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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

“River of No Return” (1954)
While Frank Fenton's premise is loosely borrowed from “The Bicycle Thief,” there’s almost absolutely no way you’d make the connection unless you read that detail somewhere. Set in Canada during the 19th century Gold Rush, a bosomy Marilyn Monroe plays a radiant singer/dancer in Preminger's CinemaScope-shot Western adventure cum revenge film. Preminger's 1954 Western actioner is notable for at least three reasons: one of the most ungrateful characters to ever hit the screen (Rory Calhoun), an improbably even-keeled farmer who’s been double-crossed by said scoundrel (Robert Mitchum) and an illogically calm wife (Marilyn Monroe). To rewind a bit, this fluffy drama with corny song sequence interludes and poor visual effects centers on a husband and wife duo (Monroe, Calhoun) who are rescued on a raging river by a farmer who recently turned from murderer and deadbeat dad, to nurturing father (Mitchum). The farmer's thanks? He's throttled over the head by the gold-hungry husband at gunpoint and has his horse stolen. With warring native Indians on their tail and no gun to defend themselves, the father, the singer and his son are forced to take to a raging river and go after the man who stole their horses, guns and money. Along the way, Mitchum and Monroe are at odds while she prevents him tracking down her lowlife husband (but predictably, some sexual sparks do fly). Marred by bad special effects (fake-looking backdrop as the cast’s raft is thrown about a perilous river), an overly melodramatic score, hamfisted acting, one-note villains (faceless Indians acting for no reason), and an on-the-nose moralizing ending, “River of No Return” is essentially a forgettable Preminger film -- and note, one that he was assigned to under his studio contract at 20th Century Fox -- you’ll want to skip it unless you have the unfortunate assignment of watching the film for some group-written retrospective on Otto Preminger. [C-]

“The Man with the Golden Arm” (1956)
How do we feel about a 1950s drama starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin junkie today? While at least thirty gritty indies about drug abuse are produced every year, the release of Preminger's serious look at the dark addiction was revolutionary at the time. Sinatra's Frankie "Machine" gets out of prison a new man – clean as a whistle and fit with a drive to become a big-time drummer on the music scene. But the very second he gets out, he finds himself surrounded by the hoodlums he used to run with (Robert Strauss and, "A Christmas Story" babies take note, an excellent Darren McGavin) and his needy, wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker), who scoffs at his yearning to play in big bands. Despite the good intentions that old fling Molly (Kim Novak) provides, Frankie soon finds himself relapsing into nasty habits. Yes, Sinatra is a little too clean cut and handsome to really pull off looking like a true junkie, but his manic hunger is well-played and the director's refusal to sugar-coat or shy away does the material well. Ol' Otto is still a step above his peers in this one: whether he's nabbing most of a scene in a single shot or letting an ending moment linger, this director had a introspective look on his material, whereas his contemporaries were likely to use minimal camera movements or hurriedly cross-fade the second a character stopped talking. Still, the editing definitely could be tighter and the music’s jarring, overly-serious tendencies often come off as hokey (particularly when Frankie first returns to smack -- blasts of music are timed perfectly to each tool being place on a table). Cinema has certainly gotten much more brutal and unforgiving, but this still holds up particularly well. [B-]

“Bonjour Tristesse” (1958)
Preminger's disastrous first film with his discovery Jean Seberg, “St. Joan,” was both a critical and financial failure that saw much of the critical vitriol heaped upon Seberg's performance. Preminger offered her a second chance with "Bonjour Tristesse," based on the French bestseller by Francois Sagan of the same name. Shot in the relatively new format of Cinemascope combined with long takes, the film presents five characters and their shifting relationships and desires, examining the potentially devastating whims of the idle rich. Preminger intercuts color and black and white with the nostalgic flashbacks on the French Riviera with hyper real vivid Technicolor, markedly contrasted with the dreary black and white presentation of the present day reality. It also contrasts between the past vibrancy of its lead and narrator Cecile (Seberg) and the lifeless numb Cecile that recounts her story to the audience. Also featuring winning performances by David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Mylène Demongeo, "Bonjour Tristesse" famously brought Seberg to the attention of Jean-Luc Godard, who cast her in his debut feature "Breathless." He has been quoted as saying Seberg’s Patricia in "Breathless" picks up where Cecile left off in "Bonjour Tristesse" -- "I could have taken the last shot of Preminger's film and started after dissolving to a title, 'Three Years Later.' “ [B-]

“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959)
It's almost certain that "Anatomy of a Murder" wouldn't get made today, but it's perhaps even more staggering that it got made back in 1959. A courtroom procedural with a hefty 160-minute running time, with a franker depiction of sexuality than had been seen in Hollywood for decades (if there are previous on-screen mentions of words like "sperm" and "sexual climax," we're not aware of them), it wasn't an easy prospect (presumably the presence of Mr. Middle America Jimmy Stewart in the lead helped it get made) but it more than paid off. Perhaps Preminger's most beloved film, it earned seven Oscar nominations, rave reviews and proved a box office hit. Now, half a century on, it holds up like gangbusters, as detailed and realistic a legal thriller as has ever been shown (it's shown in law schools to this day). Centering around Stewart's defense of an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who killed a bartender that he claimed raped his wife (Lee Remick), it risks seeming dry, but Preminger balances the procedural aspects with Duke Ellington's flirty compositions (one of the first times a jazz artist had been asked to record a full score), one of Saul Bass's finest credit sequences, a wry sense of humor and plenty of scurrilous details. Modern audiences may be a little uneasy at the sexual politics -- Remick's character is flirty and promiscuous, and much of the plot revolves around whether she consented to sex or not -- but it's the fierce moral ambiguity that makes the film so memorable: as with a real case, there are no easy answers to be found here. And the performances, which include a cameo from real-life lawyer Joseph Welch, the man who essentially destroyed Joe McCarthy, as the presiding judge, are excellent across the board, particularly Stewart, who's rarely had a part better fitted to the star persona, and George C. Scott, whose turn as the big-city prosecutor announced his arrival in a big way (it's virtually his first screen credit and he won an Oscar nomination for his trouble). [A]

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


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