Otto Preminger (1905–1986), like Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Edgar G. Ulmer, was a Viennese Jew. (Fritz Lang was also Viennese, though his Jewish mother had converted to Catholicism. Ulmer’s Yiddish film, Green Fields, is being shown on Wednesday of this week as part of our Weimar Touch program.) Preminger’s Judaism was mostly secular, and Exodus is the only film in which his religion or ethnicity seems of much relevance. He had actually used his accent and demeanor to be a convincing Nazi in several films, including Margin for Error and Wilder’s Stalag 17.Israel was still a fledgling country when Exodus was made, with the events of 1948 fresh in the minds of millions. Now, as the Jewish state celebrates its 65th birthday this week, a patina of nostalgia and considerable anxiety comingle. For Preminger (who died 27 years ago next week), with a career more or less balanced between studio-contained film noir and expansive spectacles, this film seems to me to represent an unusual level of personal emotional investment. For what it is worth, in Andrew Sarris’s annual listings of best American films, the only two Preminger movies he ranks significantly higher are Laura in 1944 and Bunny Lake Is Missing in 1965, both of which Sarris designates as the best picture of their particular year. Both films are depictions of psychopaths who, as Cullen Gallagher suggests, “are preoccupied with illusory truths and shifting facades.” Although Preminger left Austria before Anschluss and found citizenship in the United States, it was reasonable for him—whom Jonathan Rosenbaum called “the least apparently autobiographical of all ‘personal’ Hollywood stylists”—to have a strong residue of feeling for the fate of European Jewry and the Israeli survivors depicted in Exodus, who had had their own real-life encounters with psychopaths.
Much has been made of Preminger’s preference for group shots (as opposed to close-ups) to suggest an impartiality, which Gallagher attributes in part to the director’s training as a lawyer, which he claims led to a “judicial sensibility” in which “no truth…is to be taken for granted.” This becomes even more explicit in courtroom dramas like Anatomy of a Murder or depictions of the legislative process in Advise and Consent, but Exodus serves up its own entanglements in international law and politics. By hiring the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to write his screenplay, Preminger was making his own comment on recent political developments and reactionary trends in America. Trumbo was working from the novel by Leon Uris, which Preminger had designated the biggest best seller since Gone with the Wind. The director had fired Uris, who was originally engaged to adapt the screenplay, because (significantly) Preminger felt the author was too partisan in his approach. Preminger said that the book by Uris “has a pox against all enemies of the Jews…. I don’t believe that there are any real villains. If somebody is a villain, I try to find out why. I don’t necessarily excuse him, but I try to understand him.”
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I haven’t written much in celebration of screenwriters, most of whom deeply resent the very concept at the heart of auteurism: that the director is the primary creator of a film. I was personally present at two separate incidents where prominent screenwriters seemed to come close to directing violence at the late Andrew Sarris. The juxtaposition of the death of Ruth Prawr Jhabvala (herself a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland as a child) with a just-published story in The New Yorker reminded me that some films are worthy of respect for their literary qualities. The movies of the odd trio of director James Ivory, the late producer Ismail Merchant, and Jhabvala (which include A Room with a View and The Remains of the Day) are too often dismissed by those whose concept of the cinema is too narrow to encompass genuine works of civility and civilization.