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The Films Of Otto Preminger: A Retrospective

Features
by The Playlist Staff
July 14, 2011 4:57 AM
5 Comments
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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]

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5 Comments

  • theoncominghope | July 20, 2011 11:42 AMReply

    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 | July 16, 2011 7:17 AMReply

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

  • Zes | July 16, 2011 5:47 AMReply

    "...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 | July 15, 2011 10:10 AMReply

    Nice work!

  • Marrrk | July 14, 2011 5:27 AMReply

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

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