Film still for Impulse

How good was Otto Preminger? Here David Thomson puts the director on trial, linking two Lauras to make his defence case.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, are we in danger of overlooking something very obvious? Everyone knows that Laura's name is Laura - Laura Hunt, actually (one of those bland American names in which ethnic awkwardness has been rendered as smooth as pages from Vogue). Now, come forward 15 years, and may I remind you that the wife in question in Anatomy of a Murder - yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen, that naughty little sexpot who can't keep her hands off you, the one who was raped (and please, in this day and age we permit no inverted commas hedging off that word), and whose husband then murdered the rapist - why, her name is 'Laura' too. Laura Manion, to be exact."

There is a lovely buzz of gossip, consternation and unchained libido in the court. Mr Dancer (the suave attorney from Lansing) is on his feet to say that, your honour, people have to be named something, even in movies. "Is there no place for honest coincidence?" Whereupon, that very good judge - I would say one of the great judges in film history - stills the chatter in the court. "All right, the cat is out of the bag. Ladies and gentlemen, counsel has just used a special and provocative word, 'coincidence'. So go on, have your fits and conniptions. The word 'coincidence' is going to figure in this case - and I don't want any more fuss about it." Joseph N. Welch's Judge Weaver then looks into the camera, to the jury or to us, and says: "And I wouldn't be surprised if we are talking Vertigo before the end."

Shortly thereafter, in the judge's chambers, in the course of a short discussion on a nice matter of law, Jimmy Stewart's Paul Biegler (he didn't turn a hair at the mention of Vertigo) is doing his best to win points from the judge, saying something like: "Well, sir, I hadn't heard of a conniption fit since, well, Aunt Betsy spent the night in a closet with..."

"Really," says the judge. "Why, in my household we have 'em all the time. My good wife favours them mightily."

"Judge, I don't believe I've ever heard my wife use the term."

"Well, come now, Mr Biegler," says the judge. "That's no wonder. You're not even married. You go fishing and you listen to that Duke Ellington music. No one can explain you or what brought you to the Upper Peninsula. Unless it was some hideous thing in San Francisco. And don't you forget that."

Tight slacks

What sort of film criticism or commentary is this, you may be asking, with rather more the sense of a dream's dissolve than of analytical exactness. Very well, but don't knock dream as an approach to a medium so close to reverie. Don't forget that in Laura itself, that very striking original, the detective played by Dana Andrews takes in all he can stand in the way of information about the dead woman, Laura Hunt. He then puts himself in her apartment beneath her photo-realist portrait and goes off into that warm meeting ground of love and dream, only to awaken and find Gene Tierney, lovely but distinct, saying, "What are you doing in my place?"

In Anatomy of a Murder there will be a similar ambiguity over Laura Manion (Lee Remick), though we the audience - the jury - are going to have to work out what sort of woman we want her to be. Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) has shot and killed a local tavern-keeper, a man named Barney Quill. Paul Biegler is told to take the case, before he really knows about it, by his veteran sidekick Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell).

Why? Because it's a case, a real case. Manion acted the way he did because Quill had just raped his wife. Oh, I see, sex and violence - you can read the mean-spirited connection in the eyes of Biegler's country lawyer, as folksy as he is cold, as endearing as Jimmy Stewart yet just a beat wrong: like the Stewart from Rear Window, who is too interested in telephoto photography to think about the people he is filming. Well, Biegler is a man of the world and he has his idea of what a raped woman is going to look like. Indeed, later in the film, as she takes the stand, he schools Lee Remick in that demure look: she wears a plain suit; she puts on her spectacles; she piles up her long, loose hair under a wide-brimmed hat. All that, and... well, look raped, if you know what I mean.

Remick does this act in court, though it's fairly quickly undressed by George C. Scott's Claude Dancer. He watches with real appreciation as the hat and the glasses come off, the hair falls down, and here's Lee Remick. She smiles at being herself again, and you can easily imagine her giving Claude a kiss later as a reward. When Biegler first meets her injured party, she's wearing very tight slacks (later on we learn that she is casual about panties), a tight sweater and dark glasses, her wild hair down. There's also a great swoon of the Ellington band, a horny wolf whistle. Why the dark glasses? To hide her black eye. You see, her husband hit her, to calm her down, to make sure she was telling the truth about being raped. And even if she was raped a few hours ago, Remick/Laura comes on to Stewart/Biegler as if she's wondering whether he might not console her. She is provocative - but nothing in the Bill of Rights says a woman can't be.

Come to that, Manion is downright insolent. Ben Gazzara for years now has been a well-worn actor; when he was young he was handsome, arrogant and rather nasty, and here Preminger asks him to occupy his prison cell with as much indifference as possible. "I guess I must have been mad," he says when Biegler asks him why he did it. And then, not long after, he has a nice, sardonic smile to go with the best defence Biegler can find: "Irresistible impulse? OK." He puts this notion on, as if it were a silk scarf, and he likes it. It suits him, in just the way slut costume suits his Laura. You begin to feel for poor Barney Quill, getting caught in their act.

