Otto Preminger was one of Hollywood's first truly independent producer/directors. He sought to address the major social, political, and historical questions of his time in films designed to appeal to a wide public. Blazing a trail in the examination of controversial issues such as drug addiction ( The Man with the Golden Arm) and homosexuality ( Advise and Consent) and in the frank, sophisticated treatment of adult material ( Anatomy of a Murder), Preminger in the process broke the censorship of the Hollywood Production Code and the blacklist. He also made some of Hollywood's most enduring film noir classics, including Laura and Fallen Angel. An Austrian émigré, Preminger began his Hollywood career in 1936 as a contract director. When the conditions emerged that led to the fall of the studio system, he had the insight to perceive them clearly and the boldness to take advantage of them, turning himself into one of America's most powerful filmmakers. More than anyone else, Preminger represented the transition from the Hollywod of the studios to the decentralized, wheeling and dealing New Hollywood of today. Chris Fujiwara's critical biography--the first in more than thirty years--follows Preminger throughout his varied career, penetrating his carefully constructed public persona and revealing the many layers of his work.
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Chris Fujiwara is the author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall and a film critic for the Boston Phoenix and other publications. He is currently at work on a study of the films of Jerry Lewis.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
These days, one reads mostly of two Otto Premingers. The first exists in history books as an important figure in the struggles against film censorship and the anti-Communist blacklist. The second exists for film buffs, as a great director of “film noir.”
Rarely does one read of a Preminger who interests me more, and who was once even celebrated: a master of mise-en-scène and a symbol of cinematic fascination. In Preminger, fascination—the movement toward and into something—is in constant tension with its opposite: withdrawal from something, neutrality, detachment. A simultaneous push-pull generates the fantastic energy of his films, their subtle, spiraling rhythms, their veiled and discreet pathos, their intellectual weight and urgency. The present book was born out of a deepening involvement with this dual movement and a desire to trace its workings.
Preminger was a famous theater director in Vienna before he established himself as a film director in the United States, and his films show a theatrical orientation: a bias toward fluid staging and the long take (“If it were possible, I would do the whole of the film in one shot,” he once said), toward a mise-en-scène in which multiple characters are in view at the same time, toward dialogue and the text.1 Just as strong as the drive toward a unified stream of time in Preminger’s films is the pull of the reality of actual locations, with their nonnegotiable demands on placing and maneuvering actors, the camera, and sound equipment. So strong is this pull that the location might be said to represent for Prem-inger’s cinema an overcoming of the theater.
As a historical figure, Preminger might now be called the victim of a certain irony. The director who best represents the essential of classical cinema (a term I shall reconsider here and there in this book), he also predicted and was responsible for creating much of the landscape of current cinema—a cinema that is, however, in many ways a betrayal of the kind of adult entertainment he wanted to bring to the screen. Perhaps Preminger anticipated this betrayal, too, and surpassed it in his late films, through a course far more radical and more destructive than was taken by merely commercial directors.
The succession of disparate projects in Preminger’s career—so daunting to anyone who tries to see the work as a whole—makes apparent a will to reinvent himself, to avoid being defined as the director of a single film or a single kind of film, to not be limited by what he had done before. This will is visible not only in his work as an independent
producer-director from 1953 to 1979, though of course it is plainer there, but also in his work as a contract producer-director at Twentieth Century-Fox in the 1940s. “I have only one principle,” Preminger said, “which is that there are no principles, and only one rule, which is that there are no rules. I am a man who lives from day to day, and who loves living, and that’s all. I don’t want someone to put me in a little box and tell me, you are like this or like that. You won’t succeed. I want to reserve the right to change completely between nine in the morning and six at night, and to be a different man each day of the week.”2
A crucial aspect of Preminger’s deeply personal “impersonality” is control. He presents himself as someone who dominates his materials, his story, and his actors and who invites the audience to share his ela-tion over this mastery, to identify with him in surveying the world of the film and floating above it, in modifying perspectives, moving in closer
or backing away. The great freedom of movement in Preminger’s films
is communicated also to his characters: again and again, his work provides rueful, cynical, tragic, and triumphant testimony to the freedom of humanity.
