Thursday, January 03, 2008

Preminger at Film Forum

If I weren't going to be in the Mid South with my relations I'd likely be at New York's Film Forum, attending its most-welcome retrospective devoted to producer-director Otto Preminger. Inspired by Foster Hirsch's excellent new biography Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would be King (a better subtitle for a John Huston book, but we'll let that pass), I'm showing the first of his "institutional" epics, 1959's Anatomy of a Murder, as my movie group selection in early February. It's part of this festival, along with personal favorites like Laura, Daisy Kenyon, Angel Face (pictured are Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons), The Man with the Golden Arm (with Eleanor Parker's difficult-to-shake performance as Frank Sinatra's needy wife), and the last of his big ones, 1965's In Harm's Way, a movie I may be sort of alone in admiring (I take it that co-stars Patricia Neal, still kickin' it at 81, and whatever-happened-to Jill Haworth, who are scheduled to attend the screening, like it, too).

I'd personally like to see a festival of his difficult-to-view flops dating from 1967 on, but the focus is celebratory, and it's necessary to rehabilitate Preminger from his overemphasized, good-for-publicity image as a Teutonic tyrant. More audience probably recognize him for his string of Nazi film roles (culminating in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, playing a part, not in the stage version, that Wilder invented for his sometime-friend and fellow Vienna emigre) and as TV's Mr. Freeze on Batman than as the creator of some of the most intelligent, groundbreaking films produced in this country, always on time and under budget (a miracle on a shoot as difficult as Exodus, in Israel, a nascent country with no production infrastructure whatsoever). 1962's Advise and Consent should be required viewing in an election year. "Otto, you have a knack for turning the worst-written bestsellers of their year into films," said Gore Vidal as he labored (without credit) on 1963's The Cardinal, but his real knack was for distilling and reshaping them into effective cinema.

As it happens, the retrospective is complemented by the first-ever Turner Classics Movies airing of his bizarre youth-culture time capsule Skidoo (1968), on Jan. 5 at 2am. Set your recording devices for stun on Jan. 4, for what is said to be a letterboxed presentation. I saw it at Film Forum ten years ago and I saw it at Film Forum ten years ago and have not forgotten Jackie Gleason shouting "I must be trippin'!", Carol Channing in a see-through bra that shocked her acolytes at the screening into stunned silence, and Austin Pendleton (his first film) sharing a joint with Groucho Marx (his last film, as "God"). Frankie Avalon is in it, and, OK, trading in on that pop culture notoriety, it's the only movie directed by Mr. Freeze to co-feature The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and The Penguin (Burgess Meredith, a frequent Preminger actor).

Hirsch, who writes off 1970's Liza Minnelli picture Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, as his only irredeemable stinker, finds some positives amidst the many negatives, so it does have scholarly appeal. Provided you can make it through the rest, Harry Nilsson's sung-through end credits, introduced by Preminger ("Before you 'Skidoo' out of the theater...") are to die. Preminger prepared for the shoot by dropping acid with Dr. Timothy Leary, who cameos. What else can I say to get you to watch? Other than that I met Pendleton, who has dined out on the film for 40 years.

But if you indulge, be sure to binge-and-purge it with a screening of Murder later on the 5th. Schedule permitting, I hope to see his Saint Joan, with its casting of Jean Seberg following a nationwide contest (anticipating reality TV by several decades; American Icon, perhaps?), and a double feature of his underscreened Fox films The Fan (which Hirsch calls his most underrated credit) and the salacious Technicolor blowout Forever Amber.

And a hope for 2009: A legitimate, approved 50th anniversary re-release of his long-unseen and I suspect unfairly maligned Porgy and Bess. It pops up at samizdat screenings (most recently in September at New York's Ziegfeld, which I regrettably missed) but really needs a full restoration. The Goldwyn and Gershwin estates need to bury their hatchets and make this happen.

(The full Film Forum schedule has the roster of guest appearances (Keir Dullea at Bunny Lake is Missing, a film he hated making due to Preminger's attitude, is the keeper) plus links to some of Saul Bass' great credits sequences for the movies, which get them off to a good start (or, in the case of In Harm's Way, end) no matter what followed.)

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