Last week I mildly berated Andrew Sarris for pretty much ignoring Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in his auteurist bible, The American Cinema. This week, with Laura by Otto Preminger (1905–1986), we have an example of just how influential Sarris was and is. In 1971, the staid Museum of Modern Art Department of Film accepted a major donation of Preminger’s films and showed them in a month-long retrospective. For a filmmaker largely viewed as a studio hack in the 1940s, this represented a major change in fortunes, and a great deal of it came from Sarris’s intervention. In Sarris’s words, “Laura is Preminger’s Citizen Kane.”Preminger was always gregarious and outspoken, and in the late 1960s I asked him (on behalf of Film Culture magazine) whether he shared Josef von Sternberg’s view (as expressed the latter’s autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry) on the absolute dependence of actors on directors. His response was typically pragmatic, referring to Sternberg as “my old friend,” whose view on actor/director relationships was too dogmatic. “Although film is a director’s medium, the director is not God—he can only bring out what is already within the actor. The finished product is a measure of the talents of both. Above all, the director must be decisive, for someone must exercise control.”
Of course, Preminger became well known for his exercise of control, causing many of his actors to loathe him. Yet many of them chose to work with him several more times. (The combination of Otto’s accent, his autocratic ways, and his Stroheim-esque chrome-dome made him the new “man you love to hate” in his own Margin for Error and later in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.) Still, in Laura alone, Preminger got four of the best performances of 1944 from Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, and Judith Anderson. Even Vincent Price is credible as a “romantic” lead. Preminger was to go on to be one of the predominant forces behind film noir before leaving Twentieth Century-Fox and making his big-budget features.
Preminger’s reputation and brashness did little to cushion him in his fights with film industry censors in the 1950s. We are indebted to him for loosening the bonds on expression, but the pendulum has now swung so far toward anything-goes vulgarity that one misses the innuendo of Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges—or Preminger, for that matter. Otto, like Powell and Pressburger, deserves high marks on ambition alone, and he is one of the most successful of the independents to emerge from the wreckage of the studio system. Sarris calls him a “director with the personality of a producer,” who “displays a tendency to transform trash into art.” The fact is that if one is looking for a high moral judgment or a fully formed philosophy of life, you won’t find it in Preminger. Rather, his style, with fluid camera movement and a tendency to keep characters in two-shots, is a commentary on making complex judgments about people.
Note should be taken of the accidental death on July 2 of Professor Robert Sklar, formerly of the Cinema Studies Department at New York University. I first met Bob when he was researching his major work Movie-Made America, and over the years I had the pleasure to befriend and admire the work of many of his students. While it would be a stretch to consider Bob an auteurist, (his book, for example, offers only two passing references to Preminger), his opus did provide a great deal of previously unfocused historical context for what developed in the American industry. Bob will be missed.