June 25, 2013


“The dullest movie ever made.” -Rex Reed, review of The Human Factor

Nothing much happens in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of The Human Factor. A group of gray men sit in poorly upholstered rooms and talk about cheesemongers and malted milk balls. The detente between Eastern and Western powers reduces the workload of the bored British secret service agents to whinging and paper pushing. So when an inconsequential leak is uncovered, it is treated as a matter of national security, the boys gifted a bone to gnaw on. They end up gnawing on each other, their whole world reduced to a series of boxes that splits and drains them. Their deaths are as dull as their lives, but the emotions held in check by these relentlessly logical manipulators – fear, doubt, loneliness – curls the wallpaper in its repressed intensity. Newly released on DVD by Warner Archive in an un-restored transfer (the print shows plenty of wear and tear but it was certainly watchable), this final film of Otto Preminger pushes his dispassion to a radical extreme.


Preminger was at a low ebb in his career, scrambling to source funding after a string of 1970s box office failures. He had a number of projects fall through, including a bio-pic of  Mao Tse-tung’s Canadian physician and a recreation of the hostage rescue at Entebbe Airport in Uganda by Israeli Defense Forces. Then he nabbed the rights to Graham Greene’s novel The Human Factor through his Sigma Productions a few weeks before the book’s release. He had previously optioned Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case in 1967, but nothing came of it. This time he pushed it through, with financing promised from the inexperienced producer Paul Crosfield, which later fell through. While on a location shoot in Nairobi, his crew’s checks started bouncing, and to avoid a mutiny he bankrolled the feature himself, selling his house and two Matisses, though still having to slash the budget by $2 million (he managed to keep one of Saul Bass’ most memorable opening montages). The Human Factor would put Preminger in debt for years.


An eager Tom Stoppard was hired to adapt the screenplay. Stoppard claimed that, “if Otto had said I can’t pay you but you’ll get one or two lunches with Graham Greene, I might have done the job. I was much more nervous of displeasing Greene than I was of displeasing Otto.” He delivered a very faithful script, so much so that Greene expressed surprise, telling Stoppard he “needn’t have stuck so closely to the original.” The story concerns Castle (Nicol Williamson), a  lifelong diplomat with a wife and kids and the whole middle-class shebang. When MI6 discovers a small leak of economic information into the USSR, Col. Daintry (Richard Attenborough) and Dr. Percival (Robert Morley) begin investigating the African department, including Castle and his partner Davis (Derek Jacobi). Circumstantial evidence damns Davis, but it is Castle who was living a double life, one that begins to collapse.


The dry, procedural script served Preminger’s purposes, in any case, and after failing to snag Michael Caine or Richard Burton for the lead role, he settled on Nicol Williamson. Williamson is ideal for the self-effacing part of Castle, a pasty company man of rumpled shirts and clammy handshakes. It is hard to imagine Caine or Burton disappearing into the background as humbly as Williamson. As Castle’s South African wife Sarah, Preminger tapped Supermodel Iman, for her film debut. Since his discovery of Jean Seberg in Saint Joan, Preminger considered himself an actress whisperer, but Iman never gets into the flat declamatory flow of spy-speak, her halting line readings registering as stilted.


Preminger was insistent at a flat, drab look across locations, so an English country estate would looks as nondescript as Castle’s peeling suburban home or Spartan office. In Chris Fujiwara’s critical study, The World and Its Double, director of photography Mike Molloy recalls he, “started out trying to light it with a bit of mood to it and a bit of contrast, and he [Preminger] had an apoplexy at the first batch of rushes.” Fujiwara writes that he “complained of not being able to see the actors’ eyes”, making Molloy use flat and direct light. He used a 20mm lens and placed it in the corners of rooms, getting wide shots of the decrepit interiors, the actors just another piece of furniture, what Dave Kehr described as a “drama of pure surfaces…purged of the seductive highs and lows of traditional narrative texture.”


