Film Forum’s Otto Preminger retrospective is the perfect way to make good on your cinephiliac New Year’s resolutions. The Austrian-born director-producer (and sometimes actor) completed only one film in his native country (1931’s The Great Love, sadly not included in the series) before immigrating to the United States, where he would make his mark as one of Hollywood’s leading talents. Because of his wide range of films (including seminal film noirs, timely social commentaries, big-budget epics and the occasional musical), the auteur’s persona can be elusive at times. Even noted film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggested that Preminger is “the least apparently autobiographical of all ‘personal’ Hollywood stylists.” But if there’s anything to be learned from Preminger’s movies, it is that nothing is as it seems: from his early tour de force Laura (1944) to the late masterpiece Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Preminger’s films are preoccupied with illusory truths and shifting façades. The premises of both these films — a murdered woman in the former and a missing child in the latter— are shattered midway through, challenging everything the audience has learned up to that point.
While Preminger’s work is not as openly autobiographical as that of someone like Fellini, Rosenbaum rightly considers him a “personal” stylist, and at least part of this style can be traced back to his upbringing in Austria: not only was his father a prominent lawyer, but Preminger himself received a law degree. More than just being the topic of so many of his best movies, this judicial sensibility presents itself as integral to his mise-en-scene, often privileging long shots over close-ups and tracking shots over cuts. The effect is an impartiality that never allows for easy identification with any of the characters. No truth, no matter who it is spoken by, is to be taken for granted: narrators prove to be unreliable, police officers become criminals, and the dead come back to life.
The 23 films in the series represent just over half of Preminger’s 40 films as a director. Included from among his early films as a contract director at Fox are the noir classics Laura, Whirlpool (1949) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), all centered around the stunningly elegant Gene Tierney. Also screening is Margin for Error (1943), about a NYC police officer (Milton Berle) assigned to guard the German Consul (Preminger), which is unavailable on DVD. Among his films made as an independent producer are The Moon is Blue (1953), famously shocking viewers (and censors) at the time for its use of the word “virgin,” and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), about the conflict between the youthful, free-spirited Jean Seberg and her overbearingly conservative godmother Deborah Kerr.
An exchange of dialogue from Bonjour Tristesse perfectly captures Preminger’s overarching sensibility as a director: Jean Seberg remarks, “You heard about those wicked people from Paris. You heard and you were intrigued. You’re corruptible,” to which Geoffrey Horne replies, “I’m just interested in people, that’s all.” A modest remark that encapsulates Preminger’s career-long fascination with humanity, for all its flaws and imperfections, and his refusal to pass easy judgments.