Sunday, January 13, 2008

David Denby's essay on Otto Preminger argues for the director's aversion to bringing "formal or expressive pleasure to moviegoers or even to himself," whatever that means. Along with Hollywood's favorite pro-forma liberal scion Stanley Kramer, Preminger invented the high-concept film: a movie sold on the salaciousness of its subject matter, with a veneer of liberal pleading. Think of The Moon is Blue, Jimmy Stewart saying "panties" aloud in Anatomy of a Murder without jiggling his jowls, examining modern Washington and the Beltway chattering class' view of sexual hypocrisy in Advise & Consent, and adapting a Leon Uris novel (Tolstoy for the James Michener set) starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint -- which, depending on how far you want to push the analogy, makes Preminger his generations' Adrian Lyne or Paul Haggis.

Since Denby avers that Preminger was "an inquisitive and urbane fellow who respected the audience’s intelligence," in his usual sneaky way of asking a rhetorical question for which he damn well knows the answer, I'll let his own appraisals of Anatomy of a Murder and Laura -- two of my favorite films -- stand as the best defenses of Preminger's artistry. But consider: "urbane fellows" aren't inquisitive, not really. Rather than allowing action to unspool for the benefit of an indifferent camera (a la George Cukor) or recording his characters' behaviour as if they were arachnids (Howard Hawks), Preminger allowed them to hang themselves with their own words, with nary a cocked eyebrow. His interest in social mores and decor reminds me of Douglas Sirk without the partially hydrogenated corn syrup. He establishes a milieu so fully that his characters can't help but play by its rules -- and pay for it. With the exception of Clifton Webb's proto-fag Walter Lydecker, his "inquisitive and urbane fellows" come off rather better than the ones who try to change the system -- think David Niven in Bonjour Tristesse, Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, Eva Marie Saint in Exodus, and Charles Laughton in Advise & Consent. Yet so fair is Preminger's approach that these characters never seem rancid or self-congratulatory, as they would in a Billy Wilder film; their reasons for keeping their distance are defined without fuss.

So rent Laura, Angel Face, Where the Sidewalk Ends (each one starring Preminger's greatest proxy, that underrated actor Dana Andrews), Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder, and Advise & Consent. There's a lot I haven't seen, and like all studio directors he made a fair amount of crap. I'm not taken with The Man with the Golden Arm: it's hammy despite a strong Frank Sinatra performance. Exodus is a weird beast, an epic with chamber-drama ambitions, least convincing when it's an action film. This is Preminger's Lawrence of Arabia, with several enigmas at its center.

The most compelling oddity is 1958's Bonjour Tristesse. Besides being one of the most beautiful looking color films ever made, Bonjour Tristesse works as a clinical update of Henry James works like "The Pupil" or The Turn of the Screw, in which children plot mischief for reasons they don't fully understand. Casting the attractive, blank, future Breathless star Jean Seberg as the little schemer shows Preminger's shrewdness; her ineptness in scenes designed to show her sophistication puts the audience on guard. More conventional Preminger touches include extended scenes between Seberg and stepmom-to-be Deborah Kerr. The camera keeps itself in the middle distance until subtle glides and pans underscore the audience's realization that Kerr's primness has a sinister element (it's one of her best performances, until The Innocents unleashes the hysteria beneath the primness). It foreshadows what he would accomplish in Anatomy of a Murder's courtroom scenes and the cross-examination of Sal Mineo's shifty terrorist in Exodus.

So he's a great director of a handful of films. Why does Denby raise such a fuss?

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