‘Ajuxtaposition of incompatible elements.’ So Chris Fujiwara describes one of Otto Preminger’s more obscure films in his critical biography of the Hollywood director. But the phrase so encapsulates what I had come to think about Preminger’s entire output that I underlined it, underlined it again, and made a mental note to quote it at the beginning of this review. You see, from urbane noir flicks to period romps to weighty historical dramas, his work seems to differ in tone and content almost as much as it does in quality. Incompatible elements, indeed.
Little wonder, then, that the auteurist critics of the 1960s — whose mantle Fujiwara adopts here — enjoyed the challenge of sifting through Preminger’s work for any common creative threads, before celebrating him as one of the greats. Preminger’s reputation may have faded in the intervening years, but you can still see what excited them all in the first place. When Preminger was on form, he created some of the most endlessly rewarding films to emerge in and around studio-era Hollywood. There’s the perversely ambiguous Laura (1944), of course. Its dark sister pieces: Daisy Kenyon (1947), Whirlpool (1949) and Angel Face (1952). The Sinatra-as-a-junkie shock of The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). And the greatest of all American courtroom dramas: Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
But if Preminger created some great films, then he also created some great film history. Some of the most lively sections of The World and its Double concern Preminger’s efforts to push back the boundaries of what could be shown, said or intimated on screen. His battles with the authorities over the depiction of sex in The Moon is Blue (1953), or of drug-abuse in The Man with the Golden Arm, effectively brought an end to the backwards-looking censorship of the Production Code Administration. And he fought the good fight elsewhere: going out of his way to hire and credit screenwriters who had been disgraced during Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts, for instance.
Preminger’s confrontational streak looked less heroic on set, where he was said to be ‘tyrannical’. Perhaps the most famous behind-the-scenes anecdote recalls when he screamed ‘Relax! Relax! Relax!’ just inches from a young actress’s face. Yet for every actor he drove to anguish there was another who admired his ability to tease out winning performances, or who saw a kinder side to the tyrant. Joan Crawford, who must have employed scriptwriters for her casual observations, outlined his character thus: ‘Otto is a dear man, sort of a Jewish Nazi, but I love him.’
Put together, Preminger’s struggles against the system, against his colleagues, and — on occasion — against himself, play well. In a place that so often chews up and spits out its denizens, this deadly liberal took a different route: he bit back. And, in most cases, moviegoers should be grateful he drew blood.
Yet this isn’t to say that Preminger was left unscathed by the Hollywood machine. Among other struggles, he was consistently forced on and off projects by studio chiefs who didn’t quite know what to make of him. Almost as soon as he found a script or book which interested him, he’d be dragged behind the camera to complete a production that didn’t. The end results, as in Forever Amber (1947), A Royal Scandal (1945) and too many others, were generally turgid and indifferent. Understandably, Preminger seemed to enjoy the greater independence he had from Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s — although, it should be said, the quality of his cinema didn’t necessarily improve.
Fujiwara approaches the lesser films just as he does Preminger’s masterworks — critically and with an eye for overarching themes and concerns. While you sense that he’s pushing, pushing, pushing to have Preminger re-established as a great, he doesn’t succumb to the common auteurist habit of overstating a director’s worst films just because they betray some sign of a ‘personal vision’. Some of the trends that Fujiwara identifies are especially persuasive, such as how Preminger’s roots in Austrian theatre may have informed his film style. But, even when they’re not, he writes a compelling enough case.
In the end, I’m still reluctant to regard Preminger as a titan of the cinema. His inconsistency works against him, and he was responsible for more misses than hits. But, reading The World and its Double, it’s hard not to develop a new respect for the man and his work. This was a talented artist struggling more manfully than most against the terrible tides and swells of the American film industry. He was neither an angel nor a total sonofabitch, and he completed marvellous work alongside the mediocre. Sure, he was himself a juxtaposition of incompatible elements. Much like the rest of us.