Thursday, May 28, 2009

Anatomy of a master: Otto Preminger at the Cinematheque Ontario

Like so many of the émigré directors who thrived in postwar Hollywood, the Austrian-born Otto Preminger (1905-1986) crafted a body of work sufficiently diverse and studio-friendly as to quietly slip through the cracks in auteur theory (and right out of Andrew Sarris’ Pantheon). But a close look at the qualities that align his best films, which are substantial in number, reveals a highly individual filmmaker extraordinarily capable of balancing the dictates of classical storytelling and often immaculate craft with a highly nuanced predilection toward the incessant contradictions of his characters—and, maybe even more so, his actors—an artist drawn to subversion yet never satisfied with mere cynicism, with simply "exposing" perversity or injustice. His immersion in his characters’ dilemmas could be so total that lingering ambiguities about their choices seemed inevitable rather than just the product of a smug sophisticate seeking to arbitrarily elevate populist material. Preminger's best films don't look down on Hollywood conventions; they perfect them. 

The Cinematheque Ontario’s nearly complete retrospective,
Fallen Angels: The Films of Otto Preminger, starts tomorrow, offering audiences an opportunity to survey the span of the director’s oeuvre, as well as a couple of films—Le Corbeau (43), Blow-up (66)—that helped inform it. It starts, appropriately enough, with Laura (44), the film Preminger himself considered his first worthy of note, a brilliant thriller at once so elegant and deeply tawdry it set the high water mark for Fox noir and, along with Preminger’s nearly as good Whirlpool (50), smoked out the fragility, pathos and sexuality buried beneath Gene Tierney’s wholesome beauty—not to mention contributing to the movies’ general mistrust of cultivated, effeminate and unattractive men. And just as Preminger could help render Tierney corrupt, even ordinary, he could make Joan Crawford touching in her resilience and indecision in Daisy Kenyon (47), a very noirish “woman’s picture” that defied the broader tendencies of such melodramas. It’s these 40s noirs that I was already familiar with, so in gearing up for the Cinematheque’s program I caught up with a trio of Preminger’s 50s films that I’d previously managed to neglect.

River of No Return (54) is Preminger’s sole western, a genre he held no special interest in and delved in solely out of contractual obligation. Set and filmed in Banff and Jasper and featuring gorgeous landscapes—courtesy of Joseph LaShelle—it’s somewhat marred by an unavoidable dependence on rear projection during the protagonists’ tumultuous journeys over the titular rushing rapids, as well as woefully generic Indians assigned to the tired role of faceless background menace. Yet overwhelming these less appealing elements are surprisingly resonant stories of yearning, independence and brutal maturation. Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) reunites with the nine-year-old son who never knew him and tries to start a new life as a farmer with a shady past. Kay Weston (Marilyn Monroe) is a showgirl tired of performing for camps of drunks who tries to start a new life with a gambler who’s sure he’s struck gold. How their paths become tangled is at certain points excessively artificial, but how these characters connect—through their sensitivity to the boy, through sheer desperation to survive, through the lovely performances from both leads—feels genuine and multiplies the story’s adventures to include the building of an accidental family.

Mitchum, busted for pot possession during the shoot, initially seems to be at his most mystically unshakable here—even when his house is being burned down he seems nonplussed. But the shifts in his temperament when dealing with his son and grappling with his violent past spurs him into riveting engagement. Monroe, who like many less confident actors suffered under the notoriously merciless and mercurial Preminger, exudes preternatural world-weariness here, a tough but warm woman all-too cognizant of her abundant sex appeal and seeking, if not entirely expecting to actually find, some sort of security. The scene where Mitchum sexually assaults her—only to be assaulted in turn by a mountain lion—speaks volumes about Hollywood’s sense of entitlement with their starlets. But the finale, which neatly closes a circle of retribution, is devastating in its way.

Bonjour Tristesse (58), which brought new texture to its Françoise Sagan source novel, is far more difficult to classify and more rewarding in its murky and audaciously unresolved emotional undercurrents. Any wonder it bombed? Chronicling the failed attempt at marriage by Raymond (David Niven), the aging Don Juan/bon vivant/permissive poppa of young Cécile (Preminger discovery Jean Seberg), the film renders the past “an invisible wall of memories,” something both tainted by tragedy and nostalgically hued—the flashbacks are in colour, the present-tense framing device in black and white. A coming-of-age story about the inability to come-of-age, it paints a portrait of father-daughter love that may or may not read as incestuous but most certainly conveys a morbid codependence that allows the elder participant to remain ostensibly youthful at the expense of the younger one, whose need for her father’s exclusive love is so strong that it sabotages the very change, embodied by love-struck clothing designer Anne (Deborah Kerr), both require to move on with their drifting, responsibility-free lives.

Derided in its time—despite her adorability in her hot water bottle beret—Seberg’s performance has aged amazingly well. Her childlike blankness at certain key points fits perfectly with Cécile’s increasingly internalized despair, weirdly emphasized by the echo of her voice-over, which sounds like it was recorded in somebody's windowless bathroom. Admittedly, there’s something really odd about having a French father and daughter played by a Brit and an American, but what counts, as in River, is how they connect with each other and unconsciously conspire to keep the rest of the world out of their arrangement. Preminger continually nurtures their intimacy through subtly indicative framing, and Raymond and Cécile’s stasis is nicely offset by the relative mobility of Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), Raymond’s bubbly blonde plaything who pours an awful lot of fun into this ultimately depressing tale while, à la Monroe in River, proves that seemingly less substantial characters can be complex and dynamic, too.

If I didn’t know what to expect from the above films, Anatomy of a Murder (59) was a film where my expectations were simply blown apart. I’d always meant to see it, mainly for Duke Ellington’s score and to catch a young Ben Gazzara in action, but was only mildly interested in what promised to be a solid courtroom drama. But, far more than, say, 12 Angry Men (57), the film probed the peripheries of due process to a place where truth and justice are blurred into an impenetrable haze. Fresh from drowning his familiar persona of decency in an abyss of necrophiliac obsession as Scotty in Vertigo (58), James Stewart plays rural Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler, like Scotty, a reclusive bachelor recently humbled by occupational failure. With his old alcoholic pal (Arthur O’Connell) as his legal assistant, Paul takes a seemingly hopeless case defending a moody-as-all-hell Korean War vet (Gazzara) who murdered a barkeep he says raped his flamboyantly flirtatious wife (Lee Remick).

Nothing in the performances, Wendell Mayes’ script or Preminger’s direction, ever does anything to convince Paul or us of Gazzara’s nobility or his claims of succumbing to “uncontrollable impulse,” but the smaller truths Paul collects along the way to a verdict, along with our collective agreement to talk at leisure about Remick’s soiled panties, bring us closer to feeling like we’re getting somewhere meaningful, even if the ending assures us Paul’s efforts were finally morally meaningless. Preminger is remarkably relaxed in his pacing and camerawork, again focusing on development of place and character, allowing us to sit back with Paul as he plays the piano with Duke (!) or eats hard-boiled eggs. The pay-off is enormous, a completely absorbing entertainment—replete with superb supporting work from George C. Scott and a dog that can operate a flashlight—and a troubling essay on how deceptively shrewd lawyers and great movie stars can pretty much talk us into anything.

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