about the writer
Born in Madrid in 1947, Miguel Marías, an economist, has written film criticism since 1966. From 1986 to 1988 he was director of the Spanish Film Archive. From 1988 to 1990 he was general director of the Spanish Film Institute ICAA. He is the author of books on Manuel Mur Oti and Leo McCarey.
The Head and Eyes of Otto Preminger, or The Thinking Gaze
by Miguel Marías
With the passing of time, almost every great film creator, as well as — often earlier — some of the very good directors whose contribution to the art of cinema is far less important and original, end up by being "discovered" (or rather, rediscovered) and acknowledged, achieving a more or less widespread and enduring reputation. Thus, it is no longer regarded as some sort of exotic caprice, befitting only a bunch of eccentric maniacs, to highly value or even openly admire Douglas Sirk or Jacques Tourneur, and the names of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks have been firmly incorporated into the shared Pantheon of critics and film buffs wherever, so much that praise is implicit when their names are mentioned, and it seems no longer necessary to take up their defense.
Their causes are battles fought and won, albeit if this victory remains relative and only among rather specialized, minority groups, but these names have at last achieved respectability, and in due course — some years more from now, at most a couple of generations into the future — their high position will have become generally established and will remain undisputed. Much more strange and deplorable — though not for their long-dead victims, of course — is the limbo in which float those filmmakers who, even if for some time — more or less long, usually around ten years — they were successful enough at the box office, did receive some awards and enjoyed a certain degree of critical recognition, have fallen into oblivion and whose reputation has been for a long time stagnant at a level well below their merit, basically as a result of the scarce circulation of their films, a circumstance which bears no relation to their artistic value. This is what happens, and will not probably change in the foreseeable future, with Frank Borzage (who always had a few enthusiastic admirers, but is never remembered), Leo McCarey, or Allan Dwan, to mention only three, although the list could be easily expanded, the same as happens, despite appearances to the contrary — and even if he retains a place of choice in every Film History — with the increasingly unknown and maligned figure (this latter only in the U.S., to the scandal and astonishment of most Europeans) of D.W. Griffith himself.
To these names several others could be added, of course — from Nicholas Ray to Tod Browning — but I find no "forgotten one" case as downright scandalous as Otto Preminger's, whose appreciation was at best a minority affair and even then remained a controversial taste subject to violent debate, to be finally swept into oblivion as the result of a deliberate discrediting policy against him (and others, including Vincente Minnelli), started in 1964 inside the very group which had discovered him some twenty years before. The downturn — to which such reversal of critical fortune certainly contributed to some extent; I recall Preminger was still much affected in 1979 — suffered by his career during his last years of activity, in the very midst of the disintegration process undergone by the whole U.S. film production system, until his death in 1986, before his work had reconquered even the degree of interest it had deservedly awakened approximately from 1954 to 1963, completed this demolition job, turning him into an unknown item.
An unknown which, moreover, was not regarded as a serious hole, much less one which required urgent filling, for at least three generations of cinéphiles (or the dubious, watered-down, less passionate version which is today so nicknamed, often in a rather dismissive way), with no chance whatsoever for any revindication attempt to prosper, had there been one, given the scarce availability of the main evidence in his support, which is, of course, Preminger's own films, only now, thanks to DVD, and partially as yet, beginning to circulate again in their adequate format ratio and with their visual values restored (although severely diminished in scale, always "smaller than life").
While not a single feature of the dominant cinematic culture will incite or urge them from outside, I firmly believe that the most curious amongst the surviving true film buffs might begin to discover by themselves that Otto Preminger was not only a smart producer who had the opportunity (or rather, seized it from Rouben Mamoulian) of directing Laura, still widely regarded as one of the crowning peaks of a genre which, once it conquered the taste of moviegoers, has retained its enormous popularity everywhere, as noir in Europe or thriller in its own country of origin (although the most cultivated circles in the US prefer to name it in French).
This film is almost the single reason that has kept Preminger's name from being wiped out of cinema dictionaries, historical reference works, and textbooks. Of the other films directed by Preminger which the spectator seduced and intrigued by the vision of Laura — and few have ever remained indifferent to its charms and mysteries — could wish to inspect as a result, in many countries you can find on DVD Angel Face (1952) and most of the other films in the same genre which Preminger made in between for Fox, using again either Gene Tierney or Dana Andrews, the stars of Laura: Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), and Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950), the latter reuniting both again at Preminger's orders. But you still cannot find on DVD another of his most successful movies, an unusual and unlikely incursion of this reputedly "cool" filmmaker into the realm of melodrama, Forever Amber (1947), nor the unjustly neglected The Thirteenth Letter (1951), dismissed sight unseen as an inferior remake of Clouzot's Le Corbeau, which it is, but that is of no consequence whatsoever.
