed. Preminger also replaced Lubitsch for a final time after the director's death with That Lady in Ermine (1948), though Preminger remains uncredited. This is yet another period piece, a romantic comedy and musical starring Betty Grable. His next effort, The Fan (1949), an average, somewhat unsuccessful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, is in the same vein.

The Whirlpool (1949) continued a run of noir and suspense films. Gene Tierney returned for this film about a kleptomaniac who is hoodwinked by a hypnotist (Jose Ferrer) and framed for murder. Her psychiatrist husband must overcome his jealousy and help her to remember the truth in this somewhat implausible but still excellent film. Even better is Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), which reunited Tierney and Dana Andrews. Andrews stars as a violent detective who hates criminals because it was his father’s profession – characters with abusive childhoods is another of Preminger’s constant themes. One night he accidentally kills a gangster and, in a panic, hides the body. He falls in love with the man’s battered wife (Tierney), but struggles with what to do when her father becomes the main suspect. Though not quite as iconic as Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of Preminger’s best films.

Unfortunately The 13th Letter (1951), a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic of nihilism and misanthropy, Le Corbeau (1943), was less successful and it remains a rarely seen work. Preminger quickly returned to form with a final noir, Angel Face (1952). Robert Mitchum and acclaimed British actress Jean Simmons star in the story of an ambulance driver roped in by a femme fatale after her stepmother is poisoned. While Laura showcases the perfect victim, Angel Face has one of film noir’s most memorable femmes fatale and unusually showcases female sexual obsession, rather than male.

Preminger’s first really controversial film was the sex comedy The Moon is Blue (1953), starring David Niven and William Holden as two men trying to woo the same woman. Though the film is hardly shocking by today’s standards, it was one of the first to openly use the word “virgin,” as that is the heroine’s excuse for why neither of the men can seduce her – she wants to wait until marriage to have sex. Niven is particularly great here and steals the film from star William Holden. After this, Preminger briefly returned to Germany to make the comedy Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach (1953), before turning his attention to that most American of genres, the Western. Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum co-starred in River of No Return (1954), which received decent ratings despite the fact that Preminger had nothing good to say about Marilyn Monroe (and once referred to her as a “vacuum with nipples”).

Some of Preminger’s messy private life bled over into Carmen Jones (1954), when he cast his girlfriend of nearly four years, black actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge. Though Preminger was married for many years, he and his wife were estranged and he had a number of affairs. Possibly the most famous was with burlesque bad girl and author Gypsy Rose Lee; their son together, Erik, didn’t know Preminger was his father until after his mother’s death in the ‘60s. Preminger’s affair with Dandridge was equally shocking, because America was still virulently (and openly) racist in the ‘50s. (To provide some context, French actress and singer Juliette Gréco met and began an affair with Miles Davis in Paris in 1949. He broke it off because of the trouble and pain their relationship would cause them both in America.) Carmen Jones was a riff on Bizet’s opera Carmen, though it wasn’t particularly successful. He followed it up with Porgy and Bess (1959), another opera adaptation starring Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, and Pearl Bailey – what a cast.

Frank Sinatra starred in Preminger’s most controversial film to date, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), one of Hollywood’s earliest portrayals of heroin addiction.  Eleanor Parker (Caged) is the long suffering, disabled wife of Frankie (Sinatra), while Kim Novak (Vertigo) costars as his neighbor and mistress. Once released from prison, where he was treated for addiction, Frankie struggles not to lapse back into his old life. The wonderful Darren McGavin has a cameo as Frankie’s drug dealer in this frank portrait of abuse.

He followed this shocker up with a number of war-themed films, such as The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) with Gary Cooper, which is the first of several courtroom-set films directed by Preminger. This true story of a WWI air corps general court-martialed for criticizing the loyalty of his superiors seems to be a scathing, if subtle commentary on the state of McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist. In the poorly rated Saint Joan (1957), a young Jean Seberg stars as the eponymous Saint, then a young prophet selected by the King to lead France to war. The script was based on George Bernard Shaw’s admittedly talky play and was adapted for the screen by famed novelist Graham Greene.

