Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Abominable Showman

Talented and terrifying, Otto Preminger left no taboo unbroken

Chris Dumas
January 04, 2008

Midway through The Man Who Would Be King, his new biography of the producer-director Otto Preminger, Foster Hirsch relates the story of the turbulent production of Exodus, Preminger’s 1960 epic (based on the leaden best seller by Leon Uris) about the founding of the state of Israel. Preminger, a Viennese Jew who’d had an aristocratic upbringing and a classical education, was first and foremost a canny businessman; he knew that a four-hour epic about such recent history was a risky project, especially for an independent producer. But he was also a great—perhaps even reckless—showman with a fabulous talent for generating publicity, and he knew that he wanted Exodus to be gigantic, controversial, groundbreaking, even essential.

With a mixture of opportunism and fearlessness, Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay and immediately announced to the world press that he had broken the Hollywood blacklist. (Kirk Douglas soon followed suit, announcing that Trumbo had also written Spartacus.) Preminger was no less daring when dealing with international politics. As Hirsch tells it, Preminger secured permission to shoot in Israel by promising that a chunk of the revenues would go to the influential Weizmann Institute of Science (and by giving the Institute’s head an on-screen cameo as David Ben-Gurion). Once on location, he used his access to the Israeli state apparatus to its fullest—staging scenes with thousands of extras, employing huge numbers of Israeli soldiers for verisimilitude, and shooting in prohibited locations. He had an entire village built in the desert and, on a whim, had a field of clover repainted for pictorial effect. He argued script points with Menachem Begin. And he kept the press informed of his every move.

Somehow, Preminger brought it all off on time and under budget, though in the process he bullied the cast and antagonized the crew, fired several key players, and made permanent enemies of his leading actors, including Paul Newman and Lee J. Cobb. Preminger’s temper was already legendary by 1960, but during the making of Exodus he reached extraordinary heights of vituperation and bile. The film itself is alternately showy and wooden, noisy and empty, under-acted and overwritten; like so many of Preminger’s superproductions, it is nearly interminable. In a typical Hollywood move, Preminger placed the blonde Eva-Marie Saint at the film’s emotional center, as a Midwestern nurse who falls in love with a thinly veiled Moshe Dayan (a squinting, frowning Newman), and surrounded her with a rogue’s gallery of improbably cast actors, including Sal Mineo as a tortured munitions expert. Audiences loved the movie, but the critics were savage. According to Tinseltown legend, the comedian Mort Sahl stood up halfway through the premiere and shouted, “Otto, let my people go!” As the film’s set manager would say of Preminger many years later, “Otto was a great producer, but he didn’t have the patience to be a great director.”

Indeed, when he died in 1986 at the age of eighty-one, Otto Preminger was remembered in Hollywood more for his volatile temper and his imperial showmanship than for the movies he made. There’s no doubt that Preminger was a monster (although he had a courtly side); according to Hirsch, Preminger routinely drove his collaborators to tears—laboring, apparently, under the familiar delusion that torture reveals truth—and over the years he managed to get himself into countless near-physical altercations with journalists, rivals, literary celebrities, studio moguls, and a parade of actors great and small. He fired technicians for the slightest infraction, only to rehire them the next day, and caused more than one nervous breakdown. There is a certain tradition of this kind of thing in Hollywood, from Erich von Stroheim to the Weinsteins, but Preminger exemplified it. He knew how to be loving and generous, but it was not his default mode.

The Hirsch biography—along with a twenty-three-film career retrospective currently unspooling at Film Forum in New York City—represents the latest attempt to rehabilitate Preminger’s legacy. (The director Peter Bogdanovich and the critic Andrew Sarris have long been flagbearers.) As Hirsch sees it, the most striking aspect of Preminger’s life was his willingness to go where no other director would dare to tread. In his films, he broke every taboo he could reasonably break, going head-to-head with the Production Code Administration on a half-dozen occasions over almost every conceivable kind of transgression. He built mainstream entertainment out of heroin addiction (The Man With the Golden Arm), put a gay bar on the American screen for the first time since the rise of the Hayes code (in the Washington procedural Advise and Consent), decried rape, poverty, and the misdirection of justice (Anatomy of a Murder), explored black sexuality (Porgy and Bess), took on the Ku Klux Klan in their own territory (in the Louisiana-shot interracial romance Hurry Sundown)—and, of course, he broke the blacklist, which may be his greatest achievement.

