For those familiar with the legends, and the truths, of the German and Austrian migration to Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s, Otto Preminger’s life serves as an exemplary tale. First, there is his confabulation of Vienna as his rightful birthplace, when in fact he, like Billy Wilder and Edgar G. Ulmer, two other self-professed Viennese-born directors, really entered the world in a less glamorous backwater province (Wiznitz, Poland, in Preminger’s case). Then there is his immodest assertion that he was “the first apprentice actor of the Viennese Reinhardt Company.” Which Austrian- or German-born director did not, at some point, claim a deep affiliation with the world-famous impresario Max Reinhardt? And finally, there is the more enduring, more formative aspect of Preminger’s persona, the image of the Teutonic tyrant, which he shared with the Viennese-born Fritz Lang and which he played up with extra zest.
Otto the Terrible, as he came to be known, had a nearly lifelong investment in his self-image as Prussian dictator (never mind the easy slippage from Viennese to Prussian). Like other émigré actors, the bulk of them of Jewish extraction, he found himself playing the role of the Nazi, first on Broadway in the late 1930s in Clare Boothe’s Margin for Error—as he dryly quipped, “There seemed to be a shortage of Nazis in New York at the time”—and later on the screen, most memorably as the fiendish commandant in Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953). Both on the set and off, Preminger was known for his tirades. Foster Hirsch establishes the tenor of his gripping, evenhanded biography, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, by opening with a revealing anecdote: In Hirsch’s single exposure to the director, at a 1980 performance of The Killer Thing at a small acting studio in Greenwich Village, Preminger barked demonstratively, “You always louse things up, don’t you?” at an underling during intermission.
While nearly everyone who goes on record in Hirsch’s account has their own “Otto attacks” story to tell, the author calls attention, from his prologue onward, to the self-stylized nature of Preminger’s temperament. Carol Lynley, who costarred in a couple of his independent productions from the mid-’60s, notes that the director worried that his reputation would suffer when she said kind things about him in an interview. As a counterbalance to his notorious tirades, there are numerous testaments to his deep affection and compassion. His son Erik, the progeny of a fleeting encounter with Gypsy Rose Lee who entered Preminger’s life as an adult, speaks of the family man who was “like a marshmallow,” while Ossie Davis, who worked with Preminger on The Cardinal (1963), asserts, “Otto understood my part as a black man would, without any condescension or patronization.” As Andrew Sarris puts it in his judicious summation, “Much of his mock-Teutonic bombast was for show.”
Hirsch takes great pains to present his subject in his full complexity. Along the way, he introduces the reader to all three wives and almost everyone else figured with any prominence in Preminger’s professional and personal life. We learn at various points of his penchant for posh hotel rooms and Eames chairs and of his appreciation for the formal address “Herr Doktor Preminger.”
As a director, Preminger will likely be remembered for his most critically acclaimed work (Laura , Angel Face , and Anatomy of a Murder , among others) and, stylistically speaking, for his exquisite long shots and touches of seemingly uncharacteristic subtlety. Yet as “a genius for publicity,” as Dwight Macdonald once called him, Preminger will be most remembered for his controversies: as the man who fought back against the Catholic Legion of Decency and defied the Production Code Administration (The Moon Is Blue ); who boldly depicted drug addition (The Man with the Golden Arm ) and homosexuality (Advise & Consent ); who directed—and had an affair with—the first African-American nominee for best actress (Dorothy Dandridge, for Carmen Jones); who held a much-hyped international competition for the role of Joan of Arc, in which Iowan Jean Seberg, of later Breathless fame, rose to the top (Saint Joan ); and who hired, fully credited, the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (Exodus ). The portrait that Hirsch paints, showing the director in all of his guises, is appropriately rich in nuance.
Otto Preminger is shaped, in the main, around extensive interviews that Hirsch conducted with collaborators, cast and crew, family members, friends and foes. In several chapters, the emphasis on personal testimony can become somewhat overbearing, with a few of the windier reminiscences running on for paragraphs. Nonetheless, Hirsch’s approach, in particular his shrewd eye for formal detail and his ability to blend substantive yet elegant film analysis into his larger tapestry of biographical insight, deserves much praise. Though Preminger, in his eyes, remains “one of the most underrated of the masters of American filmmaking,” the compelling case he makes for a thorough reappraisal serves as a solid first step.
Noah Isenberg teaches at the New School and is the author of a book on Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, forthcoming from the British Film Institute.