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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

“Hurry Sundown” (1967)
Based on a then-current best-seller by husband and wife team Katya and Bert Gilden (writing under the pseudonym K.B. Gilden), “Hurry Sundown” must have seemed like a hit in the making. Who better to tackle this 1940s hot-bed issue drama, sprinkled with a healthy dose of lust and racism? While Preminger may have seemed like the sure bet, the flaccid, preachy and just plain dull drama presented here needs to be taken behind the woodshed, to put it kindly. Angelic cousin Rad (John Phillip Law) wrestles against the unscrupulous machinations of draft-dodging, child-abusing, saxophone playing Cousin Henry (Michael Caine, what have ye wrought). Henry is after precious land, one plot owned by Rad, who’s back home fresh from the war, and the other by Reeve (Robert Hook). Reeve is a black man who works hard, doesn’t trust white people, and nurses his mother Rose (Beah Richards), who happened to be the “mammy” of Julie Ann (Jane Fonda, smoldering), Henry’s wife. Preminger directs with working skill, but the film slips away from him, exhibiting a naivete unbecoming of the times, especially with a lengthy segment devoted to crosscutting between Caine’s broken home and Law’s Brady Bunch arrangement. In the end, “Hurry Sundown” probably felt dated when it was released and now it feels absolutely antique. A lesser film in the director’s late career. [C+]

“Skidoo” (1968)
To even sit down and watch “Skidoo” is to continue to disbelieve its very existence. The “Southland Tales” of its time, this maddening drug story concerns middle-aged Jackie Gleason as a former mob muscleman who, now living the good life in the suburbs, is forced out of retirement. Enlisted to go to prison in order to execute a nefarious mobster, he instead drops acid and finds that his new consciousness can’t commit murder. When Timothy Leary collaborates with Alejandro Jodorowsky, out comes “The Holy Mountain.” When he introduces Otto Preminger and Groucho Marx (here listlessly playing a criminal named God) to LSD, we end up with this tone-deaf love-in that plays like a parody of an old man’s interpretation of hippies. The bizarre cast finds room for Carol Channing (a bit too old to perform a song in her skivvies), Frankie Avalon, George Raft, Mickey Rooney and even “Batman” villains Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin (possible fallout from Preminger himself showing up as Mr. Freeze on the '60s show). As such, “Skidoo,” which bewilderingly ends with Harry Nilsson singing the credits, is the strongest anti-drug ad the world has ever produced -- if expanding your mind leads to this, let us all stay indoors for the rest of our lives. Unlike anything Preminger has ever done, and a sure candidate for Worst Movie Ever Made. [F]

And The Rest:
With 35 films across his career, we've barely scratched the surface, but time, and the unavailability of many of these films meant we couldn't cover everything. Nevertheless, here's a quick guide to the rest of Preminger's filmography. His debut film in 1931 while still in Austria was "Die große Liebe," an undistinguished melodrama. His first Hollywood flick was similarly far from his finest: the light comedy "Under Your Spell," a vehicle for opera singer Lawrence Tibbett, who 20th Century Fox wanted off their books as soon as possible. Slight-but-well-received rom-com "Danger - Love At Work" followed the next year, before he was fired by Darryl F. Zanuck from Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation "Kidnapped" in 1938.

This marked the start of a half-decade gap away from the cinema, as Preminger returned to, and found great success, in the theater. With Zanuck away fighting in World War II, he was brought back onto the Fox lot when Ernst Lubitsch dropped out of the adaptation of Preminger's stage hit "Margin of Error" (in which the director also starred). The film's mostly notable for being scripted by a young Sam Fuller. This was followed by "In the Meantime, Darling," a wartime love story that didn't make much of an impact, but 1945 saw "Laura," and Preminger's name was finally made.

He took over from Lubitsch again on "A Royal Scandal," later retitled "Czarina," in 1945, but few but hardcore Lubitsch fans speak well of it. His first musical and first color film, "Centennial Summer," teamed him with Jerome Kern to bad reviews, while "Forever Amber" (another last minute replacement job) was even worse, a film Preminger described as "by far the most expensive picture I ever made and it was also the worst."

Preminger replaced Lubitsch for a third and final time after the director's death on "That Lady In Ermine," and had another misfire in 1949 with "The Fan," an Oscar Wilde adaptation. "The 13th Letter" remakes Clouzot's "Le Corbeau" to predictably unsuccessful results, while he courted major controversy for the first time with "The Moon Is Blue" in 1953, a toothless sex comedy starring David Niven that for some reason riled the censors in a big way. 1955 saw "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell," teaming Preminger with Gary Cooper for a based-in-fact tale about an outspoken critic of the army; it's perhaps the best received film we didn't get to see (we can thank a late Netflix dispatch for that...)

1957 saw him work with Graham Greene on an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan," but Greene and Shaw weren't a good match, and the film was badly received. "Porgy & Bess," based on the Gershwin opera, was again controversial, particularly as it paired the director with his ex-mistress, Dorothy Dandridge and, surprisingly, it's almost impossible to get hold of; only one print is in existence, and it's never been released on home formats. Bad reviews also followed the all-star war film "In Harm's Way," which despite a cast including John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal and Henry Fonda, was criticized for being overly straightforward.

And then came the post "Skidoo" era, with "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon," an oddball romance starring Liza Minnelli as a young woman with a face scarred by acid, the Elaine May-scripted comedy "Such Good Friends" (which got better reviews than most of his 1970s output) and the "Munich"-lite terrorism thriller "Rosebud." Preminger's final film, the Tom Stoppard-scripted Graham Greene adaptation "The Human Factor," is somewhat underrated; it's not a great film, by any means, but its blend of thriller and apartheid-era politics enables Preminger to approximate his best form in places. -- Jessica Kiang, Sam Price, Rodrigo Perez, Sam Chater, Katie Walsh, Gabe Toro, Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton, Mark Zhuravsky

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


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