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The man with the golden touch

Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time Otto Preminger inspired frenzied emotions. Once his personality and his films were the stuff of controversy and excitement. Now, nearly 20 years after his death, there is silence.

A filmmaker with a 40-plus-year career and the subject of a new UCLA Film and Television Archive series, Preminger was an outsized personality who, during his 1950s and ‘60s heyday, was as well known to the general public as Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock.

Preminger was right at home playing a Nazi camp commandant in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17,” and had, one critic has written, a persona that “epitomized for many the typical Hollywood movie director: an accented, autocratic, European-born disciplinarian who terrorized his actors, bullied his subordinates and spent millions of dollars to ensure that his films be produced properly, although economically.” That impressive temper earned him the nickname “Otto the Terrible,” and he could, as star Gene Tierney remembered, “charm you and intimidate you at the same time.”

Critics could not agree on Preminger any more than anyone else could. Pauline Kael was not a fan, calling his work “overwrought melodrama,” but Andrew Sarris was. Preminger, he wrote, was “the most maligned, misjudged, misunderstood and misperceived American filmmaker.” He was called “a Renaissance hack,” “the man with the leaden arm” and worse. Even 1960’s “Exodus,” one of his most popular films, was dismissed as a “matzo opera.”

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Yet even his critics could not deny Preminger’s importance. One of the first of the business’ powerful independent producer-directors, Preminger helped break the Hollywood blacklist and used his films to shatter major taboos about language, sexual frankness, and the depiction of drug use on screen, barriers that viewers of a certain age would be surprised to learn ever existed.

But like many figures who were very much of the moment, Preminger has not been treated kindly by time. Controversy, it turns out, can have a limited shelf life. So bookcases do not groan under the weight of volumes analyzing his work, and retrospectives lionizing him are not exactly frequent.

Which is why the UCLA series is so welcome. It offers a chance to get reacquainted with Preminger’s work, to see what has lasted and what has not, to examine the legacy of this complicated, contentious man.

Preminger began his career making crackling good melodramas, and several of them are on view, starting with 1944’s evergreen “Laura,” which is blessed with a sharp script, fine performances by Tierney, Preminger favorite Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, plus a score by David Raksin that no one forgets.

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On the same bill is the underrated 1945 “Fallen Angel,” starring Andrews, Linda Darnell and Alice Faye in her first and only major non-singing role. Using standard thriller elements like a drifter, a diner, rainy streets and wised-up “Don’t smile, your face looks better without it” dialogue, Preminger came up with what one critic called “probably the most Bressonian film noir ever made.”

That points to one Preminger quality that was never to leave him: his air of dispassionate detachment. It could add interest to traditional women’s pictures like 1947’s “Daisy Kenyon” and its story of career woman Joan Crawford torn between single guy Henry Fonda and a married man (Andrews yet again). But that detachment sometimes brought with it an inability to differentiate between good and bad drama and a weakness for situations coldly unpleasant to women, who frequently found themselves tormented or viewed without pity in his pictures.

Preminger’s fellow directors often viewed him as more of a producer than a creative equal, with George Cukor calling him “a very adroit and perspicacious businessman.” As Preminger said in his autobiography, when 1951’s Supreme Court consent decree separated studios from the theater chains they once owned, he was among the first to realize that autonomous theaters bidding for films meant that “independent producers could at last make pictures and have them exhibited.”

His first independent production, 1953’s “The Moon Is Blue,” turned out to be his most controversial, though you’d never guess it by today’s standards. A tame romantic comedy starring William Holden, David Niven and young Maggie McNamara, it used previously forbidden words like “virgin” and “pregnant” and infuriated the Breen office, enforcers of the Hollywood-wide Production Code, with its “light and gay treatment of the subject of illicit sex and seduction.”

As an independent entity, Preminger decided he didn’t have to care what the Production Code thought and “The Moon Is Blue” became the first major American film successfully distributed in defiance of Code strictures and without its previously essential seal of approval. Movie censorship as Hollywood had known it for more than 20 years was officially on the way out.

The final nail in the Code’s coffin was Preminger’s 1955 “The Man With the Golden Arm,” complete with the snappy Saul Bass-designed opening credits that were a Preminger trademark. Starring Frank Sinatra as a user trying to go straight and Kim Novak as the bar girl who loves him, “Golden Arm” is both impressively candid and distressingly melodramatic, bowdlerizing the Nelson Algren novel but showing drug addiction as it had never before been seen in a studio release. The Production Code once again refused its seal, but this time the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency refused to condemn the film, and within a few years the Code was a thing of the past.

Several of the Preminger films in the UCLA series have notable aspects. The all-black “Carmen Jones” got Dorothy Dandridge an unprecedented best actress nomination and used the voice of a young Marilyn Horne, then so unknown her first name is misspelled in the credits. “Bonjour Tristesse” has a Jean Seberg so luminous she inspired Jean-Luc Godard to use her in “Breathless.” And Preminger’s decision to give writer Dalton Trumbo a screen credit for adapting “Exodus” helped break the anticommunist blacklist.

Preminger’s late 1950s and early 1960s prime gave birth to two films that showcase the director at his best: 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder” and 1962’s “Advise and Consent.” Both can be seen as large-scale narratives focused on professionalism, on understanding who pulls the levers and how the machinery of society works, a subject Preminger was well-suited to exploring.

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“Anatomy,” all 2 hours and 41 minutes of it, is perhaps Preminger’s most complex and genuinely adult film. Its cool Duke Ellington score enabled the director’s usual long takes to play out elegantly, and it afforded Jimmy Stewart one of the great roles of his career. The story of a murder trial that focused on an accusation of rape, its candor with language caused Phil Scheuer, then The Times’ critic, to call it “one of the most extraordinary films ever made for general exhibition.” It is the one Preminger shocker that retains its power today.

“Advise and Consent” -- like “Anatomy,” based on a bestselling novel -- anatomizes the “cockpit of angry emotion” that is the political culture of Washington, examining its wheeling, dealing and backstabbing in a way that still has relevance today. Especially entertaining is Charles Laughton, a wily whale in a white suit as a Southern senator the actor stylistically based on Mississippi’s John C. Stennis. Like “Anatomy,” it displays a command of narrative that revealed, said critic Robin Wood, “the mind of a master.”

In some ways, finally, Otto Preminger is best seen as much as a technician and a tactician as someone who poured recognizable emotion into his films. That coolly amoral approach did not always serve him well, but when it did Preminger was quite the force. What more can you ask of any director than that?

*

Otto Preminger retrospective

Schedule

Friday, 7:30 p.m.: “Laura,” “Fallen Angel”

Sunday, 2 p.m.: “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “The Moon Is Blue”

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March 6, 7 p.m.: “Carmen Jones,” “River of No Return”

March 12, 7:30 p.m.: “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “Daisy Kenyon”

March 13, 7 p.m.: “Exodus”

March 16, 7:30 p.m.: “Anatomy of a Murder”

March 18, 7:30 p.m.: “Advise and Consent”

March 19, 7:30 p.m.: “Bonjour Tristesse,” “Bunny Lake Is Missing”

Where: James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, UCLA

Contact: (310) 206-FILM; www.cinema.ucla.edu


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