Of all big-name Hollywood directors, possibly none has had as bad a rap as Otto Preminger. Admired in the ’50s by French critics and new-wave filmmakers, he was largely dismissed in this country for what were perceived to be superficial, self-important films, particularly those from his second career as an independent producer-director. He deserves better. As a new collection from Warner and MGM/UA (in fresh digital transfers) shows, Preminger made intelligent, literate entertainments that were models of screen clarity.
The best of this batch is Advise & Consent, a hornet’s nest of a drama about United States senators squabbling over a controversial cabinet nominee. Fast-moving in spite of a 140-minute running time, it’s one of the savviest of all films about politics, with a wonderfully terse performance from Franchot Tone as a dying President. It’s also, in this wide-screen version, a paradigm of Preminger’s visual style, which favored long takes, intricate staging, and fluid camera movement over close-ups and quick cuts. There is one caveat: The film’s lurid depiction of gays, a reflection of its time, is uncomfortably retro.
The Cardinal, all about a priest’s rise to power within the Catholic church, is also shown in wide-screen. Long-winded — and just plain long — the film is undermined by a pious solemnity as well as a cliched script.
Otto the Defender of Free Speech is represented by The Moon Is Blue, which became a triumph over censorship when Preminger refused to cut the word virgin. Seen today, this trifle about a young actress (Maggie McNamara) pursued by two randy bachelors (William Holden and David Niven) seems overly talky and slight. Preminger went to the front again against the Hollywood censors over The Man with the Golden Arm. This time the victory helped pave the way for a more liberated rating system. Though occasionally overwrought, the film is still a riveting depiction of the lower depths, with Frank Sinatra giving a surprisingly sensitive and detailed performance as the drug-addicted Frankie Machine.
Preminger turned George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan into a charmingly intimate spectacle. Jean Seberg, brutally blasted by critics at the time, is, with the perspective of time, a stunning Joan, luminously capturing the spirit of a 17-year-old innocent.
For everything you want to know about Otto (almost) try Anatomy of a Filmmaker, a documentary that’s a part of this collection. Narrated by Preminger regular Burgess Meredith, it’s full of tasty anecdotes about the autocratic auteur’s method and madness (Patricia Neal, Deborah Kerr, and particularly Tom Tryon, to name just a few, go on at length about Preminger’s infamous temper on the set).
While Warner Home Video has done an exemplary job with its portion of this series, the same cannot be said for MGM/UA, which has released Exodus, Rosebud, and The Human Factor, in cropped, full-frame versions. To find out what Exodus is really all about visually, your best bet is MGM/UA’s letterboxed laserdisc, which shows this thoughtful epic about Israel’s birth in its proper wide-screen aspect ratio. Rosebud, another foray into the Middle East, this time with terrorist kidnappers, was a career nadir, while The Human Factor, a spy saga and Preminger’s final film, is an overlooked gem. Saint Joan: A-