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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).

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.

  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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