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The Films Of Otto Preminger: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 14, 2011 at 4:57AM

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.
5

“Whirlpool” (1949)
“Whirlpool,” though a perfectly serviceable noir tale well-told in and of itself, often suffers from comparison with "Laura," the director’s other, more widely remembered work with leading woman Gene Tierney." Recycling a lot of the themes from Preminger’s earlier masterwork, Tierney, playing a fragile society girl and insomniac suffering from issues with kleptomania is, in some ways, a precursor to Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” transferring her irrational fears of her domineering father over to her husband, a cold psychoanalyst (Richard Conte) who neglects her wants and desires. Acting out at a department store one day by pilfering a mermaid pin from over a shop floor counter, Ann Sutton (Tierney), an outwardly serene wife on the verge of “exploding with neuroses,” “play acting” through life in the shadow of her spouse and toiling away in a figurative “torture chamber,” is rescued from persecution by a “humble astronomer” named David Korvo. Repaying the favor by agreeing to undergo casual treatment with him at a hotel bar, it isn’t long before Ann, susceptible to Korvo’s manipulative wiles, has found herself at the murder scene of one of her husband’s former patients, one of her scarves wrapped round the victim’s neck and cursed with temporary amnesia to boot. Proving Paul Schrader’s edict on the inherent convolution of the genre to be true (“the how is always more important than the what”) the plot, such as it is, is a load of ballyhoo, but Preminger deftly cuts through its myriad contortions by focusing almost exclusively on the emotional distress inflicted upon Ann and those around her. In true noir fashion, and like Waldo Lydecker before him, Korvo is the villainous puppet master in plain sight from the beginning, and Jose Ferrer seems to be having a blast playing up his nefarious tendencies to the hilt. Even though Ben Hecht’s pseudonymous screenplay resolves itself in a disappointingly pat way involving all manner of deus ex machinas and nonsensical bouts of self-hypnotism, the end product seems, somewhat fittingly for a film about the evils of hypnotherapy, mystical, trance-like and bewitching; albeit in Preminger’s hands a typically cool and lucid breakdown of barely-contained madness. [B+]

“Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950)
Written by two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (“His Girl Friday,” “Some Like It Hot,” Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” “Notorious”), a man known as the “Shakespeare of Hollywood,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends” isn’t as well-known as the rest of Preminger’s oeuvre, but is, regardless, a classic film noir. Once again starring two early muses, “Laura” stars Dana Andrews and the lovely Gene Tierney, Hecht poses a grim question that Preminger is happy to frame in the darkest and grittiest of ways: are you just the product of your nature? Andrews plays Dixon, a ruthless and cynical detective known for his violent ways. He abhors crime because his father was a lousy criminal and now he’s got a monster-sized chip on his shoulder to take out on unlucky thugs. But his anger gets the best of him and he accidentally kills a two-bit gambler in self-defense. Panicking and assuming the worst, he tries to dispose of the body, trying to pin it on an old mob boss rival (Gary Merrill), but inadvertently fixes the murder on a innocent cab driver (Tom Tully). But having fallen in love with the cabbie’s daughter (Tierney), the heavy-handed cop only gets caught in a tighter web of deceit when he tries to use his influence to change the verdict. Karl Malden plays Andrews' superior, a man convinced the driver is guilty and simultaneously sick of Andrew’s brutal tactics. While it’s a taut little potboiler, what makes ‘Sidewalk’ special is the psychology behind its protagonist; the moral crisis haunting him, his desperate need to be greater than his father and the lingering, misanthropic feeling that he too is just no good. Plus the sweaty paranoia dripping off his psyche while he tries to redeem himself, not get caught, and not hang an innocent man makes for a gripping noir exercise. [B+]

“Angel Face” (1952)
"Angel Face" sits in what is generally agreed upon as Preminger's peak period of filmmaking while he was under contract for 20th Century Fox, but was shot for RKO. Howard Hughes, who owned RKO, requested Preminger specifically for the script, which at the time had the inventive title of "Murder Story" – based on real life murders where two young lovers were charged with blowing up the girl’s parents. Preminger was unimpressed but Hughes characteristically persisted, resorting finally to getting Preminger out of bed at 3 am to walk around the streets of L.A. to discuss the project. Jean Simmons (the “Angel Face” to be) was only under contract to RKO for another 18 shooting days, also Hughes and Simmons had recently fought – a memorable argument that resulted in Simmons chopping off all her hair. This film was Hughes' way to get even – he gave Preminger carte blanche on the film (including the script), stipulating only that he didn’t hire any “commies” to do re-writes and that Simmons had to wear a long black wig throughout the picture – and Preminger agreed. Though various versions of stories filtered back from on set of fights continuing between Robert Mitchum, Preminger and Simmons, it was Simmons and Hughes who came out winners in the end – "Angel Face" is one of the best performances of her career opposite Mitchum, who went to star in another Preminger film "River of No Return". A seemingly forgotten noir classic "Angel Face" features Simmons in the role of Diane Tremayne, the characteristically ambiguous sort of femme fatale, and Mitchum as our equally ambiguous charming anti-hero, Frank Jessup. Their failed love affair based on misconceptions of each other’s better-off-ness ends up in a battle of wills, but Tremayne’s bid for control over Jessup ends up killing both her father and her stepmother. The film's highlight is its ending where Tremayne suddenly and dramatically takes both herself and Jessup over the cliff so they’ll finally be together forever. Though it retreads old ground, it's still an all around quality noir flick. [B]

“Carmen Jones” (1954)
There's something very curious about this little flick. Based on the 1940s Broadway play, Preminger's version tasks the great Dorothy Dandridge to play the titular seductress who finds herself roping in a number of suckers (including an engaged military officer and a famous boxer), which eventually leads to her demise. Chock full of engaging drama and the director's usual keen staging sense (a railroad set piece is rather incredible), the film is actually more of an oddly-toned bafflement than successful film. Following a questionable female protagonist is certainly commendable, as is releasing a film at a time when an all-black cast was something uncommon. But what do we make of the filmmaker's grounded, uber-realistic interpretation of the material, in which every other race and skin color is entirely absent? Or what about the dreadful musical "numbers," quite possibly the most stilted bits in the medium's history, where the actors lip sync to an incredibly different operatic voice? The result is an awkward, jarring experience; one that coasts along for awhile on its pure strangeness. However, its inability to entertain rises above all and, in the end, it's nowhere near the status of being a "so bad it's good" train-wreck. About as uneven as they get. [C-]

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, The Essentials, Otto Preminger


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