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A Centennial Tribute to Otto Preminger

Stewart holds court in Anatomy. (Columbia Pictures/Photofest)

If this has happened before, I cannot remember it. So I am grateful, but still mindful that in Los Angeles there should be a tribute to Otto Preminger running always. Yet, just as von Stroheim made his first impact on Hollywood during the Great War, playing Hun officers and advising on their uniforms, so Preminger arrived here for the next war as wicked Nazis. He is still remembered as the prisoner-of-war commander in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. You hear stories of his womanizing (affairs with Dorothy Dandridge and Gypsy Rose Lee), of his awesome “German” temper and the way he made actresses cry.

In reality, he was Viennese, Jewish, the son of a sophisticated lawyer, who had flirted with the young Hedy Lamarr over coffee and cake. And he was so smart, so understanding, that he evolved one of the greatest camera styles ever seen — a way of looking that suddenly saw real people instead of stereotypes. You can see it at work on his first important picture, Laura (1944), where the murder mystery yields to studies of three complicated characters (Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb) who refuse to be simply likable or unlikable. You have to watch every detail to keep up.

For years, Preminger made some of the subtlest of noir films, usually at 20th Century Fox: Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Daisy Kenyon and Angel Face. Then in the ’50s, he broadened his range and became a producer-director, famous for “impossible” projects. He fought censorship, the blacklist and anyone who wasn’t ready to think. The films are River of No Return, Carmen Jones, The Man With the Golden Arm, Bonjour Tristesse (he was called an idiot for discovering Jean Seberg!) and a masterpiece named Anatomy of a Murder, the first courtroom movie where the camera seems to turn to us, the jury, and ask, “Well, you decide — guilty or not?” Anatomy is filmed in the upper peninsula of Michigan, but Duke Ellington is playing at a roadhouse (and doing saxophone sighs whenever Lee Remick appears). Joseph Welch (the man who fought Joe McCarthy) is the judge, and the cast is simply Jimmy Stewart, Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Eve Arden and a few others. It’s one of the most entertaining films ever made.

And then a trilogy of big pictures — Exodus, Advise & Consent and The Cardinal — all excellent. About a dozen films you have to see. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Linwood Dunn Theater; thru Nov. 12. www.oscars.org/events.

—David Thomson


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