The late Sixties were not terribly flattering to Otto Preminger. The filmmaker responsible for so many hits over the decades with movies as diverse as the film noirish Laura, the musical Carmen Jones, and the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, was losing his popular touch toward the end of his career.
The problem was not Preminger's alone. Hollywood was also losing its sense of direction in the late Sixties, what with the sudden craze for all things youth culture that was ushered in with the success of Easy Rider, and the declining potency of the studio system as its authority was challenged by a rising number of independently financed movies and the introduction of the new ratings regimen. During the latter years of the Sixties and into the early Seventies, all sorts of things were being thrown at the screen to see what, if anything, would stick. Preminger’s last few films were produced within this climate.
The three films packaged in The Otto Preminger Collection (Olive Films, Blu-ray $69.95) were all released individually by the company over the last couple of years. Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971) are nicely transferred although the package contains no extras, which is a shame because these films would benefit from some historic contextualization. As a filmmaker, Preminger liked to press social-political buttons and had a reputation for being controversial. In 1953, he battled the censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency over the use of the word “virgin” in The Moon Is Blue. He made one of the first Hollywood films to depict heroin addiction in The Man With the Golden Arm; a dangerously oedipal obsession forms the crux of Bonjour Tristesse; an all-black cast performs a contemporary version of Bizet’s opera in Carmen Jones; a question of rape underpins the legal proceedings in Anatomy of a Murder; the secret of a character’s homosexuality is exposed in Advise & Consent; and for Exodus, Preminger hired the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the script. The attraction to social issues seems to have been part of Preminger’s nature rather than the sign of an exploitative tendency.
Yet, Preminger was also a good self-promoter, and one of the few directors of his time whose name was well-known by the American public. His fame was not terribly complimentary, however. Preminger, along with Erich von Stroheim, was notorious as an ex-Austrian autocrat. Scathing stories from his leading ladies and other crew members about his despotism on the set circulated throughout his career. Otto the Ogre was a popular nickname.
Hurry Sundown (1967), a sprawling drama about race relations in the South during the post-World War Two period, is overblown and hyperbolic but it has the bones of a solid story about land grabs, white supremacy, and Southern traditions. Michael Caine sports a Southern accent as the avaricious climber who exploits his wife (Jane Fonda) and her property to make a killing for himself. Faye Dunaway also appears in her first film role, and Horton Foote worked on the screenplay (although it was never a prominent part of the author’s résumé). Along the way, other elements shade the story with depictions of child abuse, spousal rape, and Ku Klux Klan intimidations. That the racially mixed cast were subjected to segregation in housing and hospitality in the Louisiana area where they filmed on location is only part of the movie’s storied background.
In 1968, Preminger latched onto LSD with Skidoo. Featuring a large cast of comedians and noted actors and music by Harry Nilsson, the film is overbearing in its clear wish to be contemporary. Hippies and mobsters mix it up in a plot too silly to repeat here, yet as a comedy Skidoo feels oddly mirthless. Even Groucho Marx in his final screen appearance is oddly docile and Jackie Gleason and Carole Channing’s trippy dalliances lack any discernible joie de vivre. Yet Skidoo is the kind of film that has to be seen to be believed.
A different sort of contemporaneity pervades 1971’s Such Good Friends. It’s the story about a medical procedure gone horribly wrong, which Preminger uses as the background for a social satire. When a man goes into the hospital to have a mole removed from his neck, medical mistakes compound until the man is nothing but a corpse. Meanwhile, his wife (Dyan Cannon) gradually learns of her husband’s many infidelities and begins questioning her life. The screenplay is by Elaine May, written under the pseudonym Esther Dale, and Joan Didion is said to have contributed uncredited dialogue. Cannon is the wrong actress to play the increasingly acerbic character but Preminger’s tough take on the medical establishment and social mores makes Such Good Friends one of the best films from his latter period. Preminger was to make only two more films before his career ended and the studios lost all confidence in his abilities. This three-movie Blu-ray set is best suited to curiosity seekers.
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