In a pivotal speech, the casually sadistic Dr. Percival points at a Mondrian print and expounds: “Boxes. All part of the same picture. Each one separate, but held in perfect balance. Everyone to his own box, you in yours, I in mine. No responsibility for the next man’s box.” The upsetting of this monastic balance is Percival’s cause for justifiable homicide. Preminger seems to take his line as a formal decree, the film as a whole is a series of discrete boxes, those corner shots emphasizing the boundedness of the interiors, cells which only lead to other cells. Castle, eventually smoked out and isolated in Moscow (rendered in chintzy backdrop at Pinewood Studios), realizes he is caught in this labyrinth of logical bureaucratic design, partly of his own making. It is only then that Castle, and Preminger, can vibrate the surface of the film’s rational design, Williamson’s tears expressing a profound regret at a lost love now safely locked away in another impregnable box across the ocean.



November 13, 2012

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From the multiplicity of locations to place a camera, the director and his collaborators have to settle on one. This decision, born of practical training and on-set instinct, can turn a routine shot into an extraordinary one. Three recent Blu-ray releases display the talents of the canniest of decision makers: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Preminger and Carpenter are naturals in the CinemaScope sized frame, both alternating between B&W and color to emphasize their images’ deceptive surfaces. Aldrich uses the boxier 1.85 ratio, but chops it up into split-screens which convey a dizzying information overload that accompanies the creeping surveillance state of that film’s USA.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, Fritz Lang famously said that CinemaScope was only fit for snakes and funerals, so his character clearly hadn’t yet seen Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Out today on Blu-Ray in a sublime transfer from Twilight Time (available through Screen Archives), Otto Preminger’s film uses the wide frame to emphasize surfaces, whether it’s of Jean Seberg’s impassive face or the doorways and windows that promise a depth that never materializes. Preminger bought the rights to Francoise Sagan’s novel in 1955, and gave S.N. Behrman a crack at the screenplay before turning it over to Arthur Laurents, who received sole screen credit. The story tells of Cecile (Jean Seberg), a carefree teen spending a summer on the French Riviera with her playboy  father Raymond (David Niven, with chest hair perpetually flared). They act more like swingers than family, urging each other into wild romantic escapades and laughing at the wreckage.  But when Raymond falls for their old pal Anne (Deborah Kerr), Cecile becomes wildly jealous and aims to break them up. Her efforts, tragically, succeed.

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The story is told in flashback, with the present-tense Cecile in black and white, a joyless mannequin twirling through the nightclubs of Paris. She stares dead-eyed into the camera, her arm around another interchangeable Lothario, as she speaks of happier times in voice-over. This is when the color starts to peek through, a strikingly melancholy optical printing effect, as sections of the frame next to her head burst into the color of the Riviera, flickerings of memory coming to life. B&W gives way to hot reds and shimmering blues. The effort already shows in the flashback of Raymond and Cecile’s mirthmaking, having to constantly remind each other that they’re having fun.

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Exteriors are what matter. Early on Raymond’s chirpy French girlfriend Elsa (a hilarious Mylene Demongeot) gets badly sunburned, and this reminder of physical deterioration makes Elsa not long for Raymond’s world. Soon he ignores her for the regal Anne. Preminger emphasizes the openings and closures in their Riviera cottage, where windows, doors and hallways are made visible in every shot, intimating the depths beneath the skin that Raymond and Cecile fear to tread. They are almost always outside, whether on the beach or out on the town.

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The first assistant director Serge Friedman recalled that Preminger did not have the shot choreography planned out, but would have “to do a lot of thinking before he could find the right place.” One of the most memorable shots utlilizes the full ‘Scope frame at a dinner party. A maid is arranged in the  far left edge foreground, secretly chugging a beer behind the bar, while Raymond and his clan are grouped to the right, in the middle distance, nattering on about a casino. Their total obliviousness to the world around them is encapsulated in that slyly funny frame.  Chris Fujiwara, in his Preminger study The World and its Double, writes that “the floor of the set was treated with gelatin to allow the camera to move as freely as possible”, regardless of where he chose to move it. His method is improvisatory, but the result is controlled and structured – even Elsa’s skin troubles are rhymed in the devastating final shot, when Cecile rubs in face cream to preserve her beauty, which is all she has left.

