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Otto Focus

The varied provocations of a mainstream auteur

Otto Preminger must hold some sort of record for one of the longest stretches of provocative and intelligent mainstream filmmaking in American cinema. Proclaimed an auteur by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics in the '50s, he's often had a rougher time with American reviewers. Like Hitchcock, Preminger created an outrageous media persona to promote his flicks: He was reputedly a tyrant with actors and crew. But the Austrian-born director could make big pictures that retained intimacy. Most of his varied movies share a cool and detached objectivity, with gliding, probing camerawork often in the service of extremely long takes.

Laura (1944), his first major hit, is the sleekest noir ever made, a sharply written study of obsession set in the chic, well-lit world of New York café society. Although leading actress Gene Tierney is missing for most of the screen time, her presence is felt thanks to David Raksin's haunting title song. Never has a piece of theme music been so skillfully used as an essential part of characterization.

When his contract with Fox expired, Preminger happily struck out on his own as an independent. He produced and directed The Moon Is Blue(1953), a romantic comedy imported from Broadway. It became the scandal of the year when Preminger refused to make a few dialogue cuts demanded by the Production Code: This innocuous picture was the first wide-release American film to hit theaters without a Code seal. The controversy made the movie a smash and established its director as a powerful independent. (MOMA's nine-film retro includes not only The Moon Is Blue, but the rarely shown German-language version, shot by Preminger alongside the American film.)

In Carmen Jones (1954), his electric all-black film of Oscar Hammerstein's musical comedy (of Georges Bizet's opera of Prosper Mérimée's story), the freshness and economy of the direction give new life to the familiar material. Dorothy Dandridge delivers a powerhouse performance in the title role (no other movie used her so well). Jean Seberg, who had suffered a critical drubbing for her screen debut in Preminger's underrated Saint Joan (1957), came into her own in his Bonjour Tristesse (1958), based on Françoise Sagan's novel about the too-close attachment between a womanizing papa and his teenage daughter. Preminger hits the right notes of sensuous perversity throughout. A number of American reviews said it wasn't French enough—it turned out to be a boffo hit and critical triumph in France.

With Exodus (1960) and Advise and Consent (1962), Preminger tackled two huge doorstop novels on big subjects. The former, on the birth of the state of Israel, is sprawling and overlong, but has a few powerful moments. The latter is a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the Washington, D.C., power elite during the hearings and vote on a newly appointed secretary of state. The great Charles Laughton, in his final screen role, delivers a bravura performance as a slick Southern senator. It was also the first Hollywood movie since pre-Code days to venture into a gay bar.

 
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