The Films Of Otto Preminger: A Retrospective

The Films Of Otto Preminger: A Retrospective

As Europe imploded, the 1930s saw an extraordinary exodus of filmmaking talent to the United States, with Jewish directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Anatole Litvak, Fred Zinnemann and many more escaping persecution and following in the footsteps of Ernst Lubitsch to go to a new promised land, and the effect that they had can’t be underestimated.

Among them: Otto Preminger. He’s not the coolest reference point among filmmakers, but few helmers had such a long-lasting career, or one that brought up so much good work over such a long time. A progressive, liberal man who took great pleasure in challenging censors and busting taboos, Preminger was a charismatic, colorful man, and a former actor (indeed, he would occasionally cameo in his own work, and briefly played Mr. Freeze in the 1960s “Batman” TV series, as well as playing a major role in Wilder’s “Stalag 17”). But from breakthrough film “Laura” to gripping thriller “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” he was continually a director ahead of his time, even if his approach became unfashionable towards the end of his career.

“Skidoo,” the disastrous 1968 gonzo comedy that was Preminger’s ill-conceived and desperate attempt to stay “with it,” finally hits DVD next week on July 19th, and we felt we should use the opportunity to look back at the director’s long, prolific career. Because of availability issues and sheer time pressures, we haven’t been able to take a look at everything, but the below should be a good primer to a filmmaker who doesn’t quite get his due these days. Check it out after the jump.

“Laura” (1944)
The first bona fide Preminger classic, “Laura” is a heady blend of film noir, high melodrama and detective story, all set to one of the most iconic scores of the 1940s (composer David Raksin’s “Laura’s Theme” is now a jazz standard). Centering on the investigation into the murder of the titular Laura (Gene Tierney) by increasingly obsessed detective Mark (Dana Andrews, in the first of four appearances for Preminger), the film’s excellent support includes Vincent Price, back when he was being marketed as beefcake (the story goes that a scene in which he sings was cut, thus aborting attempts to launch him as a Perry Como-style crooner — the mind boggles), Judith Anderson (famous now for her role in another dead-woman-haunting-the-living classic, Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Rebecca”), and Clifton Webb, whose overt homosexuality meant Preminger had to fight for his casting. And to good end, because Webb’s Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s acerbic, mannered svengali steals the show, bringing ambiguity to a relationship that otherwise is just an old man creeping on a pretty young thing. If there is a criticism, it’s that when SPOILER ALERT Laura herself turns up, Tierney — undeniably beautiful, all cheekbones and overbite — doesn’t really embody the charisma that would inspire such devotion in the discerning Lydecker. And even if Mark, who devolves (rather too) rapidly from stoic professional to lovelorn quasi-necrophiliac, sleeping at the foot of Laura’s painting like a dog on a grave, can fall instantly in love with her living incarnation, there’s no real reason why she should feel the same. Laura is, variously, a reflecting pool for the desires of others, a plot twist, and a narrative convention — everything but a real woman. But this is noir and no place for grounded characterization, and any complaints amount only to small flaws at the heart of a cinematic diamond, featuring snappy dialogue and dissonant acting styles martialled into harmony by Preminger’s sure hand. Of Andrews and Tierney’s five pairings — one further for Preminger — this film was the biggest hit, garnering a Best Director nod and setting Preminger on a course to pursue one of the most varied and taboo-breaking filmographies in Hollywood.[A-]