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Another film of deceptive surfaces is John Carpenter’s They Live (1988),  now out on Blu-Ray from Shout! FactoryA scathing  sci-fi satire of Reagan-era America, Carpenter uses the CinemaScope-equivalent aspect ratio (2.35:1) make his compositions as herd-like as the zombified consumer society he is depicting, of crowds and lines and glimmering store lights. The hero in this debased trickle down society is, appropriately enough, played by mulleted (and likely roided) pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. An unemployed drifter who still believes in the American dream, he is introduced as a hero from a Western, dropped off by a train in a dynamic diagonal composition, as did Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.

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He realizes the truth upon donning some magic shades, which reveal a B&W world of alien brainwashing. Billboards scream OBEY and WATCH TV, hidden messages that are also beamed through TV screens to lull the populace into consumer comas. As with Bonjour, the sober B&W represents brute reality, and color the world of exteriors. Carpenter’s project is not one of subtlety, but a kind of satiric shock and awe. Piper’s pal, played by Keith David, is introduced behind a line of iron rebar, and they live in a smoggy abandoned lot across from a church.  They Live is a proto-Occupy Wall Street in its emphasis on extreme income inequality, visualized in alternating rows – of Piper and David’s construction sites and the aliens’ tuxedoed gentry imbibing champagne at a gala dinner.

Released today on Blu-ray from Olive Films, Twilight’s Last Gleaming may be even more timely in its visualization of image overload. A paranoid political thriller still haunted by the death toll of Vietnam, it places Burt Lancaster as a dissident Army vet who breaks into and gains control of a nuclear missile silo. Unless President Charles Durning releases a secret National Security Council memo to the public that reveals the cynical reasoning behind the war, Lancaster will fire the nukes.  A furious film, director Robert Aldrich finds an equally furious style. Instead of parallel editing between the White House, Richard Widmark’s hawkish general (modeled after Curtis LeMay) and the silo, Aldrich uses an increasingly complicated series of split screens (of two and four), in which actions unspool simultaneously, as if you are watching the live feed from the President’s Situation Room. The footage of Durning sitting with his cabinet (which includes an avuncular Melvyn Douglas and a sepulchral Joseph Cotten) as they watch a special forces raid on the silo recalls the photograph of Obama’s team watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden. Or maybe it’s the first found footage movie, a scarier version of The Blair Witch Project in which the bogeyman isn’t one pissed off ghost but the entire social and political system in which we live and work.


August 14, 2012

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In the numerous attempts to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death, 20th Century Fox has made the most welcome one, releasing impeccably restored editions of seven of her films in the “Forever Marilyn” Blu-Ray box set. Also available individually, these discs are a striking reminder that Monroe was not simply a mass-produced fetish toy, but an idiosyncratic artist who keenly played off of, and frequently subverted, the dumb-blonde characters she was saddled with. It includes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How To Marry A Millionaire, River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and The Misfits. While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes remains an ebulliently entertaining treatise on female friendship, the revelation for me was Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954), a rather melancholy Western (with the saddest theme song in history), in which she plays her woman of questionable virtue with a daring opacity, causing Darryl Zanuck to demand re-shoots to clarify her character’s motivations.

