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The Deceptive Director

During the filming of Forever Amber (1947), Otto Preminger yelled at Linda Darnell almost daily for two months, until the actress collapsed on the set and was ordered by a doctor to take ten days off to convalesce. In rehearsals for his production of Herman Wouk’s A Modern Primitive—a play that never made it to Broadway—Preminger screamed so violently at an actor who struggled to remember his lines that the man suffered a nervous breakdown and was taken away to spend the next four months in a sanitarium. “I had never seen such terrifying rage in anyone,” said one witness, who described the director with “veins standing out on his forehead” and “literally foaming at the mouth.” On the set of the comedy The Moon Is Blue (1953), Maggie McNamara, “a jittery newcomer with a fragile ego,” was the victim of Preminger’s tantrums. “McNamara was to commit suicide in 1978,” Preminger’s biographer Foster Hirsch ominously remarks. The list of jittery actresses with fragile egos reduced by Preminger to tears also includes Marilyn Monroe, Jean Seberg, and Dorothy Dandridge—all suicides as well, it is perhaps unfair to note.

The image of Preminger as an apoplectic Prussian bully persists to this day. He had himself to blame: it was the result not only of his treatment of actors but of his having performed with great aplomb as a Nazi in a string of films, most memorably as Colonel von Scherbach in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. But unlike other directors with larger-than-life personas—Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles, for instance—Preminger’s public image often seemed to forestall serious consideration of his films.

His abilities as a director were also overshadowed by his accomplishments as an independent producer and self-promoter. He crippled the Hays Production Code when his uncertified film, the now quaintly risqué The Moon Is Blue, became a major box office hit; he broke Hollywood’s blacklist by crediting Dalton Trumbo for the screenplay of Exodus (1960); and the success he enjoyed after abandoning the Hollywood studio system brought about dramatic changes in the way American films were financed and made. Yet for all these successes, critics rarely approved of his work. Pauline Kael wrote that “his films are consistently superficial and facile,” and Stanley Kauffmann accused him of “shrewd exploitation of mass tastes.” “The line on Otto Preminger was that he was the greatest producer and the worst director in Hollywood history,” said Roger Ebert. “Both statements contained a measure of truth.” Even Preminger’s obituary in The New York Times could do no better than call him “one of the most competent independent producer-directors of his time.”

Yet seemingly out of nowhere, twenty-two years after his death, Preminger is having his moment. He is the subject of two new major biographies, both of them expertly researched and earnest in their enthusiasm for Preminger’s films: Foster Hirsch’s Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King and Chris Fujiwara’s The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger. Hirsch also helped to organize an impressively well-attended sixteen-day, twenty-three-film retrospective that played at New York’s Film Forum and Los Angeles’s American Cinematheque. The focus of all the recent attention is not Preminger the tyrant or Preminger the producer, but Preminger the director. In this Hirsch and Fujiwara follow the lead of the critic Andrew Sarris, who, when Preminger died in 1986, called for “a massive revaluation [of Preminger’s films] on both the thematic and stylistic fronts.” Indeed several additional critical assessments have appeared recently that, for the most part, endorse his biographers’ efforts to nudge Preminger’s status closer to that of such émigré peers as Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Fritz Lang.

Much has been written about Preminger’s willingness to let his films end in ambiguity1 and his penchant for long takes and wide camera shots. Yet a cohesive explanation of Preminger’s contribution as a filmmaker, and how he achieved it, has remained elusive. Are his thirty-seven films no more than the work of a highly competent craftsman? Laura (1944) is undeniably one of the great film noirs; Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is a much-beloved contribution to that most hackneyed of genres, the courtroom drama; and Peter Bogdanovich’s claim that Advise and Consent (1962) is “by far the best political movie ever made in this country” is plausible—so long as you confine the “political” to insider politics in Washington. These films and several others are taken seriously, but Otto Preminger rarely has been.

It’s worth noting that Preminger, in his public life at least, showed few signs of taking himself seriously. “If you’re interested in me, too bad for you,” he said, in a quotation that serves as the epigram to Fujiwara’s book. Indeed, both biographies include much speculation by the people closest to him that even his tantrums were a put-on, an extension of the character he played in his Nazi film roles. “There was very little of the temper at home,” said Sandy Gardner, Preminger’s stepson by his second marriage. “That was reserved for younger actors, for business dealings, and with production people. Mostly, I thought the temper was an act.” “It’s a game with him—he has great fun!” said his widow, Hope. Willi Frischauer, Preminger’s first biographer, describes witnessing one of the director’s famous angry phone calls:

This is the worst contract I have ever signed!… This is an outrage!” Preminger shouts. “It means the agent is getting more than I!” The receiver comes down with a bang. Preminger’s head sways from side to side, the eyes roll until a smile appears on his ample lips which his tongue moistens in a circular movement. Looking across the table, he winks as if to say: “An impressive performance, eh?”2

But as Hirsch’s book makes clear, behind these rages—fictional or not—there lay a powerful and calculated ambition, formed at an early age. Hirsch’s is the most comprehensive of the Preminger biographies, and exhibits a rapt fascination with the man and his self-styled myth that Chris Fujiwara’s cooler, more cerebral portrait does not. (Fujiwara’s reserved perspective makes him the more probing critic of the two biographers, though he is hindered by an excessive reliance on academic discussions of such subjects as “externality” and “diegesis.”) Hirsch is a zealous booster of the films, but he is most interested in Preminger’s life and character, and seems to have interviewed every surviving cast member, business associate, family member, and intern who came into Preminger’s orbit.3 He gives particular attention to the three men who shaped Preminger’s personality and career.