“Fallen Angel” (1945)
A stylishly shot, engaging and twist-laden noir starring Dana Andrews — a regular Preminger go-to actor who would appear in four of his early films. While “Laura” is generally regarded as Preminger’s best ‘40s film, this writer would argue “Fallen Angel” is right up there. The picture begins with a destitute grifter (Andrews) who rolls into a sleepy town outside of San Francisco and hooks up with some swindlers (John Carradine) trying to con the naive townspeople out of their money with a séance. Ready to join their troupe of cons, he sticks around when he falls for a brassy and sassy gold-digging waitress (Linda Darnell). Bewitched by her aloof charms, he becomes consumed, vowing to marry her and buy her a home, but penniless, the handsome fraud dupes an innocent and affluent young girl (Alice Faye) into marrying her in order to get to her riches. A clever twist takes place when the waitress is murdered and feeling squeezed and played for a frame, the shark runs out of town with the naïve wife who still wants to help him for what seems like doormat, masochistic reasons. A romance blossoms, including several unexpected twists and turns courtesy of screenwriter Harry Kleiner (the 1948 noir “The Street with No Name,” plus “Fantastic Voyage” and “Bullitt” from the ‘60s). While several characters are milksops or selfish jackasses, Preminger spins a sharp and absorbing tale thanks to Kleiner’s winning plot. An absorbing film noir, this is Preminger at his best — simple, effective, and letting the actors and story do the job for him while staging some masterfully subtle, but effective blocking (plus some gorgeous black and white cinematography from Joseph LaShelle who won an Oscar for “Laura”). It makes one pine for the days when directors knew how to get out the way and/or prove an auteur-istic stamp is overrated. [A-]

“Daisy Kenyon” (1947)
“I’m not interesting. There’s no melodrama in my life…” states Joan Crawford’s Daisy Kenyon, in one of her most measured and successful screen performances. Although Crawford’s diagnosis of her own fictive predicament is to a large extent true on the surface (she’s a homespun commercial designer engaged in two strangely passionless affairs with leading men Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda), it’s a statement that’s betrayed by the silent anguish that creeps across her face in almost every frame of this overlooked post-war romance. Now immortalized in the popular imagination as the camp shrieking harpie of “Mommie Dearest”, it’s easy to forget just how effective Crawford could be as a performer and, in “Daisy Kenyon,” we see the actress at her most soulful. Stuck in a mutually destructive, essentially parasitic relationship with a married louse high up in the legal profession who calls everyone “honeybunch” (Andrews, by now a Preminger regular), Daisy’s life is thrown into sharp relief when she begins a fragile courtship with Fonda’s quietly decent military man. Although the love triangle material is now par for the course in any daytime soap opera, the precision of Preminger’s unobtrusive style elevates the potentially humdrum material. Though it doesn’t exhibit the same compulsive salaciousness of, say, the brash, hysterical Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli that were to follow less than a decade later, or even the moral exactitude of Crawford’s own “Mildred Pierce,” Preminger’s second “woman’s picture,” after “Angel Face” is one of his most studied and nuanced works, in no small part because of the performances he elicits from his actors. Crawford, Andrews and Fonda are as mercurial and unknowable as the director’s chiaroscuro visual palette and, though it’s often erroneously dumped into the rash of films noir Preminger would make in a fruitful relationship with 20th Century Fox, it’s a distinction that arguably overlooks the greatest achievements of the film, which remains less of a head-scratching mystery than an exploration of the disordered mess of adult relationships. Given the scarcity of complicated adult romantic dramas that exist, Crawford’s Daisy is a role that any actress worth her salt in 2011 would kill for. [B]

“Whirlpool” (1949)
“Whirlpool,” though a perfectly serviceable noir tale well-told in and of itself, often suffers from comparison with “Laura,” the director’s other, more widely remembered work with leading woman Gene Tierney.” Recycling a lot of the themes from Preminger’s earlier masterwork, Tierney, playing a fragile society girl and insomniac suffering from issues with kleptomania is, in some ways, a precursor to Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” transferring her irrational fears of her domineering father over to her husband, a cold psychoanalyst (Richard Conte) who neglects her wants and desires. Acting out at a department store one day by pilfering a mermaid pin from over a shop floor counter, Ann Sutton (Tierney), an outwardly serene wife on the verge of “exploding with neuroses,” “play acting” through life in the shadow of her spouse and toiling away in a figurative “torture chamber,” is rescued from persecution by a “humble astronomer” named David Korvo. Repaying the favor by agreeing to undergo casual treatment with him at a hotel bar, it isn’t long before Ann, susceptible to Korvo’s manipulative wiles, has found herself at the murder scene of one of her husband’s former patients, one of her scarves wrapped round the victim’s neck and cursed with temporary amnesia to boot. Proving Paul Schrader’s edict on the inherent convolution of the genre to be true (“the how is always more important than the what”) the plot, such as it is, is a load of ballyhoo, but Preminger deftly cuts through its myriad contortions by focusing almost exclusively on the emotional distress inflicted upon Ann and those around her. In true noir fashion, and like Waldo Lydecker before him, Korvo is the villainous puppet master in plain sight from the beginning, and Jose Ferrer seems to be having a blast playing up his nefarious tendencies to the hilt. Even though Ben Hecht’s pseudonymous screenplay resolves itself in a disappointingly pat way involving all manner of deus ex machinas and nonsensical bouts of self-hypnotism, the end product seems, somewhat fittingly for a film about the evils of hypnotherapy, mystical, trance-like and bewitching; albeit in Preminger’s hands a typically cool and lucid breakdown of barely-contained madness. [B+]

“Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950)
Written by two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (“His Girl Friday,” “Some Like It Hot,” Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” “Notorious”), a man known as the “Shakespeare of Hollywood,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends” isn’t as well-known as the rest of Preminger’s oeuvre, but is, regardless, a classic film noir. Once again starring two early muses, “Laura” stars Dana Andrews and the lovely Gene Tierney, Hecht poses a grim question that Preminger is happy to frame in the darkest and grittiest of ways: are you just the product of your nature? Andrews plays Dixon, a ruthless and cynical detective known for his violent ways. He abhors crime because his father was a lousy criminal and now he’s got a monster-sized chip on his shoulder to take out on unlucky thugs. But his anger gets the best of him and he accidentally kills a two-bit gambler in self-defense. Panicking and assuming the worst, he tries to dispose of the body, trying to pin it on an old mob boss rival (Gary Merrill), but inadvertently fixes the murder on a innocent cab driver (Tom Tully). But having fallen in love with the cabbie’s daughter (Tierney), the heavy-handed cop only gets caught in a tighter web of deceit when he tries to use his influence to change the verdict. Karl Malden plays Andrews’ superior, a man convinced the driver is guilty and simultaneously sick of Andrew’s brutal tactics. While it’s a taut little potboiler, what makes ‘Sidewalk’ special is the psychology behind its protagonist; the moral crisis haunting him, his desperate need to be greater than his father and the lingering, misanthropic feeling that he too is just no good. Plus the sweaty paranoia dripping off his psyche while he tries to redeem himself, not get caught, and not hang an innocent man makes for a gripping noir exercise. [B+]

“Angel Face” (1952)
Angel Face” sits in what is generally agreed upon as Preminger‘s peak period of filmmaking while he was under contract for 20th Century Fox, but was shot for RKO. Howard Hughes, who owned RKO, requested Preminger specifically for the script, which at the time had the inventive title of “Murder Story” – based on real life murders where two young lovers were charged with blowing up the girl’s parents. Preminger was unimpressed but Hughes characteristically persisted, resorting finally to getting Preminger out of bed at 3 am to walk around the streets of L.A. to discuss the project. Jean Simmons (the “Angel Face” to be) was only under contract to RKO for another 18 shooting days, also Hughes and Simmons had recently fought – a memorable argument that resulted in Simmons chopping off all her hair. This film was Hughes’ way to get even – he gave Preminger carte blanche on the film (including the script), stipulating only that he didn’t hire any “commies” to do re-writes and that Simmons had to wear a long black wig throughout the picture – and Preminger agreed. Though various versions of stories filtered back from on set of fights continuing between Robert Mitchum, Preminger and Simmons, it was Simmons and Hughes who came out winners in the end – “Angel Face” is one of the best performances of her career opposite Mitchum, who went to star in another Preminger film “River of No Return”. A seemingly forgotten noir classic “Angel Face” features Simmons in the role of Diane Tremayne, the characteristically ambiguous sort of femme fatale, and Mitchum as our equally ambiguous charming anti-hero, Frank Jessup. Their failed love affair based on misconceptions of each other’s better-off-ness ends up in a battle of wills, but Tremayne’s bid for control over Jessup ends up killing both her father and her stepmother. The film’s highlight is its ending where Tremayne suddenly and dramatically takes both herself and Jessup over the cliff so they’ll finally be together forever. Though it retreads old ground, it’s still an all around quality noir flick. [B]