Whoever ventures into a standard film dictionary or history book will hardly be spared from learning that Otto Preminger, after being one of the first directors to become their own (independent) producers, defied the self-imposed censorship code of the motion picture industry and released, without the supposedly unavoidable MPAA seal of approval, a couple of controversial and (at the time; not so much now, of course) "daring" movies, The Moon Is Blue (1953) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). If the consulted reference-book is not too superficial, the curious fan will read with some astonishment that Preminger directed two dramatic musicals with all-Black casts, Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959), although the second was a Samuel Goldwyn production, prepared and already started by (again!) Rouben Mamoulian; that Preminger discovered Jean Seberg during a nationwide casting contest for Saint Joan (1957) and had the good taste of employing her again in Bonjour Tristesse (1958). And the eager researcher may even get the idea that after admiring her in both, (then) well-known Preminger fan Jean-Luc Godard picked her as the attractively treacherous female lead in À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959), and that, despite his Viennese birth, Preminger did once film a western, whose durable popularity rests on being one of the first movies to be shot with ease in the then-new CinemaScope widescreen format and, even more, on the presence of Marilyn Monroe, River of No Return (1954).
Of all these pictures, only the two he directed in 1954 and recently also Bonjour Tristesse can so far be found on reliable DVDs; the French release of The Moon Is Blue and Saint Joan (and The Human Factor ) has been quite a disappointment; and you have yet to forget The Man with the Golden Arm, since there is only a mere transfer from flat VHS to CD, as bad in the many DVD editions released in the US as in its European versions, all available at low prices far exceeding their real worth.
Considering the erratic policy — if there is anything deserving such a name — seemingly inspiring DVD edition wherever, the period of Preminger's career with seems better covered is, quite surprisingly, that of his full maturity as an artist, when already a portion of his early supporters were beginning to mistrust him as too prone to sensationalism and yielding to box-office interests, while another portion of them even increased their deep admiration for such a filmmaker. Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Exodus (1960), Advise and Consent (1962), The Cardinal (1963), and In Harm's Way (1965) allow us to see again five films in a row which are probably the (as yet unacknowledged) peak of his whole body of work.
Although only available on Zone 1, and packaged so confusingly and contradictorily as to be discouraged from buying it, its cover casting doubts about its ratio presentation (finally approaching the original 2.55:1 early Scope at the standard 2.35:1), there is also a DVD edition of a film which announces that greatest period of his career, albeit on a lesser scale, the very badly known — I guess that for far-from-innocent reasons — The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955).
There are several other holes, some of them very harmful and not likely to be repaired — I would be most surprised if the hardly popular but quite extraordinary Daisy Kenyon (1947) came out on DVD — including the lack of most of his late films, which, despite their very bad reputation and their box-office failure, certainly deserve taking a new look at them, as proved the very satisfying Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), recently released. The magnificent Hurry Sundown (1966) and the films that followed it are still missing. Even his reassuringly good farewell film, adapted from Graham Greene's The Human Factor, is unavailable in good shape.
Anyhow, it is only recently that the minimal objective conditions are at last beginning to concur in order to recall why, for some people, Otto Preminger belongs with the greatest and most truly original filmmakers in the whole History of Cinema.
To avoid a solitary discourse which finally would lead nowhere — I am already where I am — however convincingly might I try to explain such claims or to persuasively argue my reasons for admiring Preminger, while the reader has not the opportunity to contrast these arguments with the films in question and to think and judge on his own what he sees, I would rather advise whomever feels some interest for Preminger's work, or anybody suspecting he can be a far more important filmmaker than he had been led to believe and other opinions had let him even guess, as well as to anyone without theatrical screen knowledge of his output, to entirely eschew VHS prints as a working tool, especially if what he can get are second-or more-generation copies or commercial editions usually not respectful of the aspect ratios in which the actual films where shot, and try to see them in 35mm prints (those filmed in 70mm seem now almost invisible everywhere) and on sufficiently large screens (it is almost useless to look at Exodus or even the black-and-white Panavision Advise and Consent on a surface only slightly larger than that of a 34-inch television set). Were such ideal conditions outside your reach, the next best thing would be DVDs, which usually offer restored prints.
I would also recommend, at the sight of what there is at hand, to begin with the best: I'd suggest for a start the most intimate Preminger films already shot in CinemaScope, River of No Return and Carmen Jones; then proceed, whenever possible, to The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell; or jump to Bonjour Tristesse and go on — with the forcible omission of Porgy and Bess — with the masterpieces up to and including In Harm's Way.
