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Fearsome Otto

Remembering Preminger
By GERALD PEARY  |  May 13, 2008

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ART AND THE MAN: Does Preminger’s behavior diminish the artistic achievement of a film like Laura?

My one brush with the late Otto Preminger seems like a typical encounter.

In 1980, the imperious 74-year-old Hollywood director came to Boston on a publicity tour for The Human Factor, a flawed adaptation of a Graham Greene novel that would prove his final film. I walked in to find Preminger screaming at a local radio reporter who had dared to request a five-minute interview without having first seen the movie. The reporter withered as Preminger blasted him. There would be no radio talk. A few minutes later, the famous filmmaker of Laura (1944), the formidable battler against the puritanical Hays Code, sat among reporters for a round-robin interview. Stephen Schiff, the Phoenix’s film editor, asked Preminger a somewhat challenging question. Preminger reached across the table and yanked Schiff’s beard. Hard! The Phoenix’s own yelled out: “OUCH!”

The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber), a studious, informative, often astutely argued new book by Phoenix contributor Chris Fujiwara, abounds with horror stories of Preminger’s sadistic ways. The bald, bony, arrogant Austrian Jew not only looked like a stereotype Nazi, he often played one in other people’s movies (memorably in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17). And he became a dictator when behind the camera.

Where to choose among a hundred well-documented tales in Fujiwara’s book? How about Otto keeping the 17-year-old Jean Seberg sequestered in a hotel room for days so she would feel properly claustrophobic as the imprisoned heroine of Saint Joan (1957)? (Did his mistreatment of the insecure Iowa girl contribute to her later suicide?) Or here’s a good one: Preminger insisting on repeated shots of star Tom Tryon being whipped by KKK hoodlums in The Cardinal (1963). Interviewed by Fujiwara, Tryon recalls, “Otto kept saying, ‘He’s got enough skin left. Ve do one more take.’ ”

According to many who were there, among them actor Keir Dullea, being a cooperative person or a powerless underling didn’t exempt you from Preminger’s vicious bullying. Does this behavior diminish his artistic achievement? For me, yes, just as my profound love of John Ford diminished after I read Joseph McBride’s biography, which details Ford’s cruelty to his performers. On this sticky point, Fujiwara and I disagree. He doesn’t shrink from recounting Preminger’s on-set misdeeds, but neither does he judge them. In fact, he leaps boldly from tainted biography to the purity of Preminger’s artistry, seeing mastery and even a moral vision in the filmmaker’s Hollywood œuvre.

We do agree that Preminger is an underrated American filmmaker, an “auteur” with a formidable visual style, most comfortable with long takes and with several characters, often of opposing ideologies, brought together in the same frame. Fujiwara admires the same movies of Preminger that I do — among them Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Angel Face (1952), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Such Good Friends (1971) — but he has a special kinship (advanced auteurism!) with works that most others consider klunky historic spectacles, like Exodus (1960) and The Cardinal. His arguments for masterpieces often have to do with formal issues, like Preminger’s subtle, stately, meaningful camera movements. Here, Fujiwara is both sagacious and slightly opaque, as in his assertion that Preminger’s roving camera “explores this world, also creates it. The visible world of the film is in itself an encounter between two bodies, one that presses, one that resists.”

That’s a far cry from wanting to punch Otto in his fat snout!

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