“Carmen Jones” (1954)
There’s something very curious about this little flick. Based on the 1940s Broadway play, Preminger‘s version tasks the great Dorothy Dandridge to play the titular seductress who finds herself roping in a number of suckers (including an engaged military officer and a famous boxer), which eventually leads to her demise. Chock full of engaging drama and the director’s usual keen staging sense (a railroad set piece is rather incredible), the film is actually more of an oddly-toned bafflement than successful film. Following a questionable female protagonist is certainly commendable, as is releasing a film at a time when an all-black cast was something uncommon. But what do we make of the filmmaker’s grounded, uber-realistic interpretation of the material, in which every other race and skin color is entirely absent? Or what about the dreadful musical “numbers,” quite possibly the most stilted bits in the medium’s history, where the actors lip sync to an incredibly different operatic voice? The result is an awkward, jarring experience; one that coasts along for awhile on its pure strangeness. However, its inability to entertain rises above all and, in the end, it’s nowhere near the status of being a “so bad it’s good” train-wreck. About as uneven as they get. [C-]

“River of No Return” (1954)
While Frank Fenton’s premise is loosely borrowed from “The Bicycle Thief,” there’s almost absolutely no way you’d make the connection unless you read that detail somewhere. Set in Canada during the 19th century Gold Rush, a bosomy Marilyn Monroe plays a radiant singer/dancer in Preminger‘s CinemaScope-shot Western adventure cum revenge film. Preminger’s 1954 Western actioner is notable for at least three reasons: one of the most ungrateful characters to ever hit the screen (Rory Calhoun), an improbably even-keeled farmer who’s been double-crossed by said scoundrel (Robert Mitchum) and an illogically calm wife (Marilyn Monroe). To rewind a bit, this fluffy drama with corny song sequence interludes and poor visual effects centers on a husband and wife duo (Monroe, Calhoun) who are rescued on a raging river by a farmer who recently turned from murderer and deadbeat dad, to nurturing father (Mitchum). The farmer’s thanks? He’s throttled over the head by the gold-hungry husband at gunpoint and has his horse stolen. With warring native Indians on their tail and no gun to defend themselves, the father, the singer and his son are forced to take to a raging river and go after the man who stole their horses, guns and money. Along the way, Mitchum and Monroe are at odds while she prevents him tracking down her lowlife husband (but predictably, some sexual sparks do fly). Marred by bad special effects (fake-looking backdrop as the cast’s raft is thrown about a perilous river), an overly melodramatic score, hamfisted acting, one-note villains (faceless Indians acting for no reason), and an on-the-nose moralizing ending, “River of No Return” is essentially a forgettable Preminger film — and note, one that he was assigned to under his studio contract at 20th Century Fox — you’ll want to skip it unless you have the unfortunate assignment of watching the film for some group-written retrospective on Otto Preminger. [C-]

“The Man with the Golden Arm” (1956)
How do we feel about a 1950s drama starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin junkie today? While at least thirty gritty indies about drug abuse are produced every year, the release of Preminger’s serious look at the dark addiction was revolutionary at the time. Sinatra’s Frankie “Machine” gets out of prison a new man – clean as a whistle and fit with a drive to become a big-time drummer on the music scene. But the very second he gets out, he finds himself surrounded by the hoodlums he used to run with (Robert Strauss and, “A Christmas Story” babies take note, an excellent Darren McGavin) and his needy, wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker), who scoffs at his yearning to play in big bands. Despite the good intentions that old fling Molly (Kim Novak) provides, Frankie soon finds himself relapsing into nasty habits. Yes, Sinatra is a little too clean cut and handsome to really pull off looking like a true junkie, but his manic hunger is well-played and the director’s refusal to sugar-coat or shy away does the material well. Ol’ Otto is still a step above his peers in this one: whether he’s nabbing most of a scene in a single shot or letting an ending moment linger, this director had a introspective look on his material, whereas his contemporaries were likely to use minimal camera movements or hurriedly cross-fade the second a character stopped talking. Still, the editing definitely could be tighter and the music’s jarring, overly-serious tendencies often come off as hokey (particularly when Frankie first returns to smack — blasts of music are timed perfectly to each tool being place on a table). Cinema has certainly gotten much more brutal and unforgiving, but this still holds up particularly well. [B-]

