The Preminger Touch

BY IOANNIS MOOKAS | There is the man. A child of privilege, born in Vienna in either 1905 or '06, according to varying accounts, to a father retained as counsel by the Habsburg monarchs. The young artist turned by the muses from law school to apprenticeship with Max Reinhardt, then to film with “Die Grosse Liebe” (1931) and soon enough onstage in New York and on B detail at Fox in Hollywood, swinging freely between film and theater for years.

The warmly expansive husband, father, brother, friend. The secular Jew who played make-believe Nazis to acclaim and brought off a thrilling, deeply disturbing epic on the founding of Israel.


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There is the myth. The towering bald tyrant who ruled his sets with Bismarckian will, driving crews through tight field maneuvers and riding actors as if putting steeds through dressage. Insubordinates, it was rumored, tasted the whip.

Austrian émigré maverick rings in Film Forum's repertory new year.

Reckless, he would stop at nothing for an effect, even letting real flames lap at young, unknown Jean Seberg, lashed to a stake as the Maid of Orleans in the colossal bomb “Saint Joan” (1957). The priapic rake who sired a son by Gypsy Rose Lee, besides his heirs through wedlock. The rebel who flouted the Production Code and broke the Blacklist and went on to make ten more pictures, passing up “The Godfather.”

And there are the movies. For this retrospective 23 of Otto Preminger's 37 films are arrayed, starting with a bang as this issue reaches print, with the Joan Crawford noir-streaked melodrama “Daisy Kenyon” (1947) on a double bill with one of the rascal's unqualified hits, “Laura” (1944). Of the latter it might suffice to say that any film that's inspired neoformalist exegesis by Kristin Thompson, queer-theory soundings of Clifton Webb's turn as the diva columnist Waldo Lydecker, and the Sadeian homage of “Singapore Sling” (1990) by Nikos Nikolaidis, set to David Raskin's borrowed theme melody, has a few things going for it.

Especially in later years, Preminger's notoriety preceded him, aided by such choices as his low-camp turn on the '60s “Batman” TV series, and perhaps skewed estimation of his directorial work. His films perceptibly foundered after the not unwatchable yet dubious race melodrama “Hurry Sundown” (1967), with diminishing artistic returns; efforts like “Such Good Friends” (1971) and “Rosebud” (1975) are mercifully omitted from Film Forum's sample.

While a number of his close contemporaries have been critically extolled and canonized, a posthumous reassessment of Preminger's work has been comparatively dilatory. But a stirring, if not a groundswell, of interest has simmered for several years, and now comes a fresh biographical treatment onto which the series is pegged, “Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King,” by Brooklyn College film professor Foster Hirsch, published last fall by Knopf.

On balance the retrospective's second week seems somewhat stronger, with “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965), the celluloid closet landmark “Advise and Consent” (1962), “Exodus” (1960), and above all, screening twice on Wednesday the 9th, Preminger's supernal masterpiece “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958). One is tempted to imagine Edison or Lumière greeting Preminger at the gate of the hereafter to commend him for showing us, with “Bonjour Tristesse,” how well the shadows can dance; as it is, Godard repaid ecstasy with genius in “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), set along the same hot Riviera, and asked Jean Seberg to stare down the audience at the end of “Breathless” (1959) as she had in “Tristesse.”

Photographed by Georges Perinal in widescreen, “Bonjour Tristesse” puts the azur back into the Côte d'Azur, where its protagonists, teenage Cécile (Seberg) and her debonair middle-aged father Raymond (David Niven), spent a color-drenched summer holiday recalled by Cécile from the present tense of muted black-and-white Paris. Gliding mechanically through their boulevard nights – an ever-changing procession of lissome things on Raymond's elegant arm while Cécile is wooed and twirled by anonymous swains – she realizes the summer now faded from her nape, her temples, her stride, was their last idyll, that their happiness will forever be shrouded and shut away like the chairs and tables in their seaside house.

Before that holiday Cécile and Raymond had enjoyed an Edenic amoral conviviality, willfully innocent of the incestuous overtones apparent in every shot opening with the two basking in mutual adoration, disporting like pups with daddy's saucy playmate of the month, Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), and altogether untroubled by the absence of any maternal figure for Cécile. That is, until the half-bidden arrival of Anne Larsen (Deborah Kerr), a noted fashion designer and intimate of Cécile's late mother. Anne's caustic knowledge of such concepts as probity and commitment and responsibility falls like a dreadful shiny apple into the libertine garden.

“Bonjour Tristesse” yields as many pleasures as there are grains of sand on that beach where Raymond and Cécile take their morning exercise together. The way David Niven pronounces “ate” like “et” when saying, “Pig, pig, pig… I ate like a pig.” The circular mirror in Cécile's bedroom. The ecru pod-husk Anne slips into on arrival at Le Lavendou. The way nubile, dull future lawyer Philippe (Geoffrey Horne) climbs on top of Cécile. The uncertain provenance of Philippe's mother. Juliette Greco croaking the theme song in a Paris jazz grotto. The cloisonné distinctness and vividness of each color. Passages of pure cinema, as when Cécile steals wordlessly into Philippe's house and bed.

Besides comments by Professor Hirsch at several shows, also expected to share their experiences with Preminger are Keir Dullea at screenings of “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” and Jill Haworth at “Exodus,” in which she plays a Holocaust refugee the gentile tourist Kitty (Eva Marie Saint) wants to adopt and bring home to the US. Audiences may even get to cheer Patricia Neal at “In Harm's Way” (1965), the pile-driving Pacific War melodrama that ends with Neal's nurse smiling darkly over John Wayne's wounded general, as thunderous breaking surf dissolves over her gleaming eyes.