Once seen that, if, as I hope, the reader now wants to see every thing Preminger made, he can go backwards and see his dark side, the noir films from the years 1944 to 1952, less personal but full of elements which resurface afterwards enriched and fully developed, and then anything else he can get in acceptable viewing conditions: one of the essential Preminger virtues is that even his less successful or only partially controlled pictures are usually, at the very least, quite entertaining, employ attractive players, and almost always include some most extraordinary shots which, in those films where not each and every one of them is wonderful, result — by comparison — astonishing and spectacularly accomplished. I will warn the reader that, pending an eventual revision on DVD, I have seen the Preminger film I least like — Rosebud (1975) — five times without ever being bored, and that even in that film, for me by far his worst, there are moments, although certainly (and uncharacteristically) isolated, that are worth the entire output of many present-day highly praised filmmakers. That I focus my interest on the period after Bonjour Tristesse — when his own personal, distinctive style reaches the maturity that makes it unique — does not mean that you should skip the earlier films, many of which are admirable and some of them even count among the best he ever directed: Daisy Kenyon, Bonjour Tristesse, or Carmen Jones are as good as any other. And Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool, Laura, Forever Amber, Angel Face, or River of No Return are films not to be missed.
I think advisable to keep in mind a further point: Preminger's best films don't go ostentatiously soliciting attention, avoid strident eye-catching gimmicks, and — despite his enemies' claims about his "sensationalist" penchant — do not advertise their own "importance," so they can seem quite unexceptional at first sight, if not enough attention is paid at every moment.
They are often built on extraordinarily protracted tracking shots of astounding complexity, staged and shot with such elegance and naturalness that you do not notice either their length or their elaborate movements; rather on the contrary, they seem quite simple and "normal," not to say deceitfully commonplace. Often, after several minutes, one begins to wonder whether there has been some cut or the same shot is still going on; if one looks again — as both DVD and VHS allow — almost in every case, there has been no cut, it is a very long one-shot sequence or that, at most, Preminger interrupted it to introduce a change of distance or point of view which was so strictly unavoidable and necessary that it would have been contrived to replace the simple, direct cut (and he did not fear to jump over the axis) by a quite arbitrary and comparatively slow camera movement.
Several of the films Preminger produced from Exodus onwards are obviously very expensive "blockbusters" and last for well over two hours, sometimes three or even more; in every instance, both the cost and the length — never tiresome or excessive — were perfectly justified by reasons of amplitude, authenticity of the locations and settings (Preminger systematically avoided back-projection), and by the sheer complexity of the plot, often involving an incredible number of individual characters and incidents.
One of the defining features of Preminger as a filmmaker is his unsurpassed ability to clearly tell any story, which in the mature period of his career expands to a wide variety of people with their own personal stories and relationships, very precisely interwoven in such a way that characters who seemed of secondary or passing relevance suddenly take an unexpected moral or dramatic weight and move to the forefront before disappearing or returning to the background, while those who had acted as agents or had served as our guides through the chain of events Preminger is building, often lose power or presence and are temporarily eclipsed by lesser figures.
Since another of Preminger's identifying traits is the neatness and density of the images he organizes and presents to us in the clearest and more deceptively simple way possible, it is quite important that the physical state of the prints and the neatness and precision of their projection do not hinder our viewing, either making it out-of-focus and fuzzy or restricting it to a portion of the original frame.
It can be felt since the first vision of Laura, which surprises no matter how much one may have previously read about it; our guess is steadily confirmed from River of No Return onwards, no doubt because the CinemaScope ratio both allowed and encouraged this inclination or choice, which becomes manifest, in particular, since Bonjour Tristesse, to reign uninterruptedly from Exodus until Hurry Sundown: Preminger created — and brought to perfection — a cinematic style which is not merely plastic expression, but the eminently visual equivalent of very personal dramaturgical and narrative imperatives, and which becomes a unique conception — quite original and without any clear precedent, at least in the sound period; also, I'm afraid, without any true followers — of time and space (the primary means of cinema), i.e., of the environment in which evolve the actors and actresses entrusted with embodying in gestures, movements, and words the development of the story which Preminger is telling us.
Ambition has been an often-voiced charge against Preminger, accusing him of the pursuit of notoriety, success, and money, when what he was really after belonged to quite another order of ambitions, and was a goal much harder to attain: the fullest understanding of events — often historically important and of the utmost transcendence, but which was not that different when he merely dealt with small interpersonal struggles, or fully fictional, rather sordid criminal machinations — and its complete, undistorted transmission to the spectator so that each individual in the audience, exercising his own liberty and understanding, could fully grasp them, their meaning, their causes and consequences.
