Ambiguously Yours: The Late Works of the Late Otto Preminger

Hurry Sundown, Skidoo, and Such Good Friends welcome you to a world of crowded frames and uncertain tones.

Olive Films has previously released three of Otto Preminger’s late Paramount films on DVD, and their reissue on Blu-ray gives us a renewed chance to examine how, even in the largely lambasted output of his last decade, when he was considered outdated by hipsters, Preminger was always uniquely Preminger.

DVD: Hurry Sundown

Film: Hurry Sundown

Director: Otto Preminger

Cast: Michael Caine, Jane Fonda

Year: 1967

Rating: Not rated

Release date: 2014-12-23

Distributor: Olive

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/c/canonfodder-hurrysundown-cvr-200.jpgHurry Sundown

We’ll begin in 1967, the year Hollywood decided to make earnest, high-profile wish-fulfillment visions of black and white Americans learning to get along. In the Heat of the Night won Oscar’s Best Picture for its satisfying spectacle of a super-qualified African-American Yankee cop slapping a white bigot while the white Southern sheriff looks on bemused. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner won an Oscar for Katharine Hepburn as a patrician liberal who finds her values tested when her daughter’s fiancé turns out to be a similarly super-qualified “Negro” (as was the politically correct term), a Harvard-educated doctor.

Both films embodied their idealistic dreams in Sidney Poitier, who took his act to England in the same year’s To Sir With Love. He happens to play a teacher in that one, but he’s really the teacher in all of them, as everyone learns a valuable lesson on their way to a happy ending.

Although Preminger’s Hurry Sundown features the same type of wish-fulfillment, it’s a much harsher and more problematic vision and, accordingly, was received more problematically by critics and audiences. Buried under layers of steamy soap opera about the problems of rich white folks and in between semi-satirical scenes of social scheming and the judicial injustice system, there’s a quietly radical idea espoused by a proud “uppity” black man, Reeve (Robert Hooks), who’s just returned to his mother’s farm after being a soldier in the Pacific during WWII.

When he discusses self-empowerment, arguing that “nobody’s going to give us anything” and they must take control of their own lives, his vision incorporates a class-based perception that those in power use race to divide poor farmers against each other, and that the solution is for the poor to unite and support each other across color lines. That is, he seamlessly combines elements of Booker T. Washington’s “up from slavery” philosophy with Martin Luther King’s final broad vision of poor workers everywhere.

That’s heady stuff, but the drama feels driven less by that idea — and even that idea pivots on the raised consciousness of the white farmer, tellingly named Rad (John Phillip Law) — than by the melodrama of the town’s first family, the troubled Warrens. The kittenish Julie Ann (Jane Fonda) owns everything, including a seemingly autistic son who was traumatized by his daddy Henry (Michael Caine, distracting us with his attempted accent), a jumped-up social-climbing bit of virtual white trash who’s Rad’s cousin.

Henry schemes to make a killing in these new residential developments popping up all over postwar America, for this is a film set in 1946 Georgia rather than 1967 America. He devotes a third of his time to shady manipulations in trying to get the two farmers to sell their land, another third having sex or failing to have it with Julie Ann, and the last third stroking his big sax and moaning that he coulda had his own jazz band and been somebody.

Diahann Carroll plays a local teacher who moved to New York and is now visiting her father (Rex Ingram), a professor who runs the colored-only school, a surprisingly expansive and nice-looking property. Among other unconvincing elements is her decision to buy Reeve’s line about changing society by becoming a poor farmer’s wife, but that’s the kind of arc women in love were expected to follow.

She’s basically Reeve’s girlfriend, although Roger Ebert pointed out in his review that they get no more than a kiss while the other characters carry on something fierce. However, we must cut Preminger some slack on this, since he’s the one who broke the taboo of showing African-Americans have passionate relations outside marriage (or anywhere) way back in 1954’s Carmen Jones with Dorothy Dandridge, and that was a big tempest in a sexpot.

A ton of other characters infest this would-be sprawling epic. Burgess Meredith is the local judge dealing with his own problems. George Kennedy is the sleazy sheriff who explains how much he “likes you people… the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” These two authority figures mix buffoonish comic relief with sinister menace in a way that embodies Preminger’s ambiguity as well as any character here, including Julie Ann, whose personal and snobbish motivations can shift from insulting the judge’s racism to depending on it, as per the situation. Even Henry, the main villain of the piece, is a conundrum of vacillating ambiguities.

Beah Richards, who appeared in both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, shows up as Reeve’s mama, who was also Julie Ann’s breastfeeding mammy. She has always believed in and depended upon the kindness of white folks, and the rude awakening that triggers her stroke or heart attack or movie malady causes her to summarize herself with shame as a “white folks’ nigger” and declare that she’s more angry at herself “for letting them do it”. She’s representing and enacting a “death of Uncle Tom” moment as a cautionary tale for the next generation.