“Bonjour Tristesse” (1958)
Preminger‘s disastrous first film with his discovery Jean Seberg, “St. Joan,” was both a critical and financial failure that saw much of the critical vitriol heaped upon Seberg’s performance. Preminger offered her a second chance with “Bonjour Tristesse,” based on the French bestseller by Francois Sagan of the same name. Shot in the relatively new format of Cinemascope combined with long takes, the film presents five characters and their shifting relationships and desires, examining the potentially devastating whims of the idle rich. Preminger intercuts color and black and white with the nostalgic flashbacks on the French Riviera with hyper real vivid Technicolor, markedly contrasted with the dreary black and white presentation of the present day reality. It also contrasts between the past vibrancy of its lead and narrator Cecile (Seberg) and the lifeless numb Cecile that recounts her story to the audience. Also featuring winning performances by David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Mylène Demongeo, “Bonjour Tristesse” famously brought Seberg to the attention of Jean-Luc Godard, who cast her in his debut feature “Breathless.” He has been quoted as saying Seberg’s Patricia in “Breathless” picks up where Cecile left off in “Bonjour Tristesse” — “I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title, ‘Three Years Later.’ “ [B-]

“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959)
It’s almost certain that “Anatomy of a Murder” wouldn’t get made today, but it’s perhaps even more staggering that it got made back in 1959. A courtroom procedural with a hefty 160-minute running time, with a franker depiction of sexuality than had been seen in Hollywood for decades (if there are previous on-screen mentions of words like “sperm” and “sexual climax,” we’re not aware of them), it wasn’t an easy prospect (presumably the presence of Mr. Middle America Jimmy Stewart in the lead helped it get made) but it more than paid off. Perhaps Preminger‘s most beloved film, it earned seven Oscar nominations, rave reviews and proved a box office hit. Now, half a century on, it holds up like gangbusters, as detailed and realistic a legal thriller as has ever been shown (it’s shown in law schools to this day). Centering around Stewart’s defense of an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who killed a bartender that he claimed raped his wife (Lee Remick), it risks seeming dry, but Preminger balances the procedural aspects with Duke Ellington’s flirty compositions (one of the first times a jazz artist had been asked to record a full score), one of Saul Bass’s finest credit sequences, a wry sense of humor and plenty of scurrilous details. Modern audiences may be a little uneasy at the sexual politics — Remick’s character is flirty and promiscuous, and much of the plot revolves around whether she consented to sex or not — but it’s the fierce moral ambiguity that makes the film so memorable: as with a real case, there are no easy answers to be found here. And the performances, which include a cameo from real-life lawyer Joseph Welch, the man who essentially destroyed Joe McCarthy, as the presiding judge, are excellent across the board, particularly Stewart, who’s rarely had a part better fitted to the star persona, and George C. Scott, whose turn as the big-city prosecutor announced his arrival in a big way (it’s virtually his first screen credit and he won an Oscar nomination for his trouble). [A]

“Exodus” (1960)
What happens when Otto Preminger gets too personally close to his material is “Exodus.” The tale of Israel’s genesis was close to the heart of the Jewish director, whose family narrowly escaped Hitler in Austria in 1937. However, its tedious 212-minute running time is excessive at best (comedian Mort Sahl famously implored at a preview, “Otto, let my people go”). MGM commissioned Leon Uris to write the massive novel, with the intent to develop it into a film, but Preminger, with the help of his agent brother Ingo and a cash infusion from United Artists, bought the rights from MGM and developed the controversial project himself as a producer/director/writer, openly collaborating with blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Shot on location in Greece and Israel, the film follows Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), an activist who liberates a ship of European Jewish immigrants to Palestine from a British detention camp in Cyprus, and then falls in love with an American widow (Eva Marie Saint) volunteering as a nurse in the detention camp, and tries to adopt a teenage refugee, Karen (Preminger discovery, 14-year-old Jill Haworth). By far the best performance and most compelling storyline is that of Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a teen Auschwitz survivor who joins the Israeli terrorist group Irgun. Mineo is riveting (and earned an Oscar nom) as the traumatized, angry youth. Preminger beautifully utilizes camera movement to unite characters, story and space, and none more so than the scene where in one long, unbroken take, Landau goes from tearfully confessing his wartime trauma to fervently swearing his allegiance to Irgun on the Torah. An almost dialogue-free jailbreak sequence is also masterfully executed, inspiring viewers to wish that the film was just about Landau and Irgun without all the conflicted love story and expository political speechifying. It’s a well-told tale, but it doesn’t feel as epic as other films of its size. It’s worth the watch for the gorgeous locations and fine performances, but it’s more interesting as a part of Preminger’s bio as a multitasking producer/director working around the studio system to get his personal projects made. [B-]