The aim, the subject-matter, and the method of most Preminger films could be summarized using only one word: intelligence, a word which etymologically sets up a full action program and requires to connect each thing with other things, to link them rationally. If reason can be explained as the apprehension of reality in its connectedness, then no other cinematic style — not even Fritz Lang's — would embody reason as fully as Otto Preminger's in the whole history of cinema.
And, since everything that happens takes place in the flow of time, and often simultaneously, while others are the effects of previous actions, the means for understanding and showing them to other people are unavoidably narrative, and force the teller to put order where, at least at first sight, there is such complexity, given the amount of factors and elements at play, that it can easily be mistaken with chaos.
The first thing, therefore, that such a project demands from an artist is an enormous mental power, which obviously not everybody has; a well-organized mind, a calm and reflective attitude, that will not allow the accumulation of data to hinder its functioning, a brain which will not fall into perplexed paralysis in the presence of apparent contradictions.
This takes someone balanced and skeptical enough not to let himself be carried away by hurry, by the temptation of witticism, or by blinding partisan assumptions. Such an artist needs to know how to maintain a difficult — and almost never commercially or politically profitable, since it can be criticized from both sides — emotional balance (the so-called "coldness" of cool Preminger) and always mistrust appearances, first impressions, prefabricated images, ready-made phrases, and conventional notions. Accepting passed-on ideas without further inspection, taking for granted truisms or accepting them as axiomatic, logical or "natural" thoughts (or even laws), when they may well be, and so often are, sophisms, fallacies, superstitions, misconceptions, myths, or simply "likely" lies, believable alibis, truthful-sounding excuses, is precisely what Preminger was never ready to do. This requires alertness, lucidity, and self-criticism, remaining absolutely awake and aware at all times, and a sound amount of general mistrust. It entails a not very comfortable rejection of the easier way to get things done and demands at all times a clear-sighted and far-reaching vision.
As well as a considerable amount of imagination, since without this last ingredient it is impossible either to foresee consequences and next moves or to extrapolate events or trends that can be detected in what so far has only begun to inchoate or exists yet merely as a possibility, as a threat, a risk, or a promise. Such a vision has to be at the same time very attentive to the present instant, scrutinizing the diminutive variations of whatever is happening at every moment before our eyes at variable distances, without ever losing sight of the need of forecasting its future evolution, amongst several directions which remain open, nor refraining from looking, with the hindsight of a historian — or at times, that of an analyst — at what happened before, because it explains or can serve as a model or parallel for whatever so far has failed to become concrete or to surface.
The main thing is to think where we are, how and why we have reached this situation, and which path we can take from here and now, from this moment on, starting where we are. It is again, certainly, quite a lot to ask for from a mere film director, but that seems precisely what Preminger always wanted to do, what he took pleasure in trying to attain, the goal which he wished to reach and towards which he, step by step, confidently and unrelentingly advanced for years.
This previous mental vision allowed him to think up a story, conceived as a sort of Platonic ideal whose physical elaboration on paper, as a simple but detailed blueprint, he commissioned to competent or trustworthy screenwriters, from whom he demanded to translate into writing the desires not always explained in full by Preminger himself, and up to the point where, at last at such early stages in the process of making a film, well before the actors were under contract and principal photography started, no further precision was possible. Intellectually, in the absence of physical elements, it was impossible to advance a step further.
From this narrative framework with its distribution into scenes, grouped themselves into big dramatic blocks perfectly linked one to each other, with the characters already designed in full detail, although not described physically to allow a perfectly free hand in the casting stage, Preminger went on to visually conceive each film, which, as he once confided, he would have liked to shoot in chronological order and, at least ideally, in a single uninterrupted shot.
Preminger's theatrical experience, started as an assistant and apprentice of the great Max Reinhardt in Vienna, then pursued both as stage director and actor — a trade he practiced for a short time in the theatre and also sometimes in front of the camera — had made him a strong partisan of the unity of time and space, which he felt allowed players to feel both more at ease and more secure than when subjected to the fragmentation and repeated takes which had become usual in the cinema.
Since chronological shooting is in practice almost impossible in a standard film production, more so if the budget is high and he is employing very in-demand actors and actresses, with quite tight and complex working schedules, Preminger tried to compensate or reduce whenever feasible the unavoidable chronological disorder and fragmentation of filming by means of intensive and very detailed rehearsals, quite similar to those which are the rule in theatrical companies. At the moment of shooting, Preminger imposed his concept of the unity of vision, and therefore of point-of-view.
