A little touch of Otto for Xmas

At least one film event worth waiting for to kick off the new year, a major retrospective of the works of Otto Preminger, 23 films worth, at Film Forum from January 2-17. The occasion is the publication of Foster Hirsch's splendidly comprehensive biography, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (Alfred A. Knopf, $35). As I note in my Jewish Week piece on the program, this volume is required reading for anyone who wants a glimpse into the workings of the studio system and the handful of filmmakers who challenged it in the early '50s.

As for the films, Preminger's filmography is his own best defense. Although Hirsch finds Preminger's personality an uncongenial fit for the film noir -- Otto was basically an optimist, he argues -- it's pretty hard to argue with Laura, Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends, three key works of the cycle. Each is shot through with a certain erotic perversity but they all end with the possibility of redemption for a self-satisfied, self-absorbed character (exquisitely underplayed by Dana Andrews) In fact, although the noir is usually pretty pessimistic, you could argue that The Big Sleep, directed by an arch-optimist, Howard Hawks, is another example of one such film that works because of the director's temperament.

When you start to talk about family melodrama and epic historical melodrama, you are right in Preminger's sweet spot. More than any other directors of widescreen films, except for Minnelli and Nick Ray, Preminger knows exactly how to make the very small adjustments that create a sense of the literal and metaphoric space between his characters, balancing their positions within deep-focus long takes that allow everyone their turn at the podium. Bonjour Tristesse and the institutional blockbusters -- Advise and Consent, Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal, In Harm's Way -- are breathtaking in their formal rigor and classical elegance. Among the pre-'Scope films, Daisy Kenyon and The Fan are also superbly thought-out in terms of the ways that the interplay of characters and mise-en-scene gives the audience insight into the combative relationships.

I had not seen The Fan before, but watched it as part of my prep for the Hirsch interview. He describes it as one of OP's most underappreciated films. He's absolutely right. It's a delicate little gem, really quite lovely, with a luminous Jeanne Crain, one of the more emotionally committed performances I've seen from George Sanders and a remarkably nuanced turn from Madeleine Carroll. It's a great looking film, too (Joe LaShelle shot it). preminger plays the film as a subtle chamber drama, which works quite nicely. If you consider that comedy is the one genre in which his work is usually pretty awful, it's a particularly felicitous decision.

At any rate, after you recover from your 1/1 hangovers, toddle on down to Film Forum for some of the Premingers. God only knows when you'll get to see some of these films on a big screen ever again. And if you are in Los Angeles, you're in luck; the American Cinematheque will be hosting the series in the second half of January. Go here for more information.


Daryl Chin said…
It's always interesting to see revisionism at work. In the 1960s, when Otto Preminger became (along with Nicholas Ray) one of the cause celebres of the "auteur" theory, it was mainly because of his "melodramas" (now called "noirs") from the 1940s and early 1950s: these were the films which were praised by Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, and the American critics (including Andrew Sarris) followed suit.

But Preminger himself wanted to work on a "bigger" scale, and began going towards the big melodramas (from ANATOMY OF A MURDER on) which represented a certain middlebrow ambition; these were the movies which were "indepenendent" productions on Preminger's part.

Though it's interesting to see that Hirsch champions Preminger's "big" movies (ANATOMY OF A MURDER, EXODUS, ADVISE AND CONSENT, THE CARDINAL, IN HARM'S WAY), i do think that Preminger's primary achievement remains the "noirs", where the ambivalence of his viewpoint matches perfectly with the ambiguities of the suspense plots. So i guess i'm hoping that people remember LAURA, FALLEN ANGEL, DAISY KENYON, WHIRLPOOL, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, THE THIRTEENTH LETTER, ANGEL FACE and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING as one of the most sustained bodies of work.