Midway through Angel Face, the camera lingeringly tracks to troubled socialite Jean Simmons as she plays the piano mere moments after her family has been killed in a car crash arranged by herself, her face as blank a slate as Garbo’s at the end of Queen Christina. Funneling an artist’s worldview into a single image is an inescapably reductive business, yet it’s typical of the patented ambiguity of Otto Preminger that even such an emblematic moment refuses a facile reading. Rather than the noir misogyny of Double Indemnity, the gaze suggests a dispassionate curiosity that is central to Preminger’s contemplation of contradictory humanity. The Viennese auteur, the subject of a nine-film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (Oct. 1 - October 29), was no less a conundrum, a filmmaker of notorious bullying (whose Teutonic-martinet persona would be explored by Billy Wilder in Stalag 17) and subtle visions, aggressively playing the Hollywood game while hanging on to his European notions, analyzing modern loss of values in Bunny Lake Is Missing while cavorting as Mr. Freeze on TV’s Batman.
His blend of artist and entertainer, as controversial as Hitchcock’s during the polemical heyday of auteurism, was to Dwight Macdonald a “problem,” to Stanley Kauffmann a “paradigm,” and to Jacques Rivette nothing less than the very definition of mise-en-scène. Few directors were as debated, yet few started their careers on such a high note: Laura, Preminger’s breakthrough film, was so unanimously acclaimed that, from its 1944 release on, all the critics had to do was sit back and gloat over the so-called “decline” of the next decades. A suave puzzle, Laura is routinely seen as a prime slice of film noir, though Preminger scarcely delved into the furious paranoia that always was the genre’s bread and butter; murder and obsession abound in the posh Manhattan surroundings, yet the camera remains calm, saturnine, fascinated less by the svelte perversion of the perfumed milieu than by the instability of the characters’ shifting relationships. The films that followed (Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, none of them included in the program, unfortunately) are, in fact, far more complex and interesting works than Laura, with noir tropes trotted out only to be questioned by the camera’s enquiring gaze.
While the harshness of fellow émigrés Von Stroheim and Wilder was easily recognizable, Preminger’s is subtler but just as cutting, stemming not so much from a view of the world’s bleakness as from an acknowledgement of its continuously changing absolutes. In that sense, Preminger fully understands Renoir’s often abused quote (“The terrible thing about life is that everyone has their reasons”), viewing every relationship as ongoing conflicts of interest, fears and desires, with each side given equal weight via Preminger’s extraordinary gift for morally intricate spatial compositions captured in take-stretching camera moves. As the Cinemascope screen becomes a neutral field in which the characters offer contrasting visions, viewers become free to draw their own conclusions and play jury; it’s no coincidence that the image Preminger kept coming back to again and again was the courtroom, a place where the messy contradictions of life are expected to be neatly streamlined with the either/or finality of the verdict. Preminger’s objectivity, which refuses to make a haloed martyr out of Jean Seberg’s Joan of Arc (Saint Joan) and a bohemian airhead out of her Cecile (Bonjour Tristesse), amounts to the director’s rebellion against such snap judgments and, according to a Senses of Cinema article, a signpost for the beginning of the end for classical Hollywood cinema. (What is The Moon Is Blue, after all, if not a Lubitsch comedy purposely made to show how inadequate the values Lubitsch held dear had turned?)
Anatomy of a Murder, arguably the fullest expression of Preminger’s cinema, is oddly absent from MOMA’s series, though there is plenty of evidence of the filmmaker’s ensuing swelling as he entered his Big Issue period. The later pictures offer an increase in scope at the cost of a coarsening of insight (I’d happily trade the entirety of Hurry Sundown for a single Joan Crawford-Henry Fonda duel in Daisy Kenyon), yet, even if contaminated by the blockbuster syndrome, they are supremely lucid films, scrupulously sensitive to the human frailties that made their subjects controversial to begin with. The splendid Advise and Consent surveys the American political machine and the people caught between the gears; Exodus remains unique in offering a multilayered view of the birth of Israel, equal portions passion and doubt; The Cardinal posits faith as an element in a rigid institutional structure without ever robbing it of spiritual force; and the hard-to-find Skidoo offers a reefer-puffing Groucho Marx presiding over a sublimely inclusive late-’60s crazy quilt. The retro is a reminder of how much Preminger encouraged viewer participation in composing his various cinematic dilemmas, and also, in times when the voice of authority continues to step so wantonly in with-us-or-against-us territory, how resonant the director’s open questions still remain.