Preminger, Otto (1905-1986)

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Preminger, Otto (1905-1986)

During his career, Austrian-born director and actor Otto Preminger worked equally hard at his films and his public persona. With the years he created for himself the identity of the independent producer-director par excellence who refused to submit to the Big Studio system or to restrictive production codes and who could fire a star like Lana Turner, originally cast for Lee Remick's role in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), because she refused to wear the pair of trousers he had selected for her. The following statement is as typical of his persona as courtroom scenes are of his movies: "I say what I like because it is completely my picture, an independent picture. I am the producer, the director, the casting director, it's all my decision." This self-consciously iconoclastic and autocratic character endeared him in the 1950s and 1960s to the French critics and directors of Cahiers du Cinéma, as well as to auteur-theorists like Andrew Sarris and others writing for magazines such as Movie and The Village Voice.

Preminger's career can be divided into three periods. After immigrating to the United States in 1936, he signed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, where he had several conflicts with producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Together with his first hit Laura (1944), Preminger's most interesting films of this period are a series of noirs shot during the late 1940s and early 1950s: Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), The Thirteenth Letter (1950), and Angel Face (1952). Preminger was always quite reluctant to talk about these movies and emphasized instead his contrasts with Zanuck, thus adding to his reputation as a rebel against big studio rules.

The Moon Is Blue (1953) marked the beginning of Preminger's career as an independent producer-director, and was his first movie to be released without Motion Picture Association approval because of Preminger's refusal to cut dialogues containing sexual innuendoes. With his newly gained independence from big studios, Preminger started a successful series of grand-scale movies on, at least superfi-cially, scandalous topics such as drug addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955), rape (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959), communism and homosexuality (Advise and Consent, 1962), institutions like the United States Army (The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, 1955, and In Harm's Way, 1965), and the Catholic Church (The Cardinal, 1963). A recurring theme of these rather diverse and eclectic movies is the quest for truth through an apparently objective and scientific "anatomy" whose results, in the end, turn out to be more ambiguous than we would expect. This quest is embodied by the numerous courtroom scenes in Preminger's movies and is usually carried out by solitary male heroes such as U. S. General Billy Mitchell (Gary Cooper) in The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell and the lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) in Anatomy of a Murder.

His iconoclastic persona notwithstanding, Preminger's use of controversial topics was essentially conservative and embedded in the conformist ideology of the 1950s and early 1960s. Two examples will suffice. As in the case of The Moon Is Blue, The Man with the Golden Arm (1956) was released without the seal of approval because of its subject. The film was a great box-office hit and people queued to see the taboo topic of drugs on the big screen for the first time. Yet, what they saw was, in Jackie Byars' words, a movie which is radical only on its surface, having at its base "a very conservative championing of the family, of aspirations to upward mobility, and of traditional gender definitions." Nelson Algren's novel of defeat in the Chicago slums is turned by Preminger into a success story starring Frank Sinatra as the ultimate self-made man: by the end of the movie Sinatra's Frankie Machine gets rid of his addiction and of his hysterical wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker), leaves the slums together with his new supportive girlfriend Molly (Kim Novak), and becomes a musician with the help of American big business. Just as The Man with the Golden Arm was perhaps the first mainstream movie to portray drug addiction, Advise and Consent (1962) was one of the first to treat explicitly the topic of homosexuality and was to influence the fate of many cinematic gay characters as well as popular perceptions of gay people: tormented by their sexuality, gays have little choice but to die. In this story of political intrigues and scandals, Senator Brig Anderson is appointed chair of the committee investigating the communist past of Senator Robert Leffingwell, who has just been designated Secretary of State. Along his quest for truth, Anderson is blackmailed by Leffingwell's supporters because of a gay affair he had while he was in the army. The movie clearly contrasts the cozy domestic space of Anderson's heterosexual household—filled with a beautiful, supporting wife and a cute daughter—with the squalor of the New York gay neighborhood where Anderson goes to talk to his former lover, Ray. The landlord who first receives Anderson is the very antithesis of his wife. He is ugly and obese; homosexuality is conceived in terms of both moral and physical corruption. In the last instance, as Vito Russo has pointed out, Anderson kills himself "not because he is being blackmailed in Washington, but because he has gone to New York and found people with whom he has something in common and he is so repulsed he sees no alternative to the straight razor."

Preminger's final phase, which includes movies continuing his analysis of contemporary society (race-relations in the South in Hurry Sundown, 1967, Palestinian terrorism in Rosebud, 1975) and others striving for new directions (the slapstick farce Skidoo, 1968), was marked by critical and commercial disappointments. In spite of Preminger's self-appointed role as freedom-fighter, we should wonder, following Dwight MacDonald, if any other director was more skilled than he "at giving the appearance of dealing with large 'controversial' themes in a bold way without making the tactical error of doing so."

—Luca Prono

Further Reading:

Byars, Jackie. All That Hollywood Allows: Re-reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama. London, Routledge, 1991.

MacDonald, Dwight. On Movies. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1969.

Pratley, Gerald. The Cinema of Otto Preminger. New York, A. S. Barnes & Co., 1971.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York, Harper & Row, 1981.