Preminger was born on December 5, 1905. Though he claimed to be Viennese by birth, he lived his first ten years in Czernovic (in his autobiography, Preminger identifies Czernovic as “the capital of Bukowina, the most eastern province of the Austrian Hungarian Empire”). The Premingers did not move to Vienna, in fact, until 1915, when Otto’s father Markus, a public prosecutor, was offered a position roughly equivalent to that of the attorney general in the United States. Markus, the first Jew ever to hold that post, saw himself above all as a loyal Austrian; he attended synagogue only on Yom Kippur and observed no other religious traditions. Otto was sent to a Catholic high school. As the legal defender of the crown’s interests, Markus Preminger was “an ideal bureaucrat, unfailingly punctual, industrious, and self-disciplined”—qualities that served Otto well in his own career. In 1935, when Preminger was invited to work at Twentieth Century-Fox in Los Angeles after a successful run as a theater director in Vienna, his parents stayed behind. Three years later, after Hitler invaded Austria, they would have likely been killed were it not for the eleventh-hour intervention of an old friend, Vienna’s chief of police, who helped them to escape on a plane to Zurich.

Preminger may have emulated his father’s work ethic—he once boasted that after completing a film, he would “go to bed for three days” before beginning the next one. But as a young adult Preminger was drawn to two larger-than-life figures that seem to have exerted an even greater influence. At the age of seventeen he became an apprentice to the legendary Viennese theater director Max Reinhardt. An intensely focused, inventive showman with eclectic taste, Reinhardt staged every sort of production but preferred those on a prodigious scale. In his memoir Preminger speaks glowingly of Reinhardt, who appears more frequently than anyone else. Under his tutelage, Preminger developed a view of the director as master impresario. He adopted Reinhardt’s controlling style, his brazen self-promotion, and his taste for the grand gesture: Preminger always favored the productions with the greatest narrative scope, size of cast, and expense.

Darryl Zanuck was Preminger’s first boss in Hollywood, and the only person in these biographies with an even larger personality than Preminger himself. Hirsch and Fujiwara tend to cast the cigar-chomping producer as a cruel, quick-tempered tyrant—he fired Preminger when the young director dared to shout back during one of Zanuck’s tirades. Zanuck bullied Preminger through every stage of each production, from the story to the final edit. “Freedom of choice was in rather short supply at Twentieth Century-Fox under Darryl Zanuck,” wrote Preminger.

Yet Preminger took Zanuck’s ruthless methods to heart. From his first days in Hollywood he developed a reputation for being an efficient, if relentless, executive. His films came in on schedule and under budget. He worked closely with his writers—and fired them freely when their work didn’t please him—but also with his set designers, cinematographers, composers, and costume designers. (When Lana Turner refused to wear an outfit in Anatomy of a Murder, he growled, “You’ll do and wear exactly what I say.” She was fired and replaced with Lee Remick.) His frightening, overbearing stubbornness recognized no limits. During the filming of a port scene in Exodus, he ordered an assistant, “Get that ship out of the ocean”; the underling had to figure out how to convince the Israeli command to send the SS Jerusalem out to sea.

This controlling impulse extended to his direction of actors. He memorized the entire screenplay before production began, and flew into a rage whenever anyone deviated from it. Much to the dismay of his Method-trained actors, he would demonstrate what he wanted from his cast by performing their roles for them. There are two unsettling photographs in Hirsch’s book of Preminger on set “showing” a male lead how to kiss his female star.

Such a single-minded approach would seem to indicate the presence, behind all of his specific and inflexible demands, of his own larger artistic vision. His failure to show any obvious signs of one has always been a main source of his critics’ frustration. Like Reinhardt, Preminger experimented with wildly diverse genres, subject matter, and themes. As a result, discussions of his career are often limited, by convenience, to two main categories: the film noir—Laura, Fallen Angel, Daisy Kenyon, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Thirteenth Letter, and Angel Face—and the institutional epics—Anatomy of a Murder (about the legal system), Exodus, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal (the Catholic Church), In Harm’s Way (the Navy).

  1. 1

    See David Denby, “Balance of Terror: How Otto Preminger Made His Movies,” The New Yorker, January 14, 2008; and Dave Kehr, “A Tyrant With a Focus on Love’s Uncertainty,” The New York Times, December 30, 2007.

  2. 2

    Willi Frischauer, Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger (Morrow, 1974), p. 15.

  3. 3

    Hirsh also quotes frequently (though at times too credulously) from Preminger’s own hyperbolic autobiography, and with good reason—it is by far the most entertaining book about the director. Preminger barely mentions the films themselves, and doesn’t discuss cinematic technique at all, but alternates between gossipy anecdotes about his actors, tales of womanizing, and bitchy asides about his friends and enemies. About Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay for Saint Joan, he writes: “Though he gives a first impression of being controlled, correct, and British he is actually mad about women. Sex is on his mind all the time.”

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