River of No Return was originally conceived by screenwriter Louis Lantz as a Western remake of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. It concerns a man, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) whose horse and gun are stolen by gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun). Unable to work on or defend his farm, Calder and his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) search the dangerous countryside for the thief. As Chris Fujiwara reports in his meticulously researched critical biography of Preminger, The World And Its Double, Lettig’s treatment was heavily revised by Frank Fenton, brought in by young Fox producer Stanley Rubin. They fleshed out Calder’s backstory, making him an ex-con recently released from prison on a murder charge. Weston was also given a saloon singer fiancee, Kay, to be played by Monroe. After the theft, Kay is embarrassed by Weston’s actions and stays behind with Matt and Mark,  but her ultimate loyalties are left ambiguously undefined.

Fox executive Darryl Zanuck intended the film to be a garish spectacle that would show off Monroe and the new CinemaScope process, writing in a memo that he wanted it to “stand an audience on its ear.” Otto Preminger did not entirely deliver the thrills Zanuck sought, so Jean Negulesco was brought on to film reshoots, including the sexually suggestive scenes in which Mitchum massages, and later violently wrestles with, Monroe.

Preminger was brought late into the production, after the screenplay and much of the cast were finalized. Used to being producer/director on his films, and having just finished The Moon Is Blue, doing work for hire was a new and fraught experience for him. It was also the first film that he shot in CinemaScope, which he adapted to with a remarkable ease. Working with cinematographer Joseph La Shelle, Preminger composed images for the widescreen frame, which was perfect for capturing the horizontal lines of the pseudonymous river (shot in Alberta, Canada). He also instinctively understood that the wider frame was inimical to quick pans and editing, so he often uses depth to stage multiple actions in one shot. At the time Andre Bazin wrote that River of No Return was an exemplar of CinemaScope filmmaking, that it was one of the first films in which “the format really added something important to the mise en scene.”

This can be seen to an offhandedly brilliant effect in an early shot where Mitchum is strolling through a gold rush town, interrogating a priest about the whereabouts of his son, whom he is picking up. The priest laments that he came West as a missionary to convert Native Americans, but that he thinks white folk need him more now. Gold fever has corrupted his town. In the background Preminger presents nature as another force luring people into the muck. There is a carriage fording the river behind Mitchum, loaded up with women. It gets stuck in the mud,  and one of the ladies tumbles into the water before it reaches shore. This is a comic variation on the dangers the river will later present to Calder and to Kay. Background is comedy, foreground is tragedy.

As easily as Preminger adapted to CinemaScope, the same can’t be said regarding his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, who brought along her very vocal acting coach Natasha Lytess. Fujiwara details Preminger’s growing irritation with Lytess’ constant interruptions, until he finally banned her from the set. She would later return due to Zanuck’s intervention. But regardless of the tension off the set, Monroe is teasingly enigmatic in the film, emphasizing Kay as a performer. She appears warm toward Mark, but there is a coldness in her tone that implies it could be an act, as she is still sworn to marry Weston. She is the perfect foil for Mitchum’s brooding introvert – who repeatedly tells Kay and his son that they are likely to die on their journey. They are like two stubborn mules who kick each other enough until they realize they both like it.

Zanuck did not approve of the ambiguous nature of Kay and Calder’s motivations, writing in a memo that “our picture is inarticulate. We have got to stop guessing about these relationships. Once and for all, we want to lay it on the line so there can be no doubt or confusion as to what our people mean and how they feel.” Three new scenes were shot, including the two sexually suggestive ones previously mentioned, and another with Monroe and Rory Calhoun that would clarify their intent to marry.

Regardless of these additions, Preminger’s film remains intriguingly opaque, the characters’ moral reversals seemingly coming with the wind more than from some inner will. In the glorious CinemaScope landscapes, it is the world that seems to determine the action, and not the other way around, as Calder and Kay are tossed to and fro along the riverbank. It is even the river that provides the most famous symbolic moment in the film – when Kay’s suitcase escapes in the water as Weston carries her to the shore, and onto Calder’s farm. Her final ties to civilization are carried away by the current, and Mitchum’s (gun and horse) are forcibly removed by Weston. They are forced to find a new life, re-shaped and re-directed by the river’s ceaseless flow.