Preminger’s sense of outrage was undeniably personal: Growing up in Europe after the First World War, he certainly knew anti-Semitism firsthand, and later—having left Austria for the United States in the mid-1930s—he had to pull every string he had to save his parents from the Anschluss. (His father’s political standing—he had been attorney general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was no defense against the tide of blood sweeping through Vienna.) Perhaps for these reasons Preminger placed American racism front and center in several films, and in the ’50s made two Technicolor musicals with primarily black casts: Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. He truly didn’t care if he made enemies on the Right—or anywhere else, for that matter.

But despite the elegance and efficiency of his best work, Preminger left only a handful of truly remarkable films—and many bad ones, most of them late in his career. It’s almost impossible not to enjoy the early noir filmsPreminger made at 20th-Century Fox, starting with the 1944 murder mystery Laura (a bona-fide instant classic which made his career, as well as that of the lead actress, Gene Tierney) and ending in 1951 with the tense, strange Where the Sidewalk Ends. Laura wasn’t Preminger’s first film as a director (that would be The Great Love, made in Austria in 1931), but it might as well have been: from the opening whip pan that reveals Clifton Webb in the bathtub to the outrageous shotgun ending, Laura achieves such a dreamy, perverse atmosphere that Preminger, spurred on by its success, would spend the rest of his time at Fox trying to better it. (Working with Tierney again in 1949, he achieved an even greater pitch of hysteria in the exuberantly stupid Whirlpool, a psychiatric thriller.) While at Fox, Preminger developed a heated, paranoid way of using the camera; he liked to bring sweating, pained faces—especially men’s—into extreme, screen-filling close-up, and he favored long, complicated tracking shots that kept the viewer continually off balance. It was a style that worked equally well in extravagant costume pictures (like the rarely seen Forever Amber) as it did in seething urban nightmares like Where the Sidewalk Ends. And his eye for wordless, sexually loaded details was the equal of Hitchcock’s: watch for the downward glance and smirk that Dana Andrews gives Clifton Webb when he gets out of that bathtub.

After he left the confines of the studio system and reinvented himself as a one-man production house, Preminger lost something. It certainly wasn’t discipline: He shot Exodus in thirteen continent-hopping weeks, when any film of comparable scale shot in the same decade would have taken twice as long, and cost twice as much besides. A good producer can keep a director moving, no matter how trying the circumstances, and in that sense Preminger was his own best asset. But the price he paid for speed was precision. Even those pictures that succeeded at the box office—Exodus, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Moon Is Blue, Advise and Consent—are sloppy, overburdened entertainments, with little of the fleetness or grace that typified his work as a contract director. Perhaps only the striking posters and inventive title sequences created by Saul Bass, the graphic designer whom Preminger discovered, set these films apart from the other “topical” dross, like On the Beach, that Hollywood was producing in the 1950s and early ’60s.

In his youth Preminger was trained as an actor, and while still in his twenties he built a considerable international reputation as a protégé of the legendary theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt. No matter how hideously he behaved on set, Preminger got good work from his actors during his time at Fox, and made stars out of some of them. (When he stepped in front of the camera, he always played villains—a German commander in Stalag 17, a Nazi consul in Margin for Error, a purple-faced Mr. Freeze in the Batman TV series. Typecasting, some said.) Nevertheless, by the mid-1950s, Preminger’s direction of actors had become increasingly aberrant; for every good performance in a late Preminger picture, such as Laurence Olivier’s relaxed appearance in Bunny Lake Is Missing, there’s a spectacular miscalculation, the kind that can kill a movie in one scene. Combined with his weakness for stunt casting, Preminger’s misdirection sank a good dozen of his projects; the most notorious may be the 1957 howler Saint Joan, with its wide-eyed, elocutionary performance by an unknown, untrained Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc. (She’s easily upstaged by Richard Widmark’s wiggly, giggling turn as the Dauphin.) But nothing else in Preminger’s career—perhaps nothing else in American cinema—can compare to Skidoo, a crisis-mode hippie musical from 1968 that features, in its most alarming scene, the sight of Carol Channing undressing for a stricken Frankie Avalon. (In a slightly less alarming scene, the protagonist, a retired gangster played by Jackie Gleason, drops acid.)

It’s too bad that Film Forum has left Skidoo out of its retrospective, along with all the other films Preminger made after 1965. Some directors become most interesting when their art begins to disintegrate, and there are few better examples than Preminger, most of whose later works—Hurry Sundown, Such Good Friends, Rosebud—are so loony and off key you’d think they were directed by teenagers. His legacy has two sides, just as he did; his demonic impulses were integral to the groundbreaking, near-visionary choices that he made throughout his career. “I’m not sweet, I’m vicious,” Clifton Webb tells Gene Tierney early in Laura. “It’s the secret of my charm.” For all we know, he might have been speaking for Preminger himself.