An important part of Preminger’s image was the character of the dictatorial, bullying, Teutonic director who terrified and humiliated actors. This was indeed a role, one that Preminger—who was also known to the public for playing Nazis in films—put on deliberately, partly to limn a memorable and entertaining public image, and partly to secure the conditions he felt necessary for making his films. “I can be patient and nice,” Preminger once remarked, “but when I’m like that it takes me so much longer to get what I want.”3 Helga Cranston, who edited Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, noted that Preminger “liked to keep up the tension, and he also liked the idea that people were afraid of him. He once said to me, ‘You know, maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but I know that I can’t get 100 percent of what I want, so I’m trying to aim for 80 percent, with the hope of getting 60.’ I think that he was badgering people to give him more than they were able to with the hope that it would somehow approach what he wanted in the first place.”4
Many who concede his brilliance as a producer and even his skill with the camera have claimed that Preminger was not a good director of actors. No doubt both the evidence on the screen and the testimony of his coworkers plainly show that Preminger was not an “actor’s director” in the ways that George Cukor, Jean Renoir, Elia Kazan, or John Cassavetes were (to cite four very different examples of directors for whom a collaborative and improvisatory practice was not only a working principle but an aesthetic tenet). Yet Preminger’s films abound in excellent performances. He preferred a natural and direct kind of acting that was simply the projection of the actor’s own nature through the filter of the character. He once told an actor who was having trouble in a scene, “It’s so simple. Just visualize yourself in the situation, and say the line.”5 When it works, it works. No film is better acted than The Moon Is Blue or Anatomy of a Murder.
Although many actors believed that Preminger was the kind of director who had the whole film planned in his head before he started shooting, evidence reveals that this was true only in a broad sense and that decisions of where to place the camera and when to cut were made—much of the time—during the rehearsal of the scene, and not before. Obviously, there are exceptions: the close-ups of Akiva and Barak facing each other across prison bars in Exodus could have been, and were, anticipated at the writing stage. In general, as Preminger said, “I never prepare any shots . . . I visualize things: I know how I’m going to do it. But when I rehearse with actors I often change my idea because I like the film to come out of a rehearsal, out of a live contact, rather than to design it in advance and have it set. This is a question of system . . . I try to use the camera to make the point of the scene; that is about the only principle I can tell you, so it always works out differently.”6
Preminger once told an interviewer that he had trained himself as much as possible to forget, when directing, that he was also the producer. He was a perfectionist—but a relative perfectionist, not a pure perfectionist. He was capable of calling for twenty takes of a scene if he thought the performances could be improved, but he was satisfied with what some would regard as technical flaws: the shadow of the camera equipment is so omnipresent in his independent productions as to be almost a directorial signature, whether the cameraman was Sam Leavitt or Leon Shamroy. On the other hand, Preminger insisted that the screenplay be spoken as written, and he was not one to tolerate actors’ taking minor liberties with dialogue: this was one area where he thought perfection was easily enough achievable that nothing short of it was to be countenanced.
I have stated earlier that Preminger was a classical director, and now I would like to qualify that remark. The particular meaning I want the word “classicism” to have in this book, though it may be unfamiliar, is central to my view of what makes Preminger a great filmmaker. His classicism lies in a conviction that the world of the film is real, but that that world must be conquered and verified. This verification, the action of the filmmaker, is of no less importance than the reality to which it is applied: it is a relentless quest, a testing of surfaces, a drive to crush, excoriate, penetrate—in any case, at least, to move on, as at the end of Exodus the trucks of the Haganah soldiers move on to fight the next battle somewhere else, and at the end of Anatomy of a Murder the vindicated defendant and his wife have already moved on to avoid paying their attorney.
This drive both defines Preminger’s classicism and marks the inadequacy of that term. For in his negativity there is a striking modernity, which has kept its mystery. Here, too, is part of the enduring fascination of Preminger’s cinema.
Excerpted from The World and its Double by Chris Fujiwara. Copyright © 2008 by Chris Fujiwara. Published in March 2008 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.
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