Unlike his admired friend Alfred Hitchcock, Preminger never attempted to emotionally identify the audience with any of the main characters and therefore did not think useful to convey their changing points of view through the choice of adequate camera angles, distances, and framing, which in turn would subjectively determine the size of each shot. In an Otto Preminger film there is no place for anyone else's but his own point of view, Preminger's perspective being rather that of a director who would very much like to reach something almost akin to Jeremy Bentham's ideal watchman's panoptical view, although (and this is a very relevant difference) in a state of freedom: he aspired to see everything at once, in its own space, in its changing environment, and all the time, but without hindering the characters' movements or forcing the space where the action takes place, which whenever possible was the actual setting. Preminger wanted nothing to escape him, even if it happened, so to speak, at his back, outside his field of vision, which therefore had to be as wide as possible and with the possibility of swiftly changing its limiting frame, of adapting its boundaries to the characters' displacements. Therefore, Preminger's camera was always ready to move, expecting or following the action he had, of course, previously staged and rehearsed intensively, but that he tried to capture as if it were something happening spontaneously and unexpectedly, and as if he were a documentary filmmaker, certainly well-equipped and with the best technical means, always attentive to what was happening on the set in order not to miss anything interesting.
For Preminger, the camera is his sight, the technological equivalent to his pair of alert eyes, always connected to his brain and his heart, responding to whatever might happen. Therefore, he needed to see clearly even what was far away (hence the depth of field, and a complex lighting scheme that makes equally clear every inch of the screen), what is at some distance, even in a crowd or in a large place or open space (hence the widescreen); moreover, he needed to remain able to look elsewhere, in the middle or near distances, and on the spot (hence a moving camera, usually mounted on a dolly or a crane, extreme mobility combined with the possibility of approaching and getting a good panoramic view, perhaps slightly upwards so as to dominate the action over the heads of characters, with only the slightest unavoidable obstruction).
A purpose for which, in principle, and from a moment that I feel would be of the utmost interest to pinpoint and put a date to, although that seems no easy task at all — and which, now that Preminger is dead, it would be impossible to settle for sure and beyond any reasonable doubt — Preminger started by considering that the most effective and logical way to do that was through respecting and preserving the unity of time and space of every scene, and filming it, if possible, as a whole, in a sweeping movement encompassing everything, without the usual fragmentation of both factors, and searching other ways of accelerating the action and enhancing the emotion of selected moments. The standard procedures established for years in the American cinema, and almost taken for granted and considered as "natural" practically everywhere were of no use for Preminger. Not that he ever cared to voice such a dismissive idea, or to pass as a radical partisan of change, since he had not the notion that his choices were the only ones possible, or that what he thought was right for himself should be the only way of doing pictures for others.
Ultimately, that conception of what I cannot find a more suitable name for than mise-en-scène implied for Preminger that, as long as it would not be (or look) too artificial and elaborate, too contrived and unnatural, or too static, each scene or sequence should be shot, on principle, whenever it was possible (and however difficult it might prove) in a single, long, continuous take or shot, without cuts to inserts or close-ups or sudden set-up changes, moving the camera as a function of the displacements of dramatic interest inside the scene, and preferably, in order not to draw attention to the camerawork in itself, at the cover of some character's movements in and out of the scene, in and out of a room, which normally will be connected to the often microscopic changes in their dramatic weight, and seemed to naturally call for these accompanying movements.
This principle of one action/one shot, driving ideally to one-take sequences and to avoid whenever possible and reasonable inserts, jump-cuts, close-ups, and mechanical, conventional shot/counter-shot series for confrontation or dialogue scenes has, logically, immediate consequences in the narrative, dramatic, and, above all, ethic terrains. But all of these repercussions suit, support, and reinforce the willed absence of partiality and the refusal of spectator-manipulation techniques that Preminger had adopted early in his career as the surest way to allow and encourage each individual in the audience to look intelligently at the film and exercise their own freedom of thought.
Of course, to be able to shoot a scene in such a way requires it to be organized in precisely one of several different possible ways; to begin with, the filmmaker should avoid the temptation of setting it merely in order to make possible (or easier, faster, cheaper) the application of such a style of filming, which was never an end in itself, but only a means. One quite frequent mistake that Preminger was never lazy or conceited enough to incur.