Trial by jury

And so Anatomy of a Murder will unfold as one of the most entertaining court cases ever filmed, with an ending that only makes the claim of an "irresistible impulse" more fascinating and less likely. It's a film that has been 'away' for a while, and I anticipate that new audiences will fall upon it with glee, just as others did in 1959. It was ahead of its time then in that it said in a very cool way, forget your years of Perry Mason and the infallibility of the courts. Justice is a game of tennis, and the winner in court has the best drop-shot, service and game plan. We sometimes call these things dialogue, presence and ironic attitude. But very rarely can you come away from a trial knowing exactly what happened. Put yourself in the position of the jury, awarding points for technical excellence and artistic merit.

Anatomy gives you an accurate sense of the shrewd producer in Otto Preminger. It was the fifth of his films to have those clever Saul Bass titles - and remember that signature look extended to the posters and the advertising. Preminger knew the way an entire campaign needed the same touch. He hired Duke Ellington, and got the Duke in one scene playing in a rather unlikely Michigan nightspot. He had the wit to enlist Joseph N. Welch, the lawyer who had won the hearts and minds of liberal America by scolding Joseph McCarthy in the televised hearings of his scrutiny of the US army. Plus Stewart, Remick, Gazzara, Scott and Eve Arden, all cast with a straight-faced stringent humour that teases their regular screen images. Plus the whole business with the 'panties'.

Preminger had come out of Vienna (born in 1906), the son of a famous lawyer, and himself qualified in law before he threw in his lot with Max Reinhardt and the theatre. That was in the early 1930s, yet Laura didn't happen until 1944. In the years in between he was not quite himself. Rather like that earlier Austrian Erich von Stroheim, he earned money from American audiences by playing stiff-backed Prussians - they were Nazis now. On Broadway, in 1939, he was a German consul in Margin for Error, and that was one of the films he directed ahead of Laura. But even then he only got Laura by firing its first director Rouben Mamoulian.

It was quite a coup. Darryl Zanuck had entrusted Preminger only as producer on Laura, but then started hounding him. Very neatly Preminger acted as if it were all Mamoulian's fault - so Zanuck said take over yourself. Just to add a zinger, Preminger told Mamoulian's wife Azadia that he wouldn't be using her portrait of Laura for the movie. He sent Gene Tierney to photographer Frank Polony and had a few brushstrokes laid on the surface of his photo. According to Tierney, Preminger drove the cast and crew like a fury; he always had the reputation of a task-master, and that didn't help the world to recognise his very delicate touch.

So it was important for Preminger that we admired the hot-shot producer, the man who had a triumph with Laura, who took on the racy Forever Amber (1947), and who then in the 1950s steadily challenged stupid attitudes to censorship, the blacklist and what was decent or not. The Moon Is Blue (1953) was allegedly daring. Carmen Jones (1954) really was an innovation - an all-black musical and a great film with his lover Dorothy Dandridge getting the first black Oscar nomination for a female lead. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was the first big film to treat drugs. The long search for newcomer Jean Seberg to play Saint Joan was laughed at at first, despite her haunting work in 1958's Bonjour Tristesse (and then Godard proved him right). And, above all, with the series of films, Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus (1960), Advise & Consent (1962) and The Cardinal (1963), Preminger took on four major subjects - the law, the Middle East, democracy and religion - as if maybe he had all the answers.

Of that quartet, I think only The Cardinal has dated - in hindsight, I would have recommended a picture on the ethics of medical research. Exodus is absorbingly complicated and as ungraspable as barbed wire, despite Paul Newman's surly, wish-I-was-somewhere-else performance. Advise & Consent is a remarkably warm and encouraging tribute to the power of compromise and of a tradition of collegial opposition in government that is not much evident today. As for Anatomy, it is the harbinger of things like Court TV and the infernal dramatisation in the US of any scandalous case.

Portrait of a lady

Of course, any rehabilitation of Otto Preminger needs to recognise the dreadful decline in his work after the early 1960s. What happened that a very knowing producer suddenly lost touch with the public? I don't have the answer, but I can only surmise that if it looked bad from the outside it must have felt worse inside the intelligent being of Otto Preminger. From Laura to at least Advise & Consent, he is an immaculate stylist, a master of the moving camera and deep focus, and of keeping grouped figures in the same frame and spatial context. If you want one example of this, just look at the way he dramatises George C. Scott's cross-examination of Lee Remick so that Scott's movements keep blocking Jimmy Stewart's sight-lines to his client. The style and the meaning are as one and - as with all the great directors - Preminger is advising us on the necessary way to watch his film.