“Advise and Consent” (1962)
While superficially, it may not be the most fast-moving film and or the sexiest topic on earth — congressional voting on whether an aide to the president should be promoted to secretary of state, Otto Preminger‘s 1964 political drama turns out to be quite the absorbing examination of vindictive, amoral politics and internecine congressional squabbles. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it’s a fearsomely complex tale — as detailed about the nomination process as anything until “The West Wing” — but an always watchable one, thanks in particular to a tremendous ensemble cast including Henry Fonda, the marvelous Charles Laughton in his final role, Peter Lawford, Walter Pidgeon, Burgess Meredith and a career-best performance from future “Knots Landing” star Don Murray (there’s even the screen debut of a young Betty White). Ever ahead of his time, Preminger was one of the first filmmakers to openly deal with the question of homosexuality, as well as making screen legend Fonda play a character with a communist background, at a time when many were still blacklisted for such affiliations. It’s perhaps led more by the issues than, say, “Anatomy of a Murder,” sometimes letting the drama come in second, but like that film, it’s the moral seediness and lack of easy answers that make the film worth watching. An unjustly neglected picture. [B+]

“The Cardinal” (1963)
Considering that Peter Bogdanovich named Preminger’s previous film “by far the best political movie ever made in this country,” it’s baffling to see the director shoot so wide of the mark just a year later. “The Cardinal”, though it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama in the year of its release, is a deathly and slow-moving three-hour chamber piece that feels about twice as long and seems, in spite of its glaringly ‘worthy’ subject matter, wilfully strip-mined of any relevance to contemporary audiences. A shonky biographical portrait of an impossibly virtuous and fictional Boston priest named Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tyron), the glacial narrative checks off a laundry list of ham-handed 20th century ‘social issues’ (forced abortion; the rise of fascism; mounting racial intolerance in America) that pits Brother Fermoyle against the Nazis, domestic anti-Semites and the Ku Klux Klan, and in an almost laughably trite fashion, as he assails the ranks of the Catholic Church with a brief sojourn in Vatican City before ending up smack-dab in the middle of the Austrian Anschluss. Although Preminger allegedly spent the whole shoot screaming at leading man Tyron to goad him into a better performance – tellingly he was later to retire from screen acting and become a novelist – the character exhibits almost zero religious fervor, is unerringly bland as a lead despite threatening to hang up his cassock on several occasions and, like the film surrounding him, remains airless, meandering, arid, halting and overwhelmingly stupid from beginning to end. Bizarrely John Huston swings by for a cameo appearance as piano-tapping avuncular bishop and Romy Schneider – sapped of her usual erotic allure – ironically warbles about having her individuality suppressed by a totalitarian dictator. Preminger’s scope would be admirable if the end product weren’t so stultifying slow but, as one of the film’s innumerable clergymen warns, misguided ambition can be “fatal” to a priest’s career. Unfortunately in this case, the same turns out to be true of film directors as Preminger succumbs to perhaps the worst cardinal sin of all: crushing boredom. [C]

“Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965)
An oddly misshapen curio of a film, “Bunny Lake is Missing” is remarkable for featuring all the excesses of Preminger‘s directorial persona: for every misstep there is a redemptive flash of genius, or, at least, wtf?-ness. The plot details a young American woman in London, Anne (Carol Lynley, Preminger’s choice over Jane Fonda), who discovers her child, Bunny, has gone missing from school. But no one seems to remember the little girl, and the question for the Inspector (an underused Laurence Olivier, playing the calm center of the increasingly hysterical storm) becomes whether Bunny exists at all outside her mother’s imagination. Shot in immaculate black and white, oozing that very British brand of 1960s surreality (the London locations are used to eerie effect) and opened with a typically glorious Saul Bass title sequence, the film at least looks consistently gorgeous. And Lynley’s performance, while strangely absent like she’s underwater, actually pays off later in the film, giving Anne nuances that possibly a more engaged actress might not have. But plotting the reverse trajectory from good performance to bad iis Keir Dullea as Anne’s brother, whose otherworldliness — my god, it’s full of stars — is reigned in initially, but as his bland charm gives way to creepiness, and then to lit-from-below lunacy, we get too clear a signal too early on who the really disturbed one is. Of course, since this is Preminger, there are seedy undercurrents: the brother/sister relationship is markedly incestuous, in character if not in deed, and the Chihuahua-carrying Noel Coward character who aggressively hits on Anne and then shows off his whip collection to the police seems only there to amp up the sexual deviancy quotient. Hmm, so there’s a horrible shoehorned musical tie-in with pop group The Zombies, but there is also a handful of great British actors in supporting roles? And there’s a botched sense of temporality (does all this really happen in one day?), but there’s also Denys N. Coop’s glossy cinematography? Scoring the film’s pros and cons ends up at a draw: you can write it off as an overwrought potboiler, or you can enjoy it for what it is: an overwrought potboiler. [B]

“Hurry Sundown” (1967)
Based on a then-current best-seller by husband and wife team Katya and Bert Gilden (writing under the pseudonym K.B. Gilden), “Hurry Sundown” must have seemed like a hit in the making. Who better to tackle this 1940s hot-bed issue drama, sprinkled with a healthy dose of lust and racism? While Preminger may have seemed like the sure bet, the flaccid, preachy and just plain dull drama presented here needs to be taken behind the woodshed, to put it kindly. Angelic cousin Rad (John Phillip Law) wrestles against the unscrupulous machinations of draft-dodging, child-abusing, saxophone playing Cousin Henry (Michael Caine, what have ye wrought). Henry is after precious land, one plot owned by Rad, who’s back home fresh from the war, and the other by Reeve (Robert Hook). Reeve is a black man who works hard, doesn’t trust white people, and nurses his mother Rose (Beah Richards), who happened to be the “mammy” of Julie Ann (Jane Fonda, smoldering), Henry’s wife. Preminger directs with working skill, but the film slips away from him, exhibiting a naivete unbecoming of the times, especially with a lengthy segment devoted to crosscutting between Caine’s broken home and Law’s Brady Bunch arrangement. In the end, “Hurry Sundown” probably felt dated when it was released and now it feels absolutely antique. A lesser film in the director’s late career. [C+]

“Skidoo” (1968)
To even sit down and watch “Skidoo” is to continue to disbelieve its very existence. The “Southland Tales” of its time, this maddening drug story concerns middle-aged Jackie Gleason as a former mob muscleman who, now living the good life in the suburbs, is forced out of retirement. Enlisted to go to prison in order to execute a nefarious mobster, he instead drops acid and finds that his new consciousness can’t commit murder. When Timothy Leary collaborates with Alejandro Jodorowsky, out comes “The Holy Mountain.” When he introduces Otto Preminger and Groucho Marx (here listlessly playing a criminal named God) to LSD, we end up with this tone-deaf love-in that plays like a parody of an old man’s interpretation of hippies. The bizarre cast finds room for Carol Channing (a bit too old to perform a song in her skivvies), Frankie Avalon, George Raft, Mickey Rooney and even “Batman” villains Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin (possible fallout from Preminger himself showing up as Mr. Freeze on the ’60s show). As such, “Skidoo,” which bewilderingly ends with Harry Nilsson singing the credits, is the strongest anti-drug ad the world has ever produced — if expanding your mind leads to this, let us all stay indoors for the rest of our lives. Unlike anything Preminger has ever done, and a sure candidate for Worst Movie Ever Made. [F]

