The Otto Preminger Collection compiles three of the director’s seldom seen late works that, upon their release, provoked mostly derisive musing over how the man who helped topple the Hayes Code could have fallen so out of step with the times. Since then, the films have garnered a complex reputation for being anachronistically misconceived. They’re dated, in other words, but dated in the rare sense that the stereotypes of hippies and Southern sharecroppers they examine no longer exist in the public mind, if they ever did; these are counter-cultural time capsules of a grossly inaccurate sort, representative as far as one can tell neither of popular opinion nor of attempts on the part of big business to pander to it. The movies’ awkward, challenging, and often antisocial perspective belongs mostly to Preminger himself, a reality with which we might begin to digest their sinewy nature.
Moreover, one need only compare Hurry Sundown with an early masterwork like Laura to understand how little the director cared for apotheosizing either era’s zeitgeist. Preminger instead always seemed intent on staying four or five paces ahead of what was galvanizing our cultural language—on concretizing, and making public, concerns that were swiftly outgrowing their vagueness and privacy. His cinema continually and wryly demonstrates how the human mind will never be as civilized as the civilization it has erected to control itself. As a result, the cornerstones of that civilization remain stewed in ethical reconditeness by turns ugly and erotic. It’s not the frankness of Anatomy of a Murder that propels its drama, for example, but the manner in which the dreamy messiness of sex turns cold and mechanical in court, and how this incongruously brittle approach to corporeal desire has life and death implications.
Skidoo may now appear a similar observation of the dangers involved in enslaving the mercurial mind to the tidy homogeny of cultural institutions and trends. The film’s hippies, mobsters, and domestic straights, most of them played by television and radio actors, all reside in their own private jails of stereotype while the conveniences of contemporary living buzz around them like flies. TV ads promote smoking to bourgeois dogs and children; remote-controlled mechanisms rotate pieces of furniture in bachelor pads, making possible the truly fluid and seductive domicile; Merry Prankster wannabes paint their bodies and their buses in search of attention while preaching the perils of ego and avarice. Even Alcatraz, which protagonist Tough Tony (Jackie Gleason) infiltrates on a gang boss’s behalf, is full of gadgets that simplify in-take and inmate surveillance. The only available antidote for this automated tribal world is LSD, which Tony accidentally ingests; it melts away his illusory social life and liberates his psyche, allowing him to confront the anxieties that provoked his escape into middle-American hell in the first place.
Such Good Friends, a damning send-up of Upper East Side socialites and publishing elite scripted by Elaine May, is an equally scathing look at how society subjugates consciousness. The plot follows the conflicted and often colorful internal monologue of Julie Messinger (Dyan Cannon), the sexually bored housewife of an influential art director and children’s book author (Laurence Luckinbill). After her hubbie turns comatose due to complications during mole-removal surgery (one of several bizarrely handled gags), Julie discovers his back catalogue of indiscretions, and begins to pendulate wildly between her repressive domestic space and the promiscuous excess of her cohort in search of a salubrious balance. Since Preminger’s métier is brooding omniscience that swivels imperceptibly from one character’s mind to another, he unsurprisingly proves inept throughout at rendering Julie’s perspective. (The most blithering dream sequence cuts from a record spinning on a turntable to a ground-floor view of the Guggenheim’s rotunda.) May’s dialogue, however, likeably lacerates the layers of deception Julie suffers at the hands of her stiflingly high-class friends. In one Altmanesque scene, the camera circles a bevy of uptown idlers who spew overlapping and only partially intelligible gossip as they wait in a hospital lounge to donate blood for Julie’s husband.
The earliest film in the set, Hurry Sundown, is also the weakest, though equally relevant to the theme of porous individualism threatened by rigid community. The story concerns post-Reconstruction real estate mountebanks (Michael Caine is one of them, sporting a hideously affected drawl) who seek to buy up a swath of prime Georgia soil and develop it into a fully modernized (i.e., all-white) town. Predictably, the conflict pivots on the drastic differences between three socioeconomic groups: middle-class whites inured to the racism that has provided their inherited privilege; poor but prideful and bigoted whites; and pious and mostly penniless blacks. Alliances among members of these demographics crisscross to form a kind of fractious extended family constantly faltering reconciliation; a well-intentioned estate owner played by Jane Fonda, for instance, was raised by a “mammy” who still lives nearby. But a sharp histrionic divide between the Caucasian and African-American actors undermines these narrative turns. While Burgess Meredith speaks of “niggers” with a sneering, bug-eyed, cartoon charm, Robert Hook’s black landowner stonily attends to his mother’s death. This dramaturgical friction is likely intentional, but it turns the black characters into solemn, Bartleby-like recusants who refuse to emote while caricatured whitey blazes around them.
All three the high-def transfers here are of middling quality, with Such Good Friends faring the best. Gayne Rescher's primary color-emphasizing cinematography on that film turns Manhattan into a garish, nearly Godardian garden of egos that in 1080p seems to blur the line between beauty and disgrace. (Rescher would find much more thematic meat into which his chops could sink while working on Elaine May's A New Leaf.) The other two movies have been transferred from decent prints with flawless telecine, but the edges of their quite broad Panavision aspect ratios often appear blurred, possibly due to errors made while adjusting their anamorphic photography. In the case of Skidoo, for instance, Jackie Gleason's acid trip seems to linger on for several scenes, if only at the distorted corner of the frame. The DTS-HD audio tracks are audible enough, though I really wish that Olive Films would start providing English closed captions on their releases.
I'm beginning to suspect it's not a coincidence that Olive Films was named after an object that resembles a zero, as that's precisely the number of special features included on most of their releases.
These Otto Preminger films may not be perfect, but where else can you see trashcans waltzing or a Batman villain dropping the n-word like it's going out of style?