Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Otto Preminger at PFA

I also caught a very enjoyable Otto Preminger series called Anatomy of a Movie at the PFA in December. I watched 10 of the 14 films in the series. The series is one of my favorites since I have started frequenting PFA on a habitual basis.

Anatomy of a Murder starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott; (1959)
Whirlpool starring Gene Tierney, Richard Conte and Jose Ferrer; (1950)
Advise and Consent starring Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Franchot Tone, Gene Tierney and Peter Lawford; (1962)
The Moon Is Blue starring William Holden, David Niven and Maggie McNamara; (1953)
Saint Joan starring Jean Seberg, Richard Widmark and John Gielgud; (1957)
The Man with the Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak and Darren McGavin; (1955)
Exodus starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint & Sal Mineo; (1960)
Carmen Jones starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; music by Georges Bizet; (1955)
Bonjour Tristesse starring Jean Seberg, David Niven and Deborah Kerr; (1958)
Skidoo starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Groucho Marx, Frank Gorshin and George Raft; (1968)

In addition, Film on Film Foundation sponsored a screening at the PFA of Preminger's The Cardinal starring Tom Tryon, John Huston and Ossie Davis (1963).


With the exception of Anatomy of a Murder, I had not previously seen any of the films in their entirety. I had watched portions of Advise and Consent and Exodus on television. Somehow, Carmen Jones and The Man with the Golden Arm had completely escaped my viewing history. The rest were completely new to me.

They were a mixed bag to be sure but Preminger clearly seemed more of a master craftsman than inspired artists. His films were eminently watchable with the exception of Skidoo.


In my opinion, Anatomy of a Murder is his best film. The professor who introduced it said it was perhaps the best courtroom drama ever. 12 Angry Men also gets frequent mention. Anatomy of a Murder benefits greatly from a ferocious courtroom rivalry between Jimmy Stewart & George C. Scott as the defense lawyer and prosecutor, respectively. Scott plays his character like an aggressive animal looking to tear into anything that moves. Stewart is all corn pone as a small town lawyer whose country bumpkin acts hide a sharp legal mind and highly competitive personality. Lee Remick is as slutty as a 1959 film would allow and Ben Gazzara plays Remick's husband and the accused murderer with a mean, deceitful streak. Actually, the whole plot must have been groundbreaking in 2009. Remick is raped and Gazzara kills the alleged rapist but is charged with murder. Joseph Welch of Army-McCarthy Hearing fame (Have you no sense of decency, sir?), played the judge as an experience judge who has seen every trick in the book but yet not completely jaded on the process. I can't really add anything to the many reviews of this film except to say this is one of my favorite films of all time. Did I mention Duke Ellington provided the soundtrack?


A step below Anatomy of a Murder is Carmen Jones which benefits greatly from Bizet's canonical opera and Hammerstein inventive lyrics. Carmen Jones takes the Carmen story and sets it during WWII in the Deep South with an all African American cast. The plot lends itself well to the film; the major revision being the substitution of a prize fighter for the bull fighter. If you are not familiar with the plot...well, it's like a lot of operas - boy loves good girl, boy meets bad girl, bad girl leads boy to ruin, boy kills bad girl. That summarizes at least 30% of all operas. Another frequent variation is the good girl selflessly hides a secret to protect the boy's feelings or social standing. Frequently, the girl is deathly ill too but I digress.

Carmen Jones shines because Dorothy Dandridge sings and shimmies her way into Belafonte's heart and other body parts. Preminger was rumored to have an affair with Dandridge during the film and I can't say I don't envy him. How wonderfully scandalous it must have been for an Austrian Jew to be cavorting with an African American woman in 1955. Pearl Bailey contributes the blues influenced “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” and Joe Adams sings “Stan’ Up and Fight” to the Toreador Song.

Dat's love
You go for me
And I'm taboo
But if you're
hard to get
I go for you


Another film I enjoyed was the flawed and dated Bonjour Tristesse. Jean Seberg and David Niven liven up the film about a spoiled, rich girl (the delicious Jean Seberg) and her randy and immoral father. Niven flouts his mistresses in front of his 17 year old daughter (Seberg) to the point where she doesn't blink an eye. In fact, father & daughter have formed a symbiotic relationship that crosses the line into perverse. The film did not suggest incest but rather a lax attitude towards sexuality but other people's feelings. This attitude eventually drives Deborah Kerr to suicide although she is generous enough to not leave a note and make it look like a car accident. Daughter & father are equally complicit. French actress Mylène Demongeot stands out as Niven's ditzy paramour while Kerr plays a more mature and serious love interest. Seberg & Niven are decadent Eurotrash with expensive tastes and exquisite late 1950's fashion. PFA curator Steve Seid said that Jean-Luc Godard greatly admired this film and cast Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960) on the basis of her this performance. Godard envisioned Seberg character in Breathless as an extension of her character in Bonjour Tristesse - hollowed out by three years of immorality, apathy and alcohol; washed up and prematurely jaded by age 20.