And The Rest:
With 35 films across his career, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but time, and the unavailability of many of these films meant we couldn’t cover everything. Nevertheless, here’s a quick guide to the rest of Preminger‘s filmography. His debut film in 1931 while still in Austria was “Die große Liebe,” an undistinguished melodrama. His first Hollywood flick was similarly far from his finest: the light comedy “Under Your Spell,” a vehicle for opera singer Lawrence Tibbett, who 20th Century Fox wanted off their books as soon as possible. Slight-but-well-received rom-com “Danger – Love At Work” followed the next year, before he was fired by Darryl F. Zanuck from Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation “Kidnapped” in 1938.

This marked the start of a half-decade gap away from the cinema, as Preminger returned to, and found great success, in the theater. With Zanuck away fighting in World War II, he was brought back onto the Fox lot when Ernst Lubitsch dropped out of the adaptation of Preminger’s stage hit “Margin of Error” (in which the director also starred). The film’s mostly notable for being scripted by a young Sam Fuller. This was followed by “In the Meantime, Darling,” a wartime love story that didn’t make much of an impact, but 1945 saw “Laura,” and Preminger’s name was finally made.

He took over from Lubitsch again on “A Royal Scandal,” later retitled “Czarina,” in 1945, but few but hardcore Lubitsch fans speak well of it. His first musical and first color film, “Centennial Summer,” teamed him with Jerome Kern to bad reviews, while “Forever Amber” (another last minute replacement job) was even worse, a film Preminger described as “by far the most expensive picture I ever made and it was also the worst.”

Preminger replaced Lubitsch for a third and final time after the director’s death on “That Lady In Ermine,” and had another misfire in 1949 with “The Fan,” an Oscar Wilde adaptation. “The 13th Letter” remakes Clouzot‘s “Le Corbeau” to predictably unsuccessful results, while he courted major controversy for the first time with “The Moon Is Blue” in 1953, a toothless sex comedy starring David Niven that for some reason riled the censors in a big way. 1955 saw “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell,” teaming Preminger with Gary Cooper for a based-in-fact tale about an outspoken critic of the army; it’s perhaps the best received film we didn’t get to see (we can thank a late Netflix dispatch for that…)

1957 saw him work with Graham Greene on an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” but Greene and Shaw weren’t a good match, and the film was badly received. “Porgy & Bess,” based on the Gershwin opera, was again controversial, particularly as it paired the director with his ex-mistress, Dorothy Dandridge and, surprisingly, it’s almost impossible to get hold of; only one print is in existence, and it’s never been released on home formats. Bad reviews also followed the all-star war film “In Harm’s Way,” which despite a cast including John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal and Henry Fonda, was criticized for being overly straightforward.

And then came the post “Skidoo” era, with “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon,” an oddball romance starring Liza Minnelli as a young woman with a face scarred by acid, the Elaine May-scripted comedy “Such Good Friends” (which got better reviews than most of his 1970s output) and the “Munich”-lite terrorism thriller “Rosebud.” Preminger’s final film, the Tom Stoppard-scripted Graham Greene adaptation “The Human Factor,” is somewhat underrated; it’s not a great film, by any means, but its blend of thriller and apartheid-era politics enables Preminger to approximate his best form in places. — Jessica Kiang, Sam Price, Rodrigo Perez, Sam Chater, Katie Walsh, Gabe Toro, Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton, Mark Zhuravsky

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Comments

theoncominghope

I just watched Laura for the first time last night, really enjoyed it, though I found it highly problematic.

Here are my thoughts, if you’re interested in the thoughts of a newbie!
http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/07/blog-noir-or-mad-men-is-so.html

Deborah Bosket

You’re right, Zes. Thanks for catching that-we’ve made the correction.

Zes

“…before he was fired by Richard Zanuck from Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation “Kidnapped” in 1938.”

Richard Zanuck was born in 1934 so hardly he fired Preminger but his dad Darryl F Zanuck head and founder of 20th Century Fox did.

sven

Nice work!

Marrrk

if nothing else, gotta give Sinatra credit for that withdrawal scene…

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