Otto Preminger : A Sybarite of Charm, Elegance and Terror

By Foster Hirsch
Alfred A. Knopf, 573 pages, $35

Otto Preminger’s primary problem was that every self-aggrandizing publicity campaign, every outlandishly elongated two-and-a-half-hour movie, implied he was a genius when in fact he only possessed talent.

The backlash was considerable.

It was Preminger’s additional misfortune to make the worst movies of his career at a time when the American cinema and, not by accident, American film critics were producing some of their best work. There’s not a lot to be said for Exodus (1960), The Cardinal (1963), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), Such Good Friends (1971) or Rosebud (1975), and there’s a great deal to be said against them. In Harm’s Way (1967) is much better, if only for the compassion and maturity of the characters played by John Wayne and Patricia Neal, and The Human Factor (1979) sticks in my mind as well for its honest attempt at capturing Graham Greene’s bleak, ravaged humanity.

But Preminger’s third-act slump doesn’t stop Foster Hirsch from constituting an impressive pep rally of one. Mr. Hirsch proves a good guide through the perplexing duality of Preminger’s life: Privately a sybarite of charm and elegance, on the set he was a mortal terror—screaming and abusive.

Partly, this was generational—Hollywood in its golden era featured a bunch of very tough directorial customers, among them men named Ford, Hathaway and DeMille, who could and did disembowel either a real or imagined offender with blistering diatribes that were largely a means of control. And partly it was because Preminger didn’t have a clue about how to talk to actors, and his level of frustration quickly ramped up into purple-faced, spittle-spewing rage. For their part, actors seemed to regard him with the wary affection people have for a dog that might take their hand off at the wrist but is strangely sweet with children.

The Cahiers du Cinéma crowd have long extolled Preminger’s smooth, oddly impassive dramatic style, and Mr. Hirsch uses every synonym possible (aloof, formal, contemplative) to describe Preminger’s preference for long takes. Mr. Hirsch consistently implies this was an aesthetic preference, and that may well have been part of it, but long takes are also a faster way to shoot. Preminger had a mania for coming in on time and under budget, and the extra rehearsals necessary for longer takes are far less time-consuming than resetting the camera and lights.

Personally, I’ve always thought that Preminger’s placid filmmaking surface desperately needed the cattle prod of overtly exciting subject matter or eccentric actors to liven it up. He was at his best with the subterranean, sleazy genre of film noir—Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Angel Face (1952)—and, later, in his largely unfortunate behemoth phase, with protean, arrhythmic actors like James Stewart, George C. Scott and Charles Laughton, who enlivened the methodical, process-oriented construction of excellent movies like Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Advise and Consent (1962).

Full disclosure: Mr. Hirsch takes me to task for what he says was a “demonizing” portrait of Preminger in my biography of Ernst Lubitsch, who was something of a mentor for the younger director. Oddly, Mr. Hirsch comes to the same conclusion I did: Preminger, who tanked both A Royal Scandal (1945), which Lubitsch produced, and That Lady in Ermine (1948), which Preminger completed after Lubitsch’s death, had no real business directing romantic comedy.

Despite his appalling lack of appreciation for my humble efforts, intellectual honesty compels me to report that Foster Hirsch has written a balanced, intelligent, compelling biography of a very erratic director. And he can be witty (“Jose Ferrer offers the enticing spectacle of a phony actor playing a phony actor”); the principal charge to be leveled against him is the aforementioned excess of appreciation for his subject.

The borderline stupefying The Cardinal is characterized as “a square, ponderous, magnificent film,” and the disastrous Rosebud is called “a high-wire balancing act without a single dull moment.” Likewise, Mr. Hirsch calls Preminger’s film version of Porgy and Bess (1959) “an overlooked American masterpiece,” which I have a hard time reconciling with the grotesquely airless, stagebound film I remember.

This is enthusiasm carried to the point of boosterish special pleading, but if that’s the price we have to pay for Mr. Hirsch’s bright readings of Preminger’s earlier, good films, and his smooth narration of a long, turbulent life that stretched from Poland to Vienna to Hollywood and New York, well, the show is well worth it.


Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer.

Otto Preminger : A Sybarite of Charm, Elegance and Terror