Otto Preminger: The method in his madness

His tantrums were legendary, but Otto Preminger left an extraordinary body of work that covered every genre possible. Geoffrey MacNab remembers a true original
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The Independent Culture

No one could deny that Otto Preminger had a temper. When he was displeased, his eyes would bulge, his cheeks swell, his veins pop, his face turn puce, and you could imagine that steam was about to come out of his ears and nostrils. What made it worse was that his dressings-down were always given in public, and he invariably picked on the most vulnerable. The bigger the audience, the more vicious the invective. Some actors at the receiving end of one of his tirades claim never to have recovered from the experience.

"With him, I became a nervous wreck, crying and jumping when the phone started ringing, incapable of walking calmly across a room," said Jean Seberg, having been plucked out of Iowa obscurity to play the martyred heroine in his 1957 film, Saint Joan. Lana Turner, meanwhile, walked out of his 1959 production, Anatomy of a Murder, telling the press that she couldn't cope with his domineering personality.

The image of the film-maker most familiar to cinema-goers is as the Nazi, Colonel von Scherbach, in Billy Wilder's 1953 film, Stalag 17. Even the usually unflappable Roy Plomley was discomfited when Preminger was on Desert Island Discs in 1980. Plomley asked the much-travelled director if he was "something of a Gypsy". "Is this what you do to your guests?" was Preminger's furious response. "You insult them and say they're Gypsies? I mean, look, I'm not much balder than you."

In the early 1960s, Preminger was revered by both British and French critics, who placed him high up in "Top 10" polls, but in recent years, his stock has fallen. It is the Austrian-born director's misfortune that his tantrums are as well remembered today as his movies. "I always felt he was a little underrated, and that people judged him more on his personality," says Foster Hirsch, who is currently putting the finishing touches to his biography of the film-maker, entitled Subject to Fits.

Look a little more closely and it soon becomes apparent that Preminger was indeed a far richer and complex film-maker than the newspaper headlines about his combustible temperament suggested. Besides, the tantrums served a purpose. Like other film-makers, from Von Sternberg to Von Trier, he was a skilled self-publicist who knew the value in column inches of behaving like an ogre.

Even his strange fetish for playing Nazis, despite being Jewish, was understandable. He was trying to convey to US audiences just how atrocious Hitler's regime really was. "He wanted to make them look as horrible as possible," his widow Hope Preminger says. She was married to him for 30 years and the man she describes is far removed from the film-maker of popular myth: a devoted father and husband, exemplary host, loyal and generous friend.

Preminger's best films (some screening in new prints at the National Film Theatre's forthcoming retrospective) hold up remarkably well. What is most startling is their diversity. He worked in every genre conceivable: film noir, Western, musical, courtroom drama, comedy, historical epic, melodrama, espionage thriller. Some of his pictures are chamber pieces. Others are on a vast scale. "That was his personality," says Hope Preminger. "He tried never to do the same things twice. Whenever anybody asked him which of his films was his favourite, his answer was always, 'The next one'."

Otto Ludwig Preminger was born in Austria in 1906. His father was a prominent lawyer who had served as attorney general for the Austrian Empire. Otto himself studied law before moving sideways into theatre. He was a protégé of the celebrated director Max Reinhardt, who was grooming him as his successor. However, Preminger was too appalled by the rise to power of the Nazis to stay in Europe. In the mid-1930s, just before Hitler annexed Austria, he left for the US.

Darryl Zanuck, the boss of Twentieth Century Fox with whom he had an affectionate but tempestuous relationship, put him under contract and was rewarded with some superb films - as well as a few duds. Preminger was especially adept at noirish melodrama. Laura (1944), about a hard-bitten cop who becomes obsessed with a dead woman, is rated a masterpiece even by critics who dislike the rest of his work. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), with Dana Andrews as a detective whose father was a mobster, had a grit and realism about it that anticipated the work of Joseph Wambaugh. Whirlpool (1950), by contrast, was a woman's film par excellence: a heady, Freudian thriller about a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who seems to be living a picture-perfect life, but is neglected by her psychiatrist husband and blackmailed by a smooth-talking hypnotist.

Though he was never entirely comfortable as a hired hand within the studio system, Preminger was ruthlessly efficient. His films were invariably made on time and on budget - which made it far easier for the studio bosses to cope with his tantrums. Despite his reputation for what one critic has called "Teutonic bombast", his films often show a surprising humour and visual inventiveness. Thanks to the legendary designer and animator Saul Bass, many Preminger movies boast stylish credits. He was adventurous in his choice of composers, too, enlisting Duke Ellington to score Anatomy of a Murder, and giving the youthful Elmer Bernstein free hand on The Man with the Golden Arm. "He was a scary character," Bernstein recalled. "I thought he was going to throw me out of the office when I told him that what I had in mind was to do a jazz-based score. But he said that that was what I had been hired for, and that was what I should go away and do."

There is a wonderful moment in his Carmen Jones in which the soldier (Harry Belafonte) has his first smouldering embrace with the parachute-factory worker Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge.) To depict the carnality of their relationship, Preminger has Carmen pluck a ripe, half-eaten peach out of Belafonte's hand and throw it aside. As the couple embrace, the camera pans to show the peach splattered in messy, post-coital close-up against the wall.

Foster Hirsch and Hope Preminger both say that they can recognise a Preminger film instantly, regardless of the genre or period in which it was set or made. "The Preminger touch is long takes, deep focus, and elegant camera movements," Hirsch says. "He could line up a shot better than anybody. He felt that every cut was an interruption, and he cut as infrequently as possible - so there is an elegance and smoothness about his work. He was among the most fluent stylists ever."

In the 1950s, Preminger set up as an independent producer. He started to make films that confronted taboos head-on. He dealt with drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm, and incest in Bonjour Tristesse. He had all-black casts for Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, and scandalised the Legion of Decency with his mild sex- comedy, The Moon is Blue.

Two movies that show him at the peak of his powers are Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Advise and Consent (1961). The former is a courtroom drama bolstered by one of James Stewart's greatest performances as a lawyer trying to get a soldier (Ben Gazarra) off a murder charge for killing the man who raped his wife. The latter is a political drama about Senate committee hearings into the president's controversial choice of secretary of state.

The films, both scripted by Wendell Hayes, are talkative affairs. They touch on many contentious subjects: Red-baiting, homosexual blackmail, suicide, political horse- trading and corruption, the bullying of witnesses. None the less, the movies are even-handed and idealistic. Preminger shows the worst in human behaviour, but suggests that the American political and legal systems are robust enough to withstand the machinations of the crooks who try to abuse them.

"There is a wonderful objectivity about Preminger," says Hirsch. "Here is this man who is so hot-headed, and here are these films that are cool and objective. He is ambivalent about who is innocent and who guilty, and he wants us to be ambivalent, too."

The Otto Preminger season at the NFT (020-7928 3232) runs from 14 to 30 April