But this requires yet more work. It asks for a new critical re-reading, which would already be — at the very least — the fourth revision, of each time/space unit in which has been tentatively fragmented an action which must flow uninterruptedly — yet not uniformly, but with continuous rhythmic modulations and intensity variations — on the screen, and without ever losing intelligibility as a result of those narrative ellipses or jumps as may be needed, and which in any case should not be obtrusive, each shot looking seamless and continuously flowing, the camera's existence as forgotten as that of our own eyes while we see whatever we may want to see that does not require our sight to strain.
Just imagine the investment of intellectual effort, so far merely imaginative, required by each shot, each scene, in an Otto Preminger film. It demands not only an exceptional mental capacity but also a steel-hard willpower, a self-exigence which explains and puts in its place — being neither a caprice nor merely domineering and exploitative — his much-commented demands from technical crews, players, or any sort of collaborators — that's why he only employed the best professionals available, and required that they perform accordingly.
All of it is the result of an enormous effort, which moreover — since it would be a lack of elegance, and could displace the audience's interest/attention from the action itself to the technical prowess of the makers — must not be noticed by those regarding the film, so that all artifice should remain hidden or concealed, if not so much as strictly invisible. Artistry becomes therefore yet more complex and subtle — double artifice — so as to not detract from or disrupt the moviegoer's attention, which must be subtly attracted (during the '40s through a process of spellbinding fascination, usually based on the female leads, later by the sheer elation of seeing everything so well and clearly and by the continuity of a forward thrust movement) and channelled (although forever maintaining the wide scope of his/her perception) towards the main action and the behavior of the characters as they are embodied at every moment by the players.
This principle requires, of course, the full subordination of the players to their respective roles; the chosen performers can be great stars, but must always adapt themselves to Preminger's fictional creatures until no distinction can be made between one and another, until they fully materialize their way of being and of moving, of regarding or speaking, through their bodies and their fitting corporal dynamics or their voices, even in scenes where they must remain passive and quiet or if they have to keep silent. This explains why Preminger has sometimes replaced an actor for another (he fired Lana Turner from Anatomy of a Murder because she wanted to wear her own clothes, and therefore would have remained Lana Turner, and substituted for her Lee Remick as Laura Manion); that he usually did not accept demands or welcome suggestions from the main players, a fact which is the basis of his reputation of having dictatorial ways on the set and of being ill-tempered and bad-mannered; that he refused to change dialogue or traits or clothing, or to allow actors to embellish the characters they played, rather forcing the performers to stick to the roles as they were written in the script.
It has been often pointed out, rightly — although it is something that will rarely escape even the less attentive or insensitive viewers: the relevance in Preminger's cinema of hand gestures, always so revealing, of the rhythms and cadences of the characters' walk or the way they sit or stand still, even when we are shown only their backs. How they handle a ballpoint, a telephone, or a gun is telling us something while they talk or look at each other, without any cut or camera movement ever isolating, stressing, or underlining that detail as something significant. These are indirect, objective, and patent means to subtly let the characters reveal (rather than explain) themselves cinematographically, to suggest what they are really thinking or feeling, letting the audience perceive their changes of attitude, in an unstressed fashion, without verbally stating or imposing any meaning. That kind of watchful observation is within the reach of anyone paying close attention to the whole screen and willing to reason from the indices put at his disposal and thus reach his or her own conclusions.
Preminger's cinema style both takes for granted and demands an intelligent, interested, and alert spectator, who can be trusted not to need that things be repeated to him/her several times nor to require being guided by the hand throughout the plot, however intricate it may be, but who will be able to see what is relevant with the mere guidance of his/her look, without anyone else delimiting excessively, univocally, his/her field of vision, but rather allowing him/her to see quietly and clearly more than he/she needs merely to understand the storyline, letting him/her grasp also other things, even some things which might be more meaningful for him/her than for Preminger himself, or which could seem contradictory or besides the point. Preminger does not require his audience to be cultivated, but only asks their members to be interested, attentive, and watchful, to act as individuals, to look, to remember, to think.
A cinematic style like Preminger's, which quite early could be seen — although Preminger himself never claimed or would have admitted such a pompous thing — as some sort of "theoretical model," requires on the filmmaker's part an extraordinary organizing capacity and an astonishing clarity of mind, traits certainly infrequent either in the film business or elsewhere; such scarcity might perhaps explain why only a few other filmmakers have been able to conceive a roughly equivalent system, why only exceptionally has anybody been able to emulate him or even to try to do so beyond the merest external look of his images, which are instantly recognizable as Preminger's despite being in themselves rather undistinguished-looking and completely devoid of any "signature effects."
