Saturday, April 5, 2008

Otto Preminger's Life in Film

By David Luhrssen
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Director Otto Preminger (1906-1986) was a Jewish refugee from Vienna whose Hollywood career began with screen roles where he played Nazis. Some of the cast and crew who later worked with him over the course of some 35 films found him a bit Teutonic in real life, a commandant for whom his way was the only way. On the other hand, Preminger once fired an actor for calling another cast member a “nigger.”

Like most interesting people, he was complicated.

Some of that complexity is mirrored in the second Preminger book published in the last year, Chris Fujiwara’s The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber). Film critic for the BostonPhoenix and author of a biography of Cat People director Jacques Tourneur, Fujiwara exhumes the director’s personal life only to the extent that it illuminates his work, which of course is the reason most movie buffs would be interested in a Preminger biography. The cinema remains the center focus of The World and ItsDouble, not the casting couch.

A manipulative man willing to push aside anyone standing in his way, Preminger rose to prominence after seizing the directorship of Laura (1944) from esteemed filmmaker Rouben Mamoulian. The inventive murder mystery was a modest hit at the time and has survived as film noir classic. On the road that followed, Preminger’s career took several ups and downs. By journey’s end he was responsible for several engaging noir dramas as well as a handful of remarkable films. Carmen Jones (1954) was an all black, contemporary adaptation of the classic opera Carmen. One year later, Man With the Golden Arm starred Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict. Exodus (1960) is a memorable depiction of the settlement of Palestine by Jewish refugees after World War II.

Preminger was always willing to court controversy, to push beyond the narrow limits of the Hollywood Production Code, which dictated the content of American movies until the 1960s. Fujiwara’s analysis of Preminger’s films is rigorous and revealing. The World and Its Double is an important examination of a filmmaker whose human failings never prevented him from making important movies.

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