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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

“Exodus” (1960)
What happens when Otto Preminger gets too personally close to his material is "Exodus." The tale of Israel's genesis was close to the heart of the Jewish director, whose family narrowly escaped Hitler in Austria in 1937. However, its tedious 212-minute running time is excessive at best (comedian Mort Sahl famously implored at a preview, "Otto, let my people go"). MGM commissioned Leon Uris to write the massive novel, with the intent to develop it into a film, but Preminger, with the help of his agent brother Ingo and a cash infusion from United Artists, bought the rights from MGM and developed the controversial project himself as a producer/director/writer, openly collaborating with blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Shot on location in Greece and Israel, the film follows Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), an activist who liberates a ship of European Jewish immigrants to Palestine from a British detention camp in Cyprus, and then falls in love with an American widow (Eva Marie Saint) volunteering as a nurse in the detention camp, and tries to adopt a teenage refugee, Karen (Preminger discovery, 14-year-old Jill Haworth). By far the best performance and most compelling storyline is that of Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a teen Auschwitz survivor who joins the Israeli terrorist group Irgun. Mineo is riveting (and earned an Oscar nom) as the traumatized, angry youth. Preminger beautifully utilizes camera movement to unite characters, story and space, and none more so than the scene where in one long, unbroken take, Landau goes from tearfully confessing his wartime trauma to fervently swearing his allegiance to Irgun on the Torah. An almost dialogue-free jailbreak sequence is also masterfully executed, inspiring viewers to wish that the film was just about Landau and Irgun without all the conflicted love story and expository political speechifying. It's a well-told tale, but it doesn't feel as epic as other films of its size. It's worth the watch for the gorgeous locations and fine performances, but it's more interesting as a part of Preminger's bio as a multitasking producer/director working around the studio system to get his personal projects made. [B-]

“Advise and Consent” (1962)
While superficially, it may not be the most fast-moving film and or the sexiest topic on earth -- congressional voting on whether an aide to the president should be promoted to secretary of state, Otto Preminger's 1964 political drama turns out to be quite the absorbing examination of vindictive, amoral politics and internecine congressional squabbles. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it's a fearsomely complex tale -- as detailed about the nomination process as anything until "The West Wing" -- but an always watchable one, thanks in particular to a tremendous ensemble cast including Henry Fonda, the marvelous Charles Laughton in his final role, Peter Lawford, Walter Pidgeon, Burgess Meredith and a career-best performance from future "Knots Landing" star Don Murray (there's even the screen debut of a young Betty White). Ever ahead of his time, Preminger was one of the first filmmakers to openly deal with the question of homosexuality, as well as making screen legend Fonda play a character with a communist background, at a time when many were still blacklisted for such affiliations. It's perhaps led more by the issues than, say, "Anatomy of a Murder," sometimes letting the drama come in second, but like that film, it's the moral seediness and lack of easy answers that make the film worth watching. An unjustly neglected picture. [B+]

“The Cardinal” (1963)
Considering that Peter Bogdanovich named Preminger’s previous film “by far the best political movie ever made in this country,” it’s baffling to see the director shoot so wide of the mark just a year later. “The Cardinal”, though it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama in the year of its release, is a deathly and slow-moving three-hour chamber piece that feels about twice as long and seems, in spite of its glaringly ‘worthy’ subject matter, wilfully strip-mined of any relevance to contemporary audiences. A shonky biographical portrait of an impossibly virtuous and fictional Boston priest named Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tyron), the glacial narrative checks off a laundry list of ham-handed 20th century ‘social issues’ (forced abortion; the rise of fascism; mounting racial intolerance in America) that pits Brother Fermoyle against the Nazis, domestic anti-Semites and the Ku Klux Klan, and in an almost laughably trite fashion, as he assails the ranks of the Catholic Church with a brief sojourn in Vatican City before ending up smack-dab in the middle of the Austrian Anschluss. Although Preminger allegedly spent the whole shoot screaming at leading man Tyron to goad him into a better performance – tellingly he was later to retire from screen acting and become a novelist – the character exhibits almost zero religious fervor, is unerringly bland as a lead despite threatening to hang up his cassock on several occasions and, like the film surrounding him, remains airless, meandering, arid, halting and overwhelmingly stupid from beginning to end. Bizarrely John Huston swings by for a cameo appearance as piano-tapping avuncular bishop and Romy Schneider – sapped of her usual erotic allure – ironically warbles about having her individuality suppressed by a totalitarian dictator. Preminger’s scope would be admirable if the end product weren’t so stultifying slow but, as one of the film’s innumerable clergymen warns, misguided ambition can be “fatal” to a priest’s career. Unfortunately in this case, the same turns out to be true of film directors as Preminger succumbs to perhaps the worst cardinal sin of all: crushing boredom. [C]

“Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965)
An oddly misshapen curio of a film, "Bunny Lake is Missing" is remarkable for featuring all the excesses of Preminger's directorial persona: for every misstep there is a redemptive flash of genius, or, at least, wtf?-ness. The plot details a young American woman in London, Anne (Carol Lynley, Preminger's choice over Jane Fonda), who discovers her child, Bunny, has gone missing from school. But no one seems to remember the little girl, and the question for the Inspector (an underused Laurence Olivier, playing the calm center of the increasingly hysterical storm) becomes whether Bunny exists at all outside her mother's imagination. Shot in immaculate black and white, oozing that very British brand of 1960s surreality (the London locations are used to eerie effect) and opened with a typically glorious Saul Bass title sequence, the film at least looks consistently gorgeous. And Lynley's performance, while strangely absent like she's underwater, actually pays off later in the film, giving Anne nuances that possibly a more engaged actress might not have. But plotting the reverse trajectory from good performance to bad iis Keir Dullea as Anne's brother, whose otherworldliness -- my god, it's full of stars -- is reigned in initially, but as his bland charm gives way to creepiness, and then to lit-from-below lunacy, we get too clear a signal too early on who the really disturbed one is. Of course, since this is Preminger, there are seedy undercurrents: the brother/sister relationship is markedly incestuous, in character if not in deed, and the Chihuahua-carrying Noel Coward character who aggressively hits on Anne and then shows off his whip collection to the police seems only there to amp up the sexual deviancy quotient. Hmm, so there's a horrible shoehorned musical tie-in with pop group The Zombies, but there is also a handful of great British actors in supporting roles? And there's a botched sense of temporality (does all this really happen in one day?), but there's also Denys N. Coop's glossy cinematography? Scoring the film's pros and cons ends up at a draw: you can write it off as an overwrought potboiler, or you can enjoy it for what it is: an overwrought potboiler. [B]

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


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