It can be comparatively easy to manage a linear storyline, with only a couple of relationships going, with two or three main characters and four or five supporting roles involved, evolving through six or seven places or settings, usually each presented through one or two rooms, that is, less than fourteen sets. These are figures and items which look manageable enough, which can be orderly disposed without headaches, with relative ease and only a reasonable amount of work. Therefore, regardless of their quality and achievement or daring, and several are masterpieces in their respective genres, I see no reason to consider as out of the ordinary the early noir films Otto Preminger directed after Laura, partly as a result of its success.
They are, in the context of the general good looks of the Fox productions of the time, particularly elegant and pointed in their framing and composition as well as in their precise camera movements or the general organization of space and the chained, logical, rhythmically neat succession of one shot after the other; the actors and actresses are as well chosen (usually among Fox's contract players) as they are controlled and directed to obtain the best possible unspectacular performances; the screenplays are intriguing and do not limit themselves to gradually unveiling a mystery, solving a criminal intrigue or chronicling the society or the mood of the period. They are excellent in every sense and repeatedly awake a high degree of unflagging interest, which is, I believe, a direct result of the high power of fascination that is one of the main distinctive traits of Preminger's cinema.
This bewitchment affects as much each spectator sitting in the dark looking at the screen as most of Preminger's fictional creatures, not to forget a third unseen party, his own camera — which, in Preminger's cinema, stands, more than for any of the characters, for the director himself, whose detached but interested, intrigued, and even concerned point of view it usually conveys, a detail which we must never forget.
This fascinated gaze of the characters at those of the opposite sex, regardless of which may be the gender of the central figure of each film — like the detective played by Dana Andrews in Laura and Where The Sidewalk Ends, obsessed and attracted by Gene Tierney even when, as it seems in the first of these, he initially believes she's dead, has prejudged very negatively her personality, and has no other references about her than what he has been told by far from innocent bystanders and a haunting painted portrait; or the kleptomaniac wife embodied by the same actress in Whirlpool, herself hypnotized by Dr. Korvo — is what really intrigues and beguiles the still relatively young Preminger; the same multiple fascination process is also present in Fallen Angel, Forever Amber, Where the Sidewalk Ends, or Angel Face, to be further and more subtly developed in later films such as Carmen Jones, Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder, and even as late as Bunny Lake Is Missing.
This works even when the general dramatic center of the film is no longer such a kind of fascination and its narrative weight is distributed among a considerable crowd of characters. In the whole '40s only on a Fox project which fell from John M. Stahl's hands into Preminger's, Forever Amber, but then increasingly during the following decade, the average population of his films begins to expand. Finally, we find in Exodus, a historical piece based on real and comparatively recent events, a true crowd of characters who are never anonymous, indistinct masses, but are individualized even while they retain their identity as groups, from which, in any case, several — many more than is usual — main figures detach themselves and are treated by Preminger as fully accomplished characters with complex and differentiated relationships which evolve in time and are affected by the course of events or which influence their development. Exodus is the very kind of what at the time was called a "blockbuster" which usually other filmmakers, with less powerful brains, would prove unable to fully keep in control, which quite easily get out of their hands, that makes them worried and confused, unable to put enough order in their minds or keep track of every other sequence while they are trying to shoot a scene, uncapable of coping simultaneously with all the elements at play; often, once they have set such films in motion, they cannot see or cover everything, therefore being overwhelmed by the film's own dynamics. Just for that it is quite remarkable how Preminger, far from being overdriven, seems to be extraordinarily stimulated by the challenge of paying attention to so many things at the same time, without ever losing sight, at least mentally, of political or logistic problems while he concentrates, as he usually does, on the most intimate and personal, even the secret or unconscious motives, behind these relationships he goes on showing while he tells a very complex story on a wide canvas, because the characters always remain the axis on which his movies are built, despite the multiplicity of elements, settings, actors, issues, and problems in general. In retrospect, one can realize that the very unique style developed by Preminger was singularly adept to such a kind of narrative drive, since it allowed to show in an orderly way a lot of things at the same time, and that his ample scope and the variety of interests that awakened his curiosity encouraged this change in scale. One could even venture that such a development seems logical and coherent, and could have been foretold since he made The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell or Saint Joan.
However, what remains an utter mystery is why nobody else has ever made movies the way Preminger conceives and films them, which is precisely what makes the experience of watching them so exhilaratingly unique. A further enigma is how he came to think of such an unprecedented, although very logical way, of telling a story, of developing a plot while showing the audience, from the outside and relying on mere appearances, the inner struggles of the characters involved beyond those very appearances.
