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The Deceptive Director

Yet this summary, besides omitting his nine early, undistinguished studio comedies (including Danger—Love at Work, Margin for Error, and Centennial Summer), neglects the all-black musicals (Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess), the pointedly controversial films (The Moon Is Blue, The Man with the Golden Arm, about heroin addiction, and Rosebud, about Palestinian terrorism), a mawkish western (River of No Return), a turgid, big-budget epic about seventeenth-century England (Forever Amber), adaptations of George Bernard Shaw and Françoise Sagan (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, both starring Jean Seberg), a psychological thriller (Bunny Lake Is Missing), and even an LSD picture (Skidoo). To reduce Preminger to his noir and epic films is to ignore roughly two thirds of his career.

It is also to lose sight of the qualities that give unity to his work. For despite his seemingly eclectic taste in subject material, Preminger’s presence is felt in each of these films—even when it is not particularly welcome. One of his identifying marks, undoubtedly, is his predilection for long takes. “If it were possible,” he once said, “I would do the whole of the film in one shot.” His stubborn attachment to this technique was the source of many of his purple-faced tantrums. During the filming of Exodus, he asked Lee J. Cobb to deliver a fourteen-line speech announcing the birth of the state of Israel, in front of a crowd of 40,000 extras, in one take. Preminger told Cobb they’d finish the shot in ten minutes. After twelve hours, Cobb finally exploded, calling Preminger “inhuman.” Preminger promptly fired Cobb from the film—fortuitous timing, since Cobb had no more scenes left to shoot.

Yet there are moments in which Preminger’s reluctance to say “Cut!” yields striking results. The most memorable example of this technique comes in Advise and Consent, the story of a US president’s nominee for secretary of state (Henry Fonda) whose candidacy is imperiled by allegations of Communist ties. Much of the action takes place in the Senate chambers and in the homes of the senators, as lawmakers from both parties attempt to persuade—and then blackmail—their opponents into bipartisan compromise. Despite an impressive cast (Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Gene Tierney, and Peter Lawford, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, who secured for Preminger the right to film in the White House), Preminger’s focus is squarely on the checks and balances of the American political process. At the end of the film, when the confirmation finally reaches a vote, it is announced that the sickly president has died. The vice-president (Lew Ayres) abstains from casting a decisive tiebreaking vote, declaring instead that he will name his own nominee once he is sworn into office.

The turbulent final three minutes of the film unfold in a single impressively graceful shot. It begins with the announcement of the president’s death, follows Ayres’s departure from the chamber, pauses as the majority leader delivers a eulogy for the president, and finally the camera rises and zooms out until the bickering and posturing senators become indistinguishable from each other as they slowly file out. As the credits roll, Preminger freezes on the image of the empty Senate floor.

This distance from his subjects is also evident in Preminger’s affection for wide-angle shots (and his disdain for close-ups). It’s hard not to wonder whether his preference for a wide cinematic perspective was influenced by his early career in the Viennese theater. Too often in his films one encounters sequences that are shot like plays, with a camera at a safe distance from the action, and every character visible for the duration of a scene. But there are times when this approach leads to visually opulent crescendos, such as the confirmation scene of a bishop in a Roman church in The Cardinal ; an overhead shot of a joyous, carnivalesque street-dancing sequence on the French Riviera in Bonjour Tristesse ; and the sweeping images of the wild, western Canadian landscape in River of No Return, the first film he shot in CinemaScope, a movie format that projected film to twice the standard width.

Fujiwara argues persuasively that “fluid camera movement” is also characteristic of Preminger’s style. He draws attention to moments in which Preminger refuses to allow such physical obstacles as walls or windows to interfere with the continuity of a single shot. But Preminger’s camera, while nimble, is rarely innovative or spontaneous. His enthusiasm for the wide canvas, when combined with his preference for the long take, has a tendency to establish a ponderous, inert mood that his dexterous camerawork cannot undo. The heaviness of his style considerably dates most of his films. It is also one of the reasons why he never made a great comedy (his best one, The Fan, owes what lightness it has to Dorothy Parker’s agile script, which she adapted from Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan).

More telling than Preminger’s stylistic preoccupations is the sense of ambiguity that critics have noted. At the conclusion of Anatomy of a Murder, we still can’t be certain of the innocence of the defendant, who is acquitted of murder on the ground of “irresistible impulse.” The ambiguity diverts the viewer’s attention away from the characters and toward the film’s true focus: the American legal system. In this sense, it serves the same function as the final shot of the Senate in Advise and Consent.

Yet when one regards all of Preminger’s work, it becomes clear that these moments of ambiguity, though powerful, are not representative of a larger motive. He is not a director who examines with nuance the silent exchanges, uncertain glances, and distances between characters. On the contrary, Preminger’s characters tend to hold forth loudly and articulately about their sentiments. His films are driven not by uncertainty but by a judicious balancing of opposing forces. In Anatomy of a Murder the viewer empathizes not with Jimmy Stewart’s country lawyer but with the jury, trying to weigh the two sides of the murder trial with an evenhanded discernment. It makes sense that the last shot of Advise and Consent is seen from the perspective of the overhead gallery, for this is where the viewer is placed—above the conflict. Preminger avoids identifying either party as Republican or Democrat, so that we are supposed to appreciate the senators’ impassioned speeches quite aside from political affiliation.