Loring Smith plays the judge’s daughter, whose subplot involves her impending marriage. She spends most of her scenes projecting the image of a brainless ninny until, in another Premingerian shift of character, she reveals herself as a calculating nymph who has a history with Henry. In one of the most brazen moments, composed from behind his automobile, she apparently embarks on oral sex with him. If this isn’t the first mainstream Hollywood movie to imply such a thing, it’s surely one of the first.

That’s very advanced for 1967 and is part of the movie’s “steamy” atmosphere that got it condemned in many quarters as “tasteless” and “vulgar”. The most torrid scenes involve Caine and Fonda and include a moment where he reaches into her top and fondles a breast. Although perfectly credible, this is the kind of thing you just didn’t see in big Hollywood productions then and, if you think about it, you rarely see it now, either. This is one element that hasn’t dated and can still raise eyebrows.

Before we forget, Faye Dunaway’s in the picture as Rad’s wife, making so little impression that you wouldn’t guess she’s about to star in Bonnie and Clyde and The Thomas Crown Affair. Also around are Luke Askew as the local KKK rabble-rouser, Madeleine Sherwood as the judge’s wife, Frank Converse as a progressive young preacher, Doro Merande as the judge’s secretary, and Robert Reed and Jim Backus dropping by as attorneys in the courtroom scene.

Whereas both In the Heat of the Night  and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner won Oscars for their screenwriters, no prizes were offered to this screenplay. Preminger commissioned a script by Horton Foote, who’d won an Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird, but then apparently didn’t use it or not much. A new script was written by Thomas C. Ryan, who would soon distinguish himself by writing and producing the film version of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Hurry Sundown is based on a novel by K.B. Gilden (the collaborative pseudonym of a married couple) for which Preminger bought the film rights before its publication.

The picture was courted by controversy (also known as publicity) well before it opened. Much of it centered on the fraught experience of shooting on location in Louisiana, as marked by KKK harassment (including gunfire, slashed tires, and a burned cross) that led to the National Guard being stationed at the hotel, where the crew insisted on racial mixing. This should have primed liberal critics to wish to like it, but they were often dismayed (including by the sex), and some claimed the picture was patronizing as well as confused, confusing, and tasteless. Variety gave it a rave review.

Ebert’s two-star review (the same rating it gets in Leonard Maltin’s guide) was among the more sensible and middle of the road, stating in his opening paragraph that the film is “a frustrating case, not good but not particularly bad, with a smokescreen of controversy surrounding it and obscuring its real faults. The trouble with this film (sanctimonious bleats from Newsweek and Bosley Crowther notwithstanding) is not that it’s racist and tasteless, but that it’s naive and dull.”

It’s fair to call this film more mediocre than good, at least as drama. There are special problems with the ending, which is both over the top and perfunctory, and feels confused time-wise and unconvincing in any-wise. However, the movie sure looks great, thanks to Gene Callahan’s no-expense-spared design and outdoor sets, which are shot in seductive widescreen by Loyal Griggs and, after he was sidelined by injury, Milton Krasner. Get a load of the many driving-while-talking shots, taken from the side or rear of an actually moving vehicle without rear-projection.

This is what gets style-mavens addicted to movies, as Preminger frequently stages lengthy scenes and sometimes whole sequences in an elaborate manner, with multiple characters entering and exiting and moving between visual planes. There’s a shot that begins with Henry playing with Rad’s children and ends with Rad reclaiming them, with much business of Henry’s car entering and exiting in between.

There’s the sequence-shot of the judge entering his front door in close-up and engaging in a sweeping hysteria with his women-folk before the camera dollies in again as he exits the same door. There’s the final shot of the courtroom scene, with Fonda leaping up in the foreground and vanishing diagonally into the distance, where she’s lost behind the crowd rushing forward. This is what Cinemascope is for.

These crowded multiplicities and visual trajectories serve what critics often mean by Preminger’s ambiguity, which has at least three aspects. First, there’s the ambiguity of allowing multiple characters and motives to crowd into the space instead of having a single one dominate. This means the tone often shifts within a scene. Second, there’s the ambiguity within a single character, whose positive and negative values shift with various motives and alliances. Third, there’s the overall tone of the movie, a sometimes uncomfortable balance (or mishmash) of comedy, melodrama, the earnest, the “vulgar” or exploitive (or “real”), the classy, the artificial, and the arty. Welcome to Preminger’s world.