Of course, there have been other filmmakers — before and after — who also developed a system based on long tracking shots, almost covering a whole scene or sequence without cutting. Even such silent masters as F.W. Murnau did something which would loosely fit that description. In the talkies, William Wyler, Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Kenji Mizoguchi developed deep-focus fixed shots as well as one-shot sequences with long tracking camera movements. Each in his own way, both Erich von Stroheim and Jean Renoir also approached such a conception. And, on a lesser scale, Roberto Rossellini did already something of the kind in some isolated moments of Paisà (Paisan, 1946), developing in the early '60s a new sort of zoom lens which he named pancinor and which allowed him to explore, without need of a track or of even really moving the camera, the space inside a very protracted set-up, changing the frame but not the point of view. But all those antecedents or near-parallel research do not really explain how Preminger thought out what seems already sketched in Laura, fully developed around Bonjour Tristesse, and only partly abandoned, quite suddenly and surprisingly, around the time he made Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1969), before returning to his own way of shooting at the ending of his career, in both Rosebud and The Human Factor.
Only as a hypothetical suggestion, I think the first sparks of this idea of cinema have their origin in the theater, where Preminger started learning his many crafts. In the '20s and '30s, the classical Vienna stage which Max Reinhardt presided over was generally respectful of Aristotle's three unities rule, of action, space, and time. Actors on the stage play continuously, in order, and are seen from a distance. The camera can bring us nearer to their faces, so they don't need to overplay their movements and gestures, and their acting methods may be more realistic, more naturalistic, more subdued, more like people are and act spontaneously in everyday real life. By that time, Murnau was eliminating titles, even dispensing altogether with them in Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), while the camera was more and more free to move "unchained," as can be seen from then up to Sunrise (1927). Then sound came and put a temporary stop to the increasing mobility and expressive freedom of the camerawork. As a matter of fact, this static-camera period did not last long, at least outside Hollywood. One can see early talkies in Japan or Europe where the camera moves quite freely. For instance, in Max Ophuls's Liebelei (1932), a film I guess Preminger saw while still in his native Austria. Then came the decisive impact of Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), which was particularly influential (much more than on the RKO sets) on most mid-'40s productions of 20th Century-Fox, where as it happened Preminger was then under contract. And, on top of all that, Rossellini made Roma città aperta (Open City, 1945) and Paisà at the ending of World War II, the former admittedly a Preminger favorite, while of the second I can see traces even in some Exodus battle scenes.
Therefore, I think that the cumulative impact of those very different steps in the course of almost twenty years had probably some influence on Preminger, although it is insufficient, in my view, to properly explain how he arrived at such a original conception of cinema, which is not primarily aesthetic, or even narrative, but has an ethical stand as origin. Despite what a lot of people today would seemingly like to believe, Godard was not merely playing with words when he wrote that a tracking shot is also an question of morals. Maybe he was thinking about Rossellini, but he could have been referring as well to Otto Preminger.
Preminger's style can be considered "functional" insofar as it has always a function, serves a purpose. He privileges long shots over brief close-ups, and long or single takes to film a scene, not only because he thinks that actors are more comfortable or feel more challenged that way; they might be more at ease, but their responsibility if a take had to be repeated would increase, as well as the risk of forgetting part of a long dialogue they had to say with a certain tone and rhythm, so the difficulty was also greater that way. He certainly had some inclination towards fluent camera movements which would accompany the action, but not for the sheer elation of accomplishing a feat, but rather because such a way of filming, which was never systematic or repetitious, allowed him to show several things as they were happening, at once although on different levels, at varying distances, and to bring to view the connections between diverse characters sharing a space (or fighting for it) without underlining it or overstressing such relationships. Anyone watching Exodus, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal, or In Harm's Way will soon find several instances of this, without any need of my pinpointing them. You can take any other film, American or otherwise, made around the period or at any earlier date, with similar scope and themes, and will not find anything even remotely resembling Preminger's movies, except perhaps, to a somewhat lesser extent, in a less perfected and radical form, in the more ambitious large-canvas melodramas directed by Vincente Minnelli: Some Came Running (1958), Home From The Hill (1960), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1961), or Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). Or, very exceptionally and unexpectedly, in other movies sharing with Preminger's the complexity of intimate and political clashes, like the astonishing Bhowani Junction, directed by George Cukor in 1955, simultaneously deep and wide and with the courage of not pretending to have a happy ending, a true satisfactory and permanent solution for problems and situations which cannot be really reconciled. The acknowledgement that private individual or couple solutions are always temporary and unable to heal the general wounds of a society is something the American cinema seldom allows itself, and that only people like Preminger, and occasionally some others, dared.