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Simply the Worst: Otto Preminger’s “Skidoo”

Simply the Worst: Otto Preminger's "Skidoo"

The best thing that can be said of Skidoo is that it deserves its cult status. Among Preminger’s worst-received films, it’s in a class of its own. Forever Amber may be ugly, but it’s still romantic; Hurry Sundown offers comic relief in the performance of the Muppet-faced Madeline Sherwood; and Rosebud is impossible to concentrate on, but harmless, consisting mostly of people getting in and out of vans. Skidoo is a point in Preminger’s career his partisans would rather not think about (nobody can blame New York’s Film Forum for omitting it from its sprawling retrospective in 2008), but the inconvenient truth is that Skidoo is at least as “Premingerian” as any of his other projects. It is not the result of drunkenness, absenteeism, distractedness, or apathy, but instead the disturbing consequence of Otto Preminger left too much to his own devices. Nowhere in his oeuvre are the brushstrokes more visible. In addition to producing and directing, he was heavily involved in the writing as well. It is one of his only features not based on popular novel or play. He bought the original screenplay from William Canon (who’s credited as the writer), tossed out all but the barest plot, and started free-associating. Unusual for a Preminger picture, it has the stamp of his personality all over it, right down to his direct-address voiceover entreaty, which kicks off the end credits: “Wait! Before you skidoo, let us introduce our cast and crew!”

In light of his earlier institution-centered films like Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and The Cardinal, it’s understandable that Preminger would gravitate toward a project about the counterculture. But he was never a capturer of zeitgeists. His best films of the fifties and sixties are Old Hollywood to the hilt, velvety monochrome worlds of scotch-filled decanters and ice cubes tinkling in glasses. Even as the scenarios examine modern bureaucracies (Congress, the legal system, the Catholic Church) and undermine taboos of the production code, the characters are distinctly timeless. Think of Advise and Consent’s archetype of Southern decadence, the silver-tongued Senator Cooley (Charles Laughton), or Anatomy of a Murder’s Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara), who you can picture in your rear-view mirror, tailgating you in traffic—that asshole you hear honking every day at octogenarians in crosswalks. Bunny Lake Is Missing may come closest to seizing a cultural moment, but swinging London is merely a backdrop: the ultimate effect of the carefully maneuvered Zombies appearance on a pub’s television set is spooky—they seem less like a British Invasion group and more like chimeras in a magic lantern show. Read all of Leah Churner’s entry in Reverse Shot’s “Simply the Worst” symposium.

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