Paying Homage to a ‘Notorious’ Filmmaker

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The New York Sun

The story goes that once, at a Los Angeles social gathering in the 1940s, Otto Preminger came across a group of Hungarian émigrés chatting in their native tongue. “This is Hollywood,” Preminger chided them. “Speak German!”

Of the extravagantly talented diaspora of Austrian Jews who transformed mid 20th-century American film (including William Wyler, Max Ophuls, Erich Von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch), Preminger is arguably the most famous, yet paradoxically the least appreciated. To celebrate his centenary, the Museum of Modern Art has put together “Otto Preminger: Notorious,” a program of nine films by a filmmaker whose chief excess was cultivating ballyhoo with the same craft, enthusiasm, and intelligence with which he made pictures.

Like Lubitsch, whose final film Preminger would complete when Lubitsch succumbed to a heart attack, Preminger (1906–86) acquired his theatrical chops in Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater. Reinhardt’s varied stylistic appetite (realism, expressionism, and classical works received equal attention in the Deutches Theater repertoire) and particular fascination for physical theatrical space gave Preminger an invaluable foundation. Preminger came to Hollywood in the mid-1930s at the invitation of 20th Century Fox. But he struck sparks with Fox’s notoriously hands-on studio head, Darryl Zanuck, and his American film career took nearly a decade to get into gear.

“Laura” (1944), a film Zanuck made sure had a particularly difficult gestation, was Preminger’s first triumph.The film’s love theme and mid-film whodunit twist has earned it a place in the Hollywood classics attic. But “Laura” is a unique film whose gifts are subtler and more varied than might be apparent when watching it on AMC. Taking huge liberties with the novel upon which the film is based, Preminger’s script drew a three-and-a-half sided love triangle among effete New York sophisticate Clifton Webb, obsessive cop Dana Andrews, beautiful but clearly terrestrial woman Gene Tierney, and the image of Tierney that both men really yearn for. You would have to go to Jean Eustache’s films of the 1960s and ’70s to find as compelling and honest an exploration of the fickle idealization that darkens male desire.

Watching “Laura” with the sound off is a primer in 1940’s Hollywood film grammar. Shorn of the famous theme, Andrews’s growl, Webb’s elitist rat-a-tat, and Tierney’s gasps, the film becomes a maze of gazes, intersections, and empty spaces. Preminger’s long-take style and gliding camera imbue “Laura” with a graceful visual tension suggesting mysteries far more convoluted than the one about the dead girl.

A shameless fomenter of high-key histrionic “big scenes,” Preminger has sometimes been written off as a middle-brow melodramatist. Born the son of one of Austria’s leading jurists, judgment and punishment define his theatrical universe. Films like “Saint Joan,” “Advise and Consent” (which will be introduced Sunday by Preminger’s widow, Hope Preminger, and the prolific film historian Foster Hirsch), and “Exodus” are full of accusations, confessions, sacrifices and executions.

But Preminger’s over-the-top story indulgences are checked and balanced by a gift for composition and art direction that invariably mounted his dramatic pictures in a suitable frame. He was a particularly adept user of widescreen. Few directors have explored the CinemaScope frame’s low ceiling and narrow depth of field with such intimacy and verve. His multi-film collaboration with title designer Saul Bass is rivaled only by the credit sequences Bass created for Alfred Hitchcock.

Preminger was, by all accounts, hell on his casts. “I do not welcome advice from actors,” he once said. “They are here to act.” Legend has it he badgered a group of child extras on the set of “Exodus” with the direction, “Cry, you little monsters!,” compared Marilyn Monroe’s technique unfavorably with Lassie’s, and attempted to cure 18-year-old Jean Seberg’s stage fright on the set of “Saint Joan” by screaming, “relax!” into the first timer’s face.

But picture making was and is a by-any-means-necessary endeavor.And the results speak for themselves. Seberg was never better than she was in “Bonjour Tristesse,” her second film with Preminger, nor were Joan Crawford or Jean Simmons in 1947’s “Daisy Kenyon” and 1952’s “Angel Face” (both absent from the MoMA series).

As producer of his own films, Preminger navigated the sometimes-treacherous shoals of post-studio system independent production with confidence. He talked a colleague who had owned Leon Uris’s “Exodus” since it was in galleys into giving up the movie rights for peanuts. The result was an enormous theatrical success. MoMA’s program also contains perhaps the single rarest and oddest example of Preminger’s showmanship and thrift. During principle photography on “The Moon Is Blue” with William Holden and David Niven, Preminger kept his crew busy by retaking each scene with a German cast led by Hardy Krueger so that he would have two movies to sell instead of one. Maybe his crack to those Hungarians wasn’t a joke after all.

October 1–29 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).

The New York Sun

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