Danger: Love at Work

Otto Preminger's filmography does not start with his timeless masterpiece Laura (1944), although the Austrian-born director would have liked us to believe so. There are five earlier pieces that have Preminger's directoral stamp, five films he wished best forgotten. Now that the Locarno Film Festival is screening Preminger's 38 feature films as part of its traditional retrospective, it's time to take a closer look at these films made during more or less a ten year time period (1931 – 1944). Were there any good reasons for the master of mise en scène to despise them the way he did? Or, on the contrary, might they reveal, suggest or hint at his soon-to-be command of the cinematic language? We would argue the latter, as would the French author, film critic and historian Jean Douchet: “Laura wasn't created out of a vacuum,” Douchet argued at a Preminger roundtable organized by Locarno. “His masterpiece would not have been possible if he had not thought of and elaborated an idea of cinema and its practice”.

In Vienna, young Preminger was a protégé of State Theater director Max Reinhardt. Many up-and-coming German filmmakers — including F.W. Murnau — worked for him. Reinhardt's theories on the use and definition of space on stage were soon to become a landmark style in German and Austrian early cinema. In 1931, Preminger made his directing debut with The Great Love (Die Grosse Liebe), a melodrama set in the aftermath of World War I. In the accompanying book of the Locarno retrospective (1), film critic Pierre Léon finds that in this first feature “Preminger's cinema already believed in the capacity to fight amnesia, both on an individual and collective level”. Franz and Frieda, the main protagonists, struggle with memory, a recurring Preminger theme up to The Human Factor (1979).  Following the popular success of The Great Love, Preminger was offered the post of head of the State Theatre. He was was called up soon afterwards by American film and stage producers aroused by his success in Vienna, and began his Hollywood career as a contract director for Twenty Century Fox.

Preminger's fist American feature was a Darryl F. Zanuck production written for baritone Lawrence Tibbett, Under Your Spell (1936), in which the two main characters — restless opera singer Anthony Allen and young socialite Cynthia Drexel — engage in a whimsical fight to meet opposite goals. Like his fellow exiles Wilder and Lubitsch, Otto Preminger then got to shoot a screwball comedy: Danger: Love at work (1937). Both these films hint at Preminger's moving or mobile camerawork, later to be praised by many film critics, including Douchet: “What's amazing with Otto Preminger is how he understands and uses the frame, how he works on horizontal and vertical lines, how he simply masters movement. The camera is there to conduct the movement and not to create effects”.

Then comes Margin for Error, a gem in light of Preminger's future work. This drama, at times very humourous, sees Moe Finkelstein (Milton Berle), a Jewish cop, having to guard and endlessly argue with German consul Karl Baumer, played by Preminger himself. Film historian Pierre Rissient lauds the pugnacity of the dialogue and the rhythm of the protagonists' exchanges. “I see the same energy in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)”, he said. The snappy and effective dialogue is probably down to Preminger's long-time experience as a stage director. According to film critic and writer Michel Mardore, Preminger was a great believer in rehearsal, and used to shoot the same takes over and over in order to get the perfect gesture, movement and intonation (2).  Preminger was an incredible actors' director. “A great filmmaker knows how to film a moving body, to film the meaning of that movement and gestures. With Preminger you just have to look, look and look. It's all there, no need for psychology. The actor is key to this process”, said Douchet.

Margin for Error

Also key to Preminger's cinema is the use of contradictions as a means to construct a narrative: in the case of Margin for Error, the opposition between Moe the policeman and Karl Baume the nasty nazi consulate. “This principle is also at work in Exodus,” notes Chris Fujiwara, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and co-author of the new book on Preminger (1). Confronted with forces that are fighting each other or complementing one another, Preminger provokes the audience to make up its own mind, to judge only upon the appearances of his characters.

As he was writing Laura, Otto Preminger directed a new command film: a comedy called In the Meantime, Darling about a soldier's wife living in military housing. As he would later do in The Moon is Blue, Preminger challenged a moral taboo by showing a married couple in bed. According to Chris Fujiwara, this film introduces Preminger's concern with the predicament of women in a world defined by male gazes and the preoccupations of war.

No doubt there is much more to dis- and un- cover in Preminger's directing debuts. Christopher Huber, film and music critic for the Austrian daily Die Presse and European editor of Cinema Scope magazine, wrote in the new collective book on Preminger (1) an excellent piece on the director's later work, most often depreciated by the critics. Like those late films, Preminger's early work might be of minor or lesser quality, but nevertheless deserves a thorough reappraisal.

(1) Otto Preminger, Festival del Film Locarno, Éd. Capricci, 2012 (limited number of English prints)
(2) Otto Preminger, Cinémathèque française, Éd. Yellow Now, 1993

Marc Menichini is a freelance film journalist and regular arts contributor on World Radio Switzerland, an English speaking public broadcaster based in Geneva, Switzerland. 

More dispatches from the Critics Academy participants will be published on FilmLinc.com through the end of the Locarno Film Festival on August 11. Keep watching for their bylines in the coming days!