The film looks rather quaint 50 years after the fact but Niven's cavalier attitudes regarding his paternal duties still is disquieting and Seberg youthful exuberance is still intoxicating.

An aside - when my mother passed away, I looked through her belongings and she had a small magazine photo cutout of a blonde woman with a pixie haircut that looked a lot like Jean Seberg. My mother never mentioned Jean Seberg to me and I'm not even aware if she knew who Seberg was. I believe she liked the haircut and wore her hair in a similar style for many years. It lends a vaguely oedipal color to my attraction to Seberg. Seberg seemed to live up to her Bonjour Tristesse role - an affair with Clint Eastwood while married to another man (the husband challenged Clint to a duel), under surveillance by the FBI, suicidal, addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs, married to an Arab playboy and finally a questionable death in Paris which was ultimately ruled a suicide.

Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse


Advise and Consent and The Cardinal were two films that explored the inner workings of two powerful and august organizations - the US Senate and the Catholic Church. They both had their moments but of the two, I slightly preferred Advise and Consent.

The Cardinal told the story of Stephen Fermoyle from the time of his ordination to his elevation to cardinal about 20 years later. The film is set 1920's and 30's so Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) has encounters with Jim Crow attitudes in the Deep South and Nazis in Austria. In addition, viewers get a glimpse of the inner workings, politics and rivalries at the Vatican. The film never drags (it is 175 minutes) but it feels like an epic film which it was intended to be. It seemed overly melodramatic with Fermoyle's sister dying during childbirth, his parish priest suffering a slow but brave death, his crisis of faith and subsequent romance in Austria, his being whipped by the Ku Klux Klan and finally confronting a Nazi enabling priest as well as the Nazis themselves. I didn't really get a feel for what drove Fermoyle. He was intelligent, brave and devout but he overcame every crisis and indeed seemed to be stronger for it. Fermoyle received the short end of the stick when it came to character development. Instead, it was the events of the first half of the 20th century and internal politics of the Catholic Church that were the true stars of the film.

Advise and Consent is a similar film that centers on the confirmation hearings of Robert A. Leffingwell, theS ecretary of State-Designate (Henry Fonda). The proceedings are rife with intrigue and personal rivalries. A Dixiecrat (Charles Laughton in his last role) opposes the nomination due to personal animosity with the nominee. The Senate Majority leader (Walter Pidgeon) tries to shepherd the nomination along even though he was blindsided by the President (Franchot Tone). Leffingwell has Communist ties in his past which ratchet up the tension. Don Murray plays Brig Anderson, the committee chair who opposes the nomination on principle despite the President and Majority Leader's urgings to the contrary. Evenetually, an unscrupulous senator (George Grizzard in a memorable performance) blackmails Anderson by threatening to expose his past homosexual behavior. Lew Ayres plays the affable but ineffectual, Gene Tierney (in her comeback role after a 7 year absence due to mental healt problems) plays the premier Washington socialite and Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford and Betty White have small roles as well.

This film must have been one of the most anticipated films of the period with its all star cast and sensational subject matter. I recall seeing a documentary on PBS (perhaps The Celluloid Closet) that featured the scene where Murray goes to gay bar in Greenwich Village to confront his former lover. The scene draws guffaws now but I can only imagine how it was received in 1962. Imagine this - a bunch of men, dressed like preppies, crowded around a bar, with a Frank Sinatra song playing while closeted Murray has to make his way past a couple of queens guarding the doorway. The entrance is elevated so when the bartender sees Murray, he yells and waves for him to come in. This is too much for Murray so he runs away as fast as he can with his ex in pursuit, calling out his name. Murray flags a taxi just in a nick of time while his ex lunges for the taxi door, apologizing profusely and eventually stumbling into a puddle. This encounter was enough to drive Murray to suicide. Actually, this plot line was based on the real events involvings Senators Lester Hunt and Styles Bridges.