This balancing act is played out to a point of near absurdity in Exodus, where each character represents a particular point of view—one argues for Israeli acts of terrorism against British rule, another urges cooperation between the Haganah and the Irgun, and a third is planted simply to narrate the history of the region—and scenes play out as a form of orderly debate. “On potentially divisive topics,” Hirsch observes, “Preminger…treads cautiously.” “In a dramatic medium, you show all sides,” said Preminger. This does not make for subtlety.

Preminger’s real interest is not in moral uncertainty but in moral contradiction. His best films pivot around characters who act against their own consciences—and their own interests—in dramatic, and often shocking, ways. This is why the most surprising moment in Advise and Consent happens far away from the Senate floor and the oratory spoken there. It comes late in the movie, when it is revealed that Brig (Don Murray), the Mormon senator from Utah who is the film’s most earnest and least cynical legislator, is concealing a homosexual relationship he had while in the army. When an opponent threatens to reveal his secret, Brig’s internal equilibrium is destroyed; an overpowering shame erupts in him, and he kills himself.

The courtroom banter that takes up most of Anatomy of a Murder ‘s second half is hokey and contrived. A more fascinating scene comes earlier in the picture, when Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) first meets the accused murderer, Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara). Biegler is low on money and wants to take the case, just so long as he can see a way to win it. So he darkly insinuates to the defendant that he must claim to have committed murder without premeditation, regardless of whether this is the truth. Preminger cast his films with an acute awareness of the associations his audiences would bring to the stars he chose, and it is unnerving to see Jimmy Stewart, America’s amiable boy-next-door, displaying such raw cynicism and greed. This is not to say that Biegler is a menacing character—throughout the rest of the film Stewart acts just as charmingly as one might expect. But Preminger’s subtle handling of this scene establishes a mood of jaundiced uneasiness that never goes away.

These unexpected moments of moral contradiction are a recurring motif for Preminger, and they give some unity to his diverse body of work. At the end of Carmen Jones, a vicious jealousy suddenly transforms the virtuous young soldier Joe (Harry Belafonte) into a murderous monster. In The Cardinal, the young priest Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) allows his sister to die during pregnancy rather than permit an abortion—a decision that, Preminger implies, haunts him for the rest of his life and casts an eerie gloom over the film’s final scene, in which Fermoyle accepts an appointment to the College of Cardinals. In Bonjour Tristesse, the teenager Cécile (Seberg) grows jealous when her father, a middle-aged playboy (David Niven), finally chooses a woman to marry. To preserve their incestuous bond, Cécile maneuvers her father into committing adultery, a scheme that plays out like a bizarre version of The Parent Trap. What makes Cécile’s machinations so startling is the gentle way Preminger portrays her—as a naïf whose childish confusion of familial and romantic love leads her to behave with a cynical coldness that she herself can’t understand or control.

The most violent example of such behavior comes in Preminger’s underappreciated film about the American Navy, In Harm’s Way. Halfway through the film, Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas), who has won over the audience with his grittiness and his loyalty to his imperiled superior, Captain Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne), rapes an army nurse—for no other reason than that he feels she’s led him on. It is a completely unexpected event, horrifying in its abruptness yet characteristic of Preminger’s most powerful moments.

Preminger’s fascination with sudden, irrational bursts of immoral behavior is one of the reasons why he was particularly suited to film noir. The subversion of conventional morality is, after all, noir’s very subject. In these films, the hero suppresses his darkest impulses while they fester and finally explode in outbursts of violence. Laura is about high-society New Yorkers whose ugliest, most animalistic desires come to light during an investigation into the mysterious murder of a beautiful young advertising executive. The tense film Where the Sidewalk Ends begins when a sadistic cop (Dana Andrews), on probation for repeated incidents of brutality, accidentally kills a suspect with a well-placed right hook; he must commit a series of increasingly criminal acts to cover up his crime and prove his own innocence. Preminger’s only late-period noir, Bunny Lake Is Missing, is about a woman who claims that her daughter has been abducted. Numerous clues, however, cause the viewer to doubt her story. It’s a terrifying, taut thriller—at least until the screwy final minutes—that derives its power from the suggestion that the loving mother might herself be guilty of the crime she fears has been done to her child.

In these characters there is a hint of the contradictions that Preminger’s biographers detect in the man himself. He was a fiery, impassioned filmmaker whose work could be oddly dispassionate. He was a tyrant who inspired deep affection among those closest to him. Hirsch’s biography ends with a portrait of Preminger’s final years when, following five consecutive critical and box office flops, he struggled to secure funding, gave up hopes of making another film, and drifted into a benign senility. Twenty-two years have blunted the embarrassment of his late films. His flaws are just as visible today, but Preminger’s inquiries into the most irrational extremes of human behavior continue to surprise and unnerve. His best work reminds us that rage—even the rage of a purple-faced tyrant—is not nearly as frightening as a man’s capacity to do evil when he intends to do good.

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