Otto Preminger belongs to film history; beyond that, the consensus ends. Was he the artist-crusader who stared down the MPAA, Cardinal Spellman, and Ku Kluxers—or an opportunistic, penny-wise producer with a genius for forecasting the winds of change and handpicking his bouts for maximum headline type? Nor did he help himself by sowing pleasant memories: In a new critical biography by Foster Hirsch, Preminger veterans who weathered the director’s infamous outbursts question not only his legacy, but even his very ability.
Alongside this new tome—one of two forthcoming after a long drought of serious writing in English about Preminger—a 23-film Film Forum retrospective attempts to correct a still-lingering underestimation of the filmmaker’s corpus. Now, the whole overrated/underrated argument is always the proverbial teapot tempest magnified by the tunnel vision of cinephiles, and it needs to be taken with a smidge of relativity. But the fact remains that Preminger’s is a body of work that holds up to most any in American film, undermined by the truth that, per Hirsch, Preminger was that indigestible combination: “a famously hotheaded man who . . . made beautifully restrained films.”
The elder son of a well-heeled Jewish family, Preminger was born in Austria-Hungary in 1905 and raised in Vienna. He was an erudite, successful theater director by his 30th birthday, though a premonition of the looming Anschluss inspired his relocation to America. He went to work at 20th Century Fox in 1936, but a flare-up of his famous temper toward Hollywood über-producer Darryl Zanuck meant banishment to New York (Preminger was always partial to Gotham—at the height of his influence, he made his headquarters on 55th Street). After directing for the stage and playing stock SS man, he returned to the studio’s good graces with a hit in the classic noir Laura (1944); for the next eight years, the quintessential maverick was a model company man, the go-to guy for thrillers and odd jobs. His noirs are knotty with thwarted sex, characterized by patient characterizations, ellipses of solitude, and the precision- haloed nocturnal photography of Joseph La Shelle. The culmination of this period is 1952’s Angel Face, a dyspeptic terror that open-ends onto the abyss. Film Forum’s program, however, testifies to the little-acknowledged diversity of Preminger’s Fox résumé, with rarely screened one-offs that include a Joan Crawford melodrama (Daisy Kenyon), a Restoration period piece (Forever Amber), and an Oscar Wilde adaptation (The Fan).
Autocrat Otto’s great period came with the disintegration of the studio system, from which he emerged as his own industry, an independent producer-director. It’s here that his rows with Joseph Breen’s censorious Production Code Administration office began—Preminger was the first man of consequence who wouldn’t jump through hoops for its Seal of Approval. Self-interest and genuine liberal convictions happily aligned; what was good for Otto’s p.r. was almost always good for America, and he helped banish a system that hamstrung popular entertainment with its arcane prudery. From the innocuous but taboo-busting utterance of “virgin” in his farce The Moon Is Blue (for shame!) through the dope-sick Man With the Golden Arm, Preminger uncovered verboten new territory with every new production and found fresh pricks to kick against when he wasn’t sparring with Breen. Bucking convention, he shot two big-money all-black musicals in the ’50s—Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess (leading lady Dorothy Dandridge was a longtime girlfriend)—and hired the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to adapt Leon Uris’s Exodus, giving Trumbo his first screen credit since the studios let their people go.
But we wouldn’t be talking about Preminger if the controversies disguised a brummagem art: He’s first and foremost an apotheosis of cinematic style, though Preminger gradually distilled his technique to a bracing purity scoured of righteousness or moral certitude. He cut sparingly; his strategic sequence shots were elegant but unobtrusive; his shooting style kept the world composed at a contemplative distance(he discovered the vistas of Cinemascope filming his only Western, River of No Return, and the love affair never ended). Preminger’s office negotiated for the most disreputable bestsellers, but with sophistication and sensitivity he rendered coarse material fine. His adaptation of a Françoise Sagan titillation, 1958’s Bonjour Tristesse, starred David Niven and Preminger discovery Jean Seberg as a sybaritic father-and-daughter duo in one of that decade’s great underappreciated films. His epic quartet of institution-protagonist pictures—Anatomy of a Murder (starring “The Law”), Advise & Consent (“Congress”), The Cardinal (“The Catholic Church”), and In Harm’s Way (“The U.S. Navy”)—all come from doorstop-weight bestsellers. But rather than Michenerian plodding, they represent a run of rarefied ambition and tactically brilliant rolling compositions.
Equally essential to the Preminger aesthetic was his collaboration with New York designer Saul Bass, whom the filmmaker introduced to the cinema. Bass’s indelible, logo-like title sequences and posters—the jagged Golden Arm, the geometrically vivisected Anatomy of a Murder figure—which he made for nearly every Preminger production from the mid-’50s on, lent the films an air of signature modernity as inextricable from the texts as Alvin Lustig’s covers for New Directions paperbacks. (Concurrent to the Film Forum series, a show of Bass’s posters is on display at the Posterati gallery.)
Missing from this unimpeachably curated retrospective are merely the bookends of Preminger’s career: Of his apprenticeship works, Under Your Spell (1936) is the lone representative, and the absence of works from his flagging final 15 years of filmmaking is distinctly noticeable (the cutoff is 1965’s magnificently ambivalent Bunny Lake Is Missing). However, although there’s no excuse for the toxic all-star pileup of Skidoo—a dangerous film to describe, because it almost inevitably sounds more entertaining than it actually is—dysfunctional works like Such Good Friends and The Human Factor deserve a venue for reconsideration. But first things first.