Several scenes stood out for me in Advise and Consent. In particular, I enjoyed the scenes as Don Muuray's mounting angst become apparent as he becomes more desperate to avoid having his secret exposed. Another memorable scene involves Larry Tucker as an obese, effeminate (swishy is the term they used) gay man that treats Murray like an anxious gay man looking to find a lover. The final roll call vote was also tense. Any scene with the horn rimmed Gizzard playing the manipulative senator with his gaggle of sycophants in tow was a treat. Franchot Tone gave a strong performance as the supremely skilled President who bullies, cajoles and guilts others into doing what he wants.

The performances all around were strong and after writing these paragraphs, I can't recall why I didn't think more highly of the film when I saw it. I definitely recall thinking the film had missed the mark slightly when the credits rolled but now I can't recall why I felt that way. Instead, I recall enjoyable performances from the entire cast.


Several of the film from the series were less than enjoyable. Two stage adaptations failed badly - The Moon Is Blue and Saint Joan.

The Moon Is Blue was quite risque at the time and Preminger had to fight censors to get it released. A rather forward woman (Maggie McNamara channeling Audrey Hepburn) encounters Wiliam Holden at the Empire State Building. After some surprisingly frank dialogue about their love lives, the woman stops at Holden's apartment (so he change I believe). Holden has recently broken up with his girlfriend (the beautiful Dawn Addams) who lives upstairs with her father (David Niven). Niven's performance is essentially the same as he will give in Bonjour Tristesse five years later. Anyway, the whole plot is unbelievable even by modern standards. I guess this was some playwright's vision of sophisticated urbanites' liberated sexuality was in the middle of the 20th century. I can't believe many people behaved this way in 1953. I also began to tire of Maggie McNamara's character and eventually found her irritating.

Saint Joan was Jean Seberg film debut. With a haircut like Falconetti
in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Seberg looked like Joan of Arc but was never believable as the Maid of Orleans. Perhaps she didn't have the gravitas but it didn't help that the dialogue was weak and she had to act opposite the silly, milquetoast portrayal of Charles VII by Richard Widmark. The film was based on a play by George Bernard Shaw and screenwriting credit was given to Graham Greene so talent was clearly present. I have read that Greene's treatment differs signficantly from Shaw's play by trying to absolve the Catholic Church of blame in Joan's death. This may explain some of the problems but to me it seemed like Preminger didn't reign in the actors or encouraged them to ham it up just enough to dilute the drama of the story.


Skidoo takes bad filmmaking to new heights. PFA curator Steve Seid stated that the Preminger estate owned the rights to Skidoo and had pulled it from distribution due to embarrassment. Seid had convinced them to allow the film to be screened as part of the series. I wish he had been unsuccessful. Preminger is alleged to have to taken LSD in researching the film. From what I saw, it seems like he was dropping acid the filming as well. I fell asleep twice but that could only have improved matters. The plot involved a retired hitman (Jackie Gleason) coming out of retirement on the orders of the head mobster, referred to as God and played by Groucho Marx. Somehow hippies are involved and Frankie Avalon has a swinging bachelor pad with a secret bed that descends into the floor. The audience was treated to Carol Channing doing a striptease as she attempts to seduce Avalon. Groucho also smokes dope with an Indian Yogi. The grand finale has Channing singing and dancing to the eponymous song. Actually, the final credits were sung in their entirety and I think that was the highpoint of the film. Avoid Skidoo at all costs unless you are high on marijuana or some stronger narcotic.


Preminger was infamous for being a bully on the set. Tom Tryon allegedly quit acting as a result of his experience on The Cardinal but I notice that Preminger had a stock of actor he used repeatedly - Burgess Meredith, Jean Seberg, David Niven and Gene Tierney. Preminger played the POW camp commandant in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953). On that set, he worked with William Holden (The Moon is Blue) and Robert Strauss (The Man with the Golden Arm). He must have had a rapport with several of his actors.

Two of Preminger's best known films were absent from the series - The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) starring Gary Cooper and In Harm's Way (1965) starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. By the way, Tom Tryon who was mistreated on Preminger's set during the filming of The Cardinal (1963) accepted a role two year's later in In Harm's Way.


Preminger must have also had a rapport with graphic designer Saul Bass. Bass made several movie posters for the biggest hits of his era including North by Northwest, Spartacus, West Side Story, Ocean's Eleven and Goodfellas.

I noticed and admired Bass' distinctive style on several of the opening credits during the Preminger series. There is something aesthetically pleasing in Bsss' style that I cannot articulate.

Advise and Consent post by Saul Bass

Exodus poster by Saul Bass

Anatomy of a Murder poster by Saul Bass

The Man with the Golden Arm poster by Saul Bass

Carmen Jones poster by Saul Bass

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