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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Tyrant of the Screen

Raving about Otto Preminger

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Otto Preminger’s stage and screen Nazis (think Stalag 17) may well have provided a perverse, self-styled role model for the famous director, one he developed with tyrannical relish off-screen as well. According to Foster Hirsch in his stunning, eminently readable biography, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would be King (Alfred Knopf), the filmmaker’s Prussians registered with conviction, yielding none of the serpentine sophistication that made Conrad Veidt’s characterization in Casablanca an intellectual delight.

With his fierce look and stentorian voice, Preminger terrorized actors. His notorious, infamously predictable blood-curdling screams were usually administered before the entire cast. His victims included unseasoned players as well as rising stars Lee J. Cobb (who yelled back) and George C. Scott in one of his best-remembered films, Anatomy of a Murder.

Whatever persona Preminger chose to project, he was in fact a devout Jew, born in Wiznitz, Poland, in 1905, although he would claim the more glamorous Vienna as his place of origin. Yet he was born to affluence and oldworld opulence, his father being a prominent attorney and public prosecutor in Vienna before Hitler. A style of luxury would become a lifelong habit, which he would share with favored colleagues and cast members.

His earliest calling was the theater. He had worked with the ostentatious Max Reinhardt and had even managed his own theater company before being summoned to New York to work at the new 20th Century Fox studios, where he promptly got into a shouting match with studio head Darryl Zanuck, almost losing the opportunity to direct his most fondly remembered and arguably finest achievement, Laura.

Versatility and technical super-competence distinguished most of Preminger’s films, but a curious lack of profile marks many of his movies, eluding the personal touch that made Capra and Wilder household names. He used few close-ups, believing that the panorama of the story would more readily enable the audience to grasp the unity of the plot and “find” the actors in the process, without disturbing the camera linearity.

Hirsch’s superlative prose easily qualifies this 500 page volume as a page turner. Wisely making short shrift of the details of Preminger’s life (including his three wives, his affair with Dorothy Dandridge and his illegitimate son with Gypsy Rose Lee), he uses personal background only as determining antecedents in the context of Preminger’s role as a director, giving the reader juicy insights where it matters most—his relationships with his actors and the fascinating skirmishes on-set.

Hirsch also carefully critiques and analyzes the aesthetics of the major films, giving his subject his neglected due in film posterity. Anatomy of a Murder remains a classic of narrative documentary style with slow-moving track shots and a “you are there” sense of leisurely repose capturing the cadence of an actual event. Anatomy also served as a death knell to the constrictive Production Code of the Motion Picture Association, which maintained a strangling censorship on films until the Supreme Court upheld Preminger’s refusal to delete certain “objectionable” words from his screenplay.

Harking back to his theater origins, some of Preminger’s most surprising successes came with the all black cast of Carmen Jones and a wonderfully lush Porgy and Bess. But if his mistress Dorothy Dandridge was unforgettably “right” in both roles, one must wonder what prompted Preminger to cast a corn-fed Iowa girl in Saint Joan? Jean Seberg’s trial by fire at the hands of Preminger in this dreadful film was as anguished as the real-life martyr.

Perhaps this absurd error in judgment warrants the oft-cited remark that Preminger was not much of an acting coach. His outbursts take on a new wrinkle if one believes stars that claimed he directed “like a traffic cop—with no rhythm, no sense of change—dreary, boring, like endless rain.”

Preminger may have lacked the cajoling kid gloves of a Cukor or Wilder, but his vision of film served its own purpose. His characters are often memorable because they are set in authentic contexts. Preminger’s screen was too large, too panoramic, to articulate intimacy for its own sake. His focus was on the grandeur of cinema.

Impatience was the only way he knew to keep that vision intact.
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