Weekly Top Five: The best of Otto Preminger



Anatomy of a Murder
  • Anatomy of a Murder
Despite being shut out of their longtime venue in the Portage Theater, the resolute folks of the Northwest Chicago Film Society are full steam ahead with their summer programming, setting up shop at the Patio for all future screenings. Tomorrow, the NWCFS presents Bonjour Tristesse, Otto Preminger's midperiod drama, which stars Deborah Kerr, David Niven, and Jean Seberg. Preminger, of course, is a legendary auteur of classic Hollywood, and an important figure in film history at large. Naming my five favorite films of his wasn't at all difficult—you can see them after the jump.

5. The Moon Is Blue (1953) Preminger previously directed a staged version of this story, written by F. Hugh Herbert. Consequently, the filmed version has an air of theater to its visual compositions, which feature multiple characters within a wide frame, shot in long takes, where matters of tone, story, and characterization seem to shift intermittently. An imperfect film, but also a fascinating one.

4. River of No Return (1954) Similar to The Moon Is Blue, this western has a sense of "openness" in its compositions, aided by Preminger's long takes and CinemaScope frame. (The critic Chris Fujiwara once wrote that it's "a film whose stylistic motto might be: never do in two shots what can be done in one.") But unlike The Moon Is Blue, with its deliberately emphasized artificiality, River of No Return has a sense of naturalistic grandeur, thanks to some impressive location shots of mountainous terrain.

3. Fallen Angel (1945) My favorite of Preminger's great noir films (followed closely by Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Whirpool), featuring a typically steely Dana Andrews and some of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's very best work. With its deeply ambiguous story and characterization, the film is perhaps the least lucid of any of Preminger's early work, but of course, Preminger was rarely concerned with narrative convention (especially in this period); he preferred the evocation and signification of esoteric human behavior over cut-and-dry storytelling.

2. Advise and Consent (1962) The flip side of Fallen Angel, this political drama is as concise and tightly wound a film Preminger ever made. He balances multiple plots and characters, creating intrigue via dialogue-driven set pieces that form an overall tapestry of novelistic "realism." There seems to be an entire universe present in the film, and Preminger mines its enigmatic implications for dramatic worth.

1. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) A canonical standby, but I can't deny the pleasures found in this courtroom drama. The already compelling material is amplified by Preminger's approach to characterization. His conception of the ritualistic proceedings of the federal justice system is intertwined with his trademark moral relativism, rendering the otherwise melodramatic action readily disaffected. Of course, one can also enjoy the film on a purely surface level, thanks to the grade-A cast and Wendell Mayes's airtight script.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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