At the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Markus Preminger, a brilliant young lawyer, was offered the position of chief prosecutor, an honor never bestowed on a Jewish attorney. There was only one catch: he had to convert to Catholicism. He refused but got the appointment anyway.
Two decades later, his soon-to-be-famous son, Otto Preminger, was offered the post of head of the Vienna State Theater, as prestigious in its field as the chief prosecutor’s job was in his father’s. Same catch: he had to convert to Catholicism.
“He was absolutely a secular Jew,” says Foster Hirsch, author of a new biography of the renowned filmmaker. “He didn’t have religious convictions; there were no religious convictions in his house. But he never denied he was a Jew, and he turned down the job rather than convert.”
A contradiction? Perhaps, but a typically Premingeresque contradiction. Contradiction and ambiguity are at the heart of Preminger’s film art, which will be well represented in a major retrospective that begins Jan. 2 at Film Forum. Those characteristics were also, not surprisingly, at the heart of his personality, too.
Preminger was hailed as both a graceful, Old World gentleman and lively raconteur and derided as a maniacal tyrant and ranting bully, often by the same people.
Similarly, as Hirsch observes, “These are films made by a man with one of the most explosive tempers, yet they are controlled in tone and made with great formality. He had a classical style that he never departed from.”
He used that style — cool, detached, objective — to explore some of the most controversial and combustible institutions in modern life: the workings of American government (“Advise and Consent”) and the justice system (“Anatomy of a Murder”), the internal workings of the U.S. armed forces (“The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell,” “In Harm’s Way”), the politics of the Catholic Church (“The Cardinal”), and the creation of the State of Israel (“Exodus”).
Preminger also was a master of film noir, starting with his first major success, “Laura,” and carrying on with “Fallen Angel,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “Whirlpool” and “Angel Face.” Intriguingly, Hirsch downplays Preminger’s noirs, which he finds not really a comfortable fit with the director’s personality.
“Otto wasn’t a dark guy; he had the optimism of a child,” Hirsch says. “I’m not sure that his temperament was really suited to noir. That’s why his films about institutions are stronger films and closer to his temperament.”
Hirsch argues convincingly in the book that 21 years after his death Preminger is one of the most underrated American filmmakers. In part, his critical neglect is a result of his willingness to try anything at least once.
“The problem with Preminger is that he worked in such a wide variety of genres and he wasn’t equally good in everything,” Hirsch asserts. “His true talent is in the epic melodrama. ‘Advise and Consent’ is a perfect film for him. At the end of the film, despite all the conflicts, the System endures. The process is stronger than any people within it who are flawed. That’s an affirmative statement. And that’s his sensibility.”
You can see that sensibility at work in Preminger’s adaptation of Leon Uris’ best-seller, an adaptation that Uris loathed.
“With ‘Exodus’ Preminger was trying hard to see all sides of the questions surrounding the creation of the Jewish state,” Hirsch says. “That triggered outrage from Uris. He still had unresolved anger towards Preminger when I interviewed him in the summer of 2002! He was very nice to me but blew up at mere mention of Otto’s name.”
Although there were business-related reasons for Uris’ 40-year grudge, it was the film itself that fueled a lot of the novelist’s anger. “Preminger didn’t want to take the virulently anti-British, anti-Arab stance of the book,” Hirsch explains. “He wanted a more balanced treatment. ‘Exodus’ is unmistakably a Zionist film, but there is an attempt at political realism and pragmatism. Preminger made a film that allowed for the possibility of reconciliation and peace.”
Of course, when you consider Preminger’s reputation for explosive rages of his own, his concern with the “possibility of reconciliation and peace” seems all the more ironic. That is, if you believe that the periodic eruptions of Mt. Otto weren’t calculated for their effect on the targets.
“Sometimes they were for theatrical effect,” Hirsch says. Sometimes he’d pretend it was a performance. I believe that as he got older he became less able to control those outbursts. He was a man with an ungovernable temper. I didn’t want to condone the temper, it’s a terrible thing, but that isn’t the measure of the man.”
As should be the case with any artist, it is the work that must finally be the truest measure. And Preminger’s filmography is its own best defense.
“He’s a terrific filmmaker,” Hirsch says without hesitation. “His best works are among the finest achievements in Hollywood filmmaking. The intelligence and restraint of his work are impressive, and his films are far more nuanced and ambiguous because of his objectivity. Preminger’s work has a technical skill and visual fluidity second to none. He’s a master of the widescreen format. He trusted the intelligence of the audience. He made films in which you have to listen and to decide what’s important.”
Those are qualities that are all too rare in American film today. Watching the nearly two dozen Preminger films on display at Film Forum will be like taking a post-graduate course in the subtleties of filmmaking, as taught by an unsung master. And that’s what he should be remembered for.
“Preminger,” a 23-film retrospective of his directorial work, will run at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) from Jan. 2-17. For information call (212) 727-8110, or go to www.filmforum.org. Foster Hirsch will be present at many of the screenings in the series. His book, “Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King” (Knopf, $35), is required reading.