Two Comedies, on Purpose

DVD: Skidoo

Film: Skidoo

Director: Otto Preminger

Cast: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing

Year: 1968

Rating: Not rated

Release date: 2014-12-23

Distributor: Olive

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/c/canonfodder-skidoo-cvr-200.jpgIf Hurry Sundown barely showed a profit, that’s partly because its budget was quite high at around $4 million. After being called out of touch, Preminger must have thought he could show everyone a thing or two with his next picture, all hip and mod and up to the moment. And that brings us to Skidoo, one of the most notorious misfires of its time, and a film nobody should miss.

The flimsy plot features ex-mafia hitman Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) living the familiarly put-upon upper-middle-class suburban dream with his wife (Carol Channing) and their grown daughter (Alexandra Hay), whom he believes isn’t his child and who gets mixed up with a bunch of hairy, body-painting hippies who knock his uptight material values, man.

He’s summoned by his old kingpin, known as God, played by Groucho Marx, who seems to be reading from cue cards in the movie’s most disastrous performance. God wants him to “kiss” or knock off a stool-pigeon (Mickey Rooney) who lives in solitary confinement, having turned his prison cell into its own comfy middle-class space, where he reads The Wall Street Journal and runs his investments.

As this description might indicate (without doing the experience of watching any justice), all satire and subtext is as obvious as possible, beginning with the opening bit about what’s on TV and the duel of the remote controls. When Tony decides he “doesn’t want to kiss anybody”, the image prominently features a poster saying “Kiss for Peace” over a cartoon of a prisoner kissing the Statue of Liberty’s ass. When God vanishes aboard his yacht at the ending, the skipper (George Raft) performs a wedding by reading aloud from a book called The Death of God.

Yet even though all the broad satirical targets are as obvious as those in any sitcom — a form where the entire cast was comfortable — the messages are mixed and counter-stacked to befuddle a viewer who tries to make sense of it. Here again is Preminger’s ambiguity of tone and intent, although it was widely reviewed at the time as an example of comedy from someone with no understanding of it. If we go back to Preminger’s earliest movies (and we have), their uncertain balance of comedy and melodrama has always been part of his personality.

To be sure, the movie’s never funny. It’s one of its era’s examples of star-studded, would-be hip overkill that tries to appeal to squares while taking advantage of new cinematic liberties. Much of its formula depends on friendly, out-of-place casting of the likes of Frankie Avalon (a randy gangster), Cesar Romero (his dad), Peter Lawford (a senator), Arnold Stang (Johnny’s buddy, the only character who dies), Slim Pickens (a switchboard operator), Austin Pendleton (an imprisoned counterculture draft-dodging electronics and LSD genius), Fred Clark (a guard), and Michael Constantine, Frank Gorshin, and Richard Kiel as prisoners.

Burgess Meredith, last seen in Hurry Sundown as the judge, is now the prison warden. Doro Merande, last seen as the judge’s secretary in that film, is now promoted to judge. John Phillip Law, last seen in Hurry Sundown as poor put-upon Rad, now plays Stash, the long-haired hippie who transitions from being a zen-like seducer to somehow becoming, as in his role in Barbarella, a naïve object of seduction when pursued by God’s tall skinny black aide — more implied oral sex, and this time interracial. The aide is played by the single-named Luna (the first black cover model on Vogue), and Preminger must have loved the look, since he cast the similar Iman for the interracial marriage in The Human Factor.

Although not funny, even within the range of what can be considered humor, Skidoo is never dull. The viewer stares in a sort of traffic-accident fascination, especially when the climax turns on having everyone drop acid. (I see potential for an unpromoted audience-participation gimmick.) Tony’s trip, full of visual effects, is seen as a personal and spiritual breakthrough rather than the bummer depicted in “serious” LSD films of the day like Psych-Out. This explains why Timothy Leary speaks in the movie’s trailer, which isn’t included on the disc but can be seen on YouTube; Sammy Davis Jr. also appears in it.

Seriously, the sequence every man, woman and child ought to see is the psychedelically colored dance of the trash cans, which cannot be adequately described. That’s from the last reel, when the picture suddenly decides to become a musical for the hell of it. That song, and the title song performed by Carol Channing to wrap things up, is courtesy of the singular Harry Nilsson, who appears as a tower guard and sings the entire closing credits! His whimsical contribution now links the film with Robert Altman’s Popeye, just as the script by Doran William Cannon links it with Altman’s Brewster McCloud. Nilsson stated that the animated film he wrote and scored, The Point, was inspired by an acid trip, so one can have quite an illuminating Nilsson film festival.