Seberg returned to star in Bonjour Tristesse (1958), where Jean Luc Godard apparently discovered her for her history-making role in Breathless. In Tristesse, she stars alongside David Niven and Deborah Kerr as a free-spirited young girl living a wanton life of decadence. She’s afraid her lifestyle will change when her father’s old flame arrives at their estate. This vivid contrast of generations and relationships is presented in both black and white and glowing Technicolor is a must-see, particular for fans of dreamy films about the idle rich.

Undoubtedly his most famous film after Laura is Anatomy of Murder (1959), also one of his most controversial. This court room drama starring James Stewart concerns the story of a man who killed a bartender, after the bartender allegedly raped the man’s wife. This was one of the first popular, big budget Hollywood films to openly addresses issues of rape and whether or not a woman’s promiscuity is a contributing factor – it is perhaps his least aged film, due to these unfortunately continuing issues. The film is also famous for its jazz score from Duke Ellington and an excellent opening sequence from Saul Bass, well known for working with Hitchcock. Bass would provide a number of credits sequences for Preminger and the two had a thriving collaboration.

Preminger followed this up with a more personal war-themed film, Exodus (1960), about Jewish immigrants traveling to the Middle East for the founding of Israel. Though the film is unduly long, it touches on Preminger’s Jewish roots and is again controversial – it was co-written by Preminger and Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted from Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Preminger was one of the first filmmakers to openly work with a member of the Blacklist. Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint costar.

Advise & Consent (1962) was Preminger’s last well-regarded or controversial film. This political drama will please fans of “The West Wing,” and is an intricate look at a Senate investigation. The great cast includes one of my favorite actors, Charles Laughton, in his final role, Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, and others. This was one of the first Hollywood films to frankly deal with homosexuality, and it was another Preminger film openly critical of the Blacklist. After Advise & Consent (1962), Preminger’s career took a bit of a nose dive, though he persistently directed until 1979.

He made The Cardinal (1963), a slowly paced film about a Boston priest who comes up against Nazism, abortion, racism, and other issues that would have felt much more controversial with a more solid script. The war themed continued with In Harm’s Way (1965), with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, about Navy officers in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing. An interesting, often overlooked effort is the suspense/mystery film Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), about a woman whose young daughter goes missing in London. Unfortunately no one remembers the girl, and a stubborn inspector (Laurence Olivier) tries to figure out whether or not the little girl is real or just a figment of her mother’s unstable mind. There’s a great cast that includes Carol Lynley (she was cast in several of Preminger’s films during this time), Keir Dullea, The Zombies (!), and Noel Coward. In Hurry Sundown (1967), two cousins (John Phillip Law and an especially sinister Michael Caine) battle over a plot of land after the war is over. Much like In Harm’s Way, this average film disappoints and doesn’t quite reach the level of Preminger’s classic works.

Skidoo (1968), on the other hand, must be seen to be believed. In this collaboration between Otto Preminger and Groucho Marx (I can’t believe it either), a criminal turns his life around after he drops some acid and figures out that he’s no longer capable of murder. I’ve heard this compared to Godmonster of Indian Flats, a film close to my heart, but what’s especially baffling about Skidoo is that it’s a major Hollywood production from one of cinema’s most famous directors of the ‘50s and one of its most beloved comedians. Plenty of people hate Skidoo, but it’s really worth tracking down a copy just to have your brains scrambled. Preminger briefly held the role of Mr. Freeze on Batman, and much of the cast appears here, including Caesar Romero (the Joker).

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) is a slightly less insane film – a romantic comedy of sorts – where Liza Minelli stars as a woman whose face has been scarred with acid. This is a quirky little effort about weirdos in love a la Harold and Maude, and is certainly one of Preminger’s most underrated late-period films. He followed this up with Such Good Friends (1971), a comedy about infidelity, and two political thrillers, Rosebud (1975) and The Human Factor (1979). Though Rosebud was panned during its release, it’s a decent film about Palestinian terrorism starring the great Peter O’Toole. With a script from Tom Stoppard based on Graham Greene’s novel, The Human Factor was a fairly high point to go out on, and is a solid thriller about the British Secret Service.

Preminger hasn’t been remembered as fondly or as often as some of the other directors of his generation, although he certainly deserves acclaim. His classic films noir – Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face – and taboo-busting dramas – The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of Murder, Advise & Consent – all need to be seen by serious cinema fans. Some of his later efforts also deserve a second look and it’s certain that no other Hollywood director so established ever made anything like Skidoo.

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