To make that point more forcefully, come back to Laura, the 1944 film. In so many books and guides Laura is typed as a noir, and this is a useful place to ask for that label to be rested a little. Yes, Laura has a noir look (thanks to Joseph La Shelle, who shot six Preminger pictures). But it's not really noir in any thematic sense, even if it is a murder mystery. It's a story of love and possession. Think of it in these terms: Waldo Lydecker, a rich Preminger hero, has made Laura out of very little into a career woman and a social figure. He loves her, but he is gay. The film doesn't say that, but Preminger and Clifton Webb (in his movie debut) leave no doubt (and show no alarm - indeed, Waldo is a model of eloquence, taste and intelligence, things that mattered to Preminger). So Waldo destroys Laura rather than let her fall into the hands of some male thug who can't put words together or enjoy good wine.

Such a thug is Dana Andrews as the detective who investigates the murder of Laura Hunt, shot in the face. Andrews is an essential Preminger actor, a lead but not really a hero, and with a moral lassitude Preminger detected ahead of anyone. This detective is common and rough - he smokes and drinks, lolls on the furniture, plays a stupid ball-in-the-hole game. And Laura is a film about class that has no sentimental feeling for this uncouth detective. He is fed 'Laura Hunt' night and day.

This leads to the brilliant scene at night in her apartment. He is there alone. He loosens his tie and throws off his jacket. He is too bored to read her private letters, yet he tosses them around like garbage. He goes to look at her bedroom. He is drinking her Scotch. He inspects her underclothes. He smells her perfume. He sees himself for a moment, coarse, in her mirror, and hurries past the spectre. He revels in his possession of her portrait. He sits down beneath it. The camera tracks in as he starts to sleep. It tracks out. We hear a door opening and there is Laura Hunt on the threshold, his dream come back to life.

It's a great scene, shot with a deep love of light and space, gesture and acting (as well as David Raksin's yearning theme). And now suddenly this cop has his dream love for real - and he turns on her. He tries to break her down. He proves to himself that she is just an ordinary woman - not the goddess Waldo saw. Ladies and gentlemen, I don't want to take away at all from your feelings for Vertigo, but I do think that the sado-masochistic element in character recreation is told here more swiftly, with more wit and in ways truer to life.

As in a dream

Long ago, in September 1962, the second issue of Movie magazine contained a superb appreciation of Laura by the writer Eugene Archer. Here he is on the warped dynamic between detective and 'victim': "When Laura returns to life, he greets her tenderly, as in a dream; but almost immediately his attitude changes. Instead of a victim, she becomes a suspect; he accuses her, torments her and finally assaults her physically, brutally transplanting her from her comfortable surroundings to the stark interrogation scene in police headquarters, where beaming searchlights drench her face with illumination as he vainly tries to probe beneath the surface on his mystical quest for 'truth'. The interior meaning is obvious; the man hates her, and cannot forgive her for coming back to life."

That is very good commentary, entirely justified by the picture. What is noir in Laura is only the fact of a killing and the ingrowing depression of the detective and the way he has justified his pessimism and brutality. The rest of the film is low-key, to be sure, but no more so than most Mitchell Leisen romances - and that is the world Laura Hunt wants to be part of.

Archer gives his knife one extra turn, and this had a very big influence on me: "One can visualise their future - the tormented detective brooding into his liquor before the omnipresent portrait, while poor, unwitting Laura, the merest shell of his erotic fantasy, ponders her unhappy lot while washing his socks in her kitchen sink."

Or, suppose he gives up the police force and joins the army. Then it's possible one day, I believe, that he might be an alcoholic sociopath while she tends to flirt with any man who notices her. In other words, the Laura who might have had hopes once of being a Madison Avenue socialite ends up in a trailer park or in a Michigan paper, in lurid close-up, with the caption, "Was this woman raped?"

Thrilling uncertainty

All of which is another way of saying that great directors build their world or their place, and like to use the same fixtures. Dana Andrews is in five Preminger films, Gene Tierney in four. Three cameramen - La Shelle, Leon Shamroy and Sam Leavitt - did most of his pictures. And most of the good ones turn on the same thing: how can you look at a pretty girl and know how far you can trust her, or yourself? This is a pattern that easily contains those other great works Angel Face (1952) and Bonjour Tristesse. By my count Preminger made seven great films (I'd throw in Daisy Kenyon, 1947, apparently a women's picture yet one in which Joan Crawford nearly rids herself of a reliance on men). There were bad pictures, all the harder to account for when you realise what lucidity and control and enduring doubt or caution meant to Preminger. But when he is good, he is like Renoir crossed with Fritz Lang (another Viennese). One day we are going to have to recognise just how much thrilling uncertainty Vienna brought to the bloodstream of our movies.

These days we do not appreciate unlikeable characters in our films - unless they are spectacular murderers. But Preminger always did his best work with people just like us: the ardent, spiteful girl in Bonjour Tristesse; the devoted, vicious discoverer in Laura; the blank-faced psychotic who is Angel Face. And everyone in Anatomy of a Murder, all with their own reasons. If we ever regain adulthood, and recognise our flawed selves, then there is a chance that Otto Preminger will be known as a genius.

The Otto Preminger season at the NFT, London, runs from 14 April to 31 May 2005.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012