DVD: Such Good Friends

Film: Such Good Friends

Director: Otto Preminger

Cast: Dyan Cannon, James Coco

Year: 1971

Rating: Not rated

Release date: 2014-12-23

Distributor: Olive

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/c/canonfodder-suchgoodfriends-cvr-200.jpgThat Preminger had no understanding of comedy is belied by the mordant, sarcastic picture of arty, privileged New Yorkers in Such Good Friends, adapted from Lois Gould’s novel with a screenplay by Elaine May (under the pseudonym Esther Dale). Of course, one could say that’s the difference between pointing an unblinking camera at actors who recite May’s dialogue and pointing it at actors mugging over Cannon’s script, but that’s not fair. Preminger’s sense of timing, balance, and staging is undeniable in the many crowded scenes, and it was apparent in Skidoo, too. It’s probably fair to say that Preminger knew what to do with a good script and tended to do nothing with flat ones except chew over their presentation of unbroken visual space.

Dyan Cannon plays Julie Messenger (as in “don’t kill the”), a frustrated wife and mother in a nice Upper West Side apartment. She’s got a black maid, a self-absorbed socialite mother, and a husband who won’t have sex with her. In the first scene, as she’s roused from bed amid demands on her attention from the maid, two little sons arguing, mom ringing the doorbell, and hubby on the phone, Julie mutters to herself “Oh, why did they abolish slavery?” Her main target is the maid’s failure to do everything at once, which wouldn’t be solved by slavery, but this aside is meant, by the alchemy of irony, to signal Julie’s modern liberalism, as only hipsters would dare utter such cynically offensive remarks. But when you think about it, the larger implication is: Did they abolish it? And who is the slave?

Later, the racism of Cold War politics will be summarized by a magazine editor: “All small countries with a predominantly white population are neutral. All small countries with a predominantly colored population are uncommitted. That’s how we know which small countries to invade.” Still later, a doctor will blandly explain: “Hospital care only really becomes adequate when a patient’s life is in danger. Otherwise it’s so poor that we must wonder not why so many die but how so many survive.”

Julie’s husband, Richard (Laurence Luckinbill), is the art director of a famous magazine and he’s written a popular children’s book. His relationship with Julie is defined by relentless facetious banter that, no matter how sexual, doesn’t lead to consummation. As the film adopts her viewpoint, we’re treated to fantasies and dream images, an element not overdone.

This movie is packed with characters, many of whom aren’t credited and aren’t even known to IMDB. For example, that sure looks like Frank Langella as Julie’s fantasy cabbie in an early scene, while the real cabbie is a ringer for then-senator and future mayor Ed Koch. When Julie arrives at her husband’s reception, character actor Richard B. Shull plays the agent, while the first man who speaks to them is played by Franklin Cover (Tom Willis on TV’s The Jeffersons). There’s a further galaxy of uncredited nurses and blood donors after Richard lands in the hospital to have a mole removed and one medical emergency leads to another.

Cannon’s main co-star isn’t Luckinbill but James Coco as Richard’s doctor. If the viewer wonders why a physical comedian has a role defined by poised irony, the answer lies in his hilarious late scene of seduction. If the event doesn’t feel convincingly motivated, we’re too busy laughing to notice as he plays out so much of it in a brilliantly timed master shot.

This and other scenes are surprisingly vulgar by 1970 standards, and the movie was criticized by reviewers who weren’t used to all these new liberties. (Hell in a handbasket!) Preminger was not only used to that complaint, he almost depended on it. Some reviewers, including Roger Ebert, perceived the dark satire and justified the vulgarity as appropriate to the milieu. Rare is the viewer today who would take issue with it, although few then or now could be ready for Burgess Meredith’s bizarre nudist cameo. As you can see, Meredith was ubiquitous for Preminger. He was also in The Cardinal, Advise and Consent, and In Harm’s Way, a clip of which is shown on the TV in Skidoo.

As Richard’s simple outpatient procedure degenerates into existential limbo, Julie faces bewildering revelations amid scenes of everybody talking at once, until distraction itself becomes a structuring device and a thematic motif. Faces in the crowd include Ken Howard, Jennifer O’Neill, Nina Foch, Louise Lasser, and Doris Roberts as friends, relations, and kibbitzers. These busy, multi-voiced, cross-purposed scenes are Preminger at his best, as his camera captures the burbling crowd in meticulous compositions. He likes it when characters, all bunched together or strewn across the screen, can maintain his diffuse tone of points and counterpoints.

This is how we live, the film seems to be saying, or at least how these people live: in a state of shallow, bored, materialist distraction. It wasn’t a new message, and indeed is such an established critique of big city life and New York in particular that it could be transplanted whole into an episode of Seinfeld 25 years later.

Skidoo  and Such Good Friends follow a then-unusual, now-common procedure of opening with the title only and saving all credits until the end. Both of them look good in Blu-ray. Hurry Sundown generally looks good with degraded or fuzzy textures in a few shots. Olive Films presumably licenses a print from Paramount and works with what they get, not indulging in expensive digital restoration. Nor are extras included, such as the trailers. These are no-frills presentations of the films only, but these are films that leave you with plenty to think about.

Splash image: Michael Caine and Jane Fonda in Hurry Sundown (1967)


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