Tribute to Otto Preminger 

Otto Preminger


“It is part of my philosophy not to worry about what other people think of me.”

Otto Preminger, one of the boldest personalities of 20th century American filmmaking, was also one of the most controversial. The opinions of his cooperators ranged from adoration to tremulous wariness and outright contempt. “This man who could be such a bully on the set, and who could destroy people, would then be a charming, witty companion at dinner who knew the best wines and caviar,” remembered actress Deborah Kerr. For his part, Leon Uris’s exasperation with the director concerned their problematic work together on the film adaptation of his best-selling novel Exodus: “Otto was a terrorist – he’s Arafat, a Nazi, Saddam Hussein – who never knew the difference between lying and not lying.” Frank Sinatra, however, star of The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), had nothing but words of admiration for Preminger (“Otto was so smart in every possible way”).

Yet not even those who opposed the unyielding man’s imperious nature, which scoffed at the word compromise, could deny the importance of a series of progressive decisions and positions that led him to broach a number of taboo themes, thereby significantly influencing the development of the American film industry. The first ever independent producer working with autonomy in the Hollywood system, Preminger emerged victorious from a variety of clashes with the censors, and with the gusto of the challenge-inclined he successfully fought against racial, sexual, and other prejudices. He offered powerful, career-launching roles to well-known actors such as Ben Gazzara and Kim Novak, and gave their much admired colleague William Holden a share in the profits as compensation for a salary cut – the first producer to do so. He brought Jean Seberg to the silver screen, and she went on to become the grand muse of the French Nouvelle Vague. He also invited graphic designer Saul Bass to create original title sequences. And by listing Dalton Trumbo’s real name in the credits he de facto rehabilitated the outstanding screenwriter, a victim of McCarthyism long forced to work under a pseudonym after headlining the Hollywood blacklist.

Director, producer, actor, and screenwriter Otto Preminger was born December 5, 1905 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Wiznitz (today Vyzhnytsia in western Ukraine) into a well-situated Eastern European Jewish family. A year after the outbreak of the First World War, his father was offered the post of chief state prosecutor, and the Premingers relocated to Vienna where young Otto naturally passed himself off as a native of the monarchy’s grandest city. Although the confident young man followed his father into law and gained a degree, he was already devoted to the world of theater. He began his acting career at 16 and a year later came under the wing of the renowned Max Reinhardt. During the next decade, Preminger became one of the key personalities of the Viennese theater scene – from acting he moved on to direction and served as artistic director to two theater companies. 

Preminger first flirted with filmmaking in 1931 when he was offered the job of directing The Great Love (Die grosse Liebe); eventually, however, he repudiated the melodrama as a youthful aberration. But three years later Joe Schenck, cofounder of a new studio lot dubbed Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, invited him to Hollywood; Preminger welcomed the invitation and accepted without hesitation, all the while cognizant of the threat kindled by a fellow Austrian in neighboring Germany.

The charismatic man with the shining pate belonged to a group of European directors, who, in the 1920s (F. W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Curtiz) and 1930s (Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Fritz Lang, and others), headed overseas for a variety of reasons and in the following decades fundamentally influenced the character of local film production. By playing with the rules of various genres they created crucial works within an evolving industry that was just warming to the idea of film as art. The outstanding noir picture Laura (1944) dominates Preminger’s studio career, a film whose aura of mystery transcends the revelation of its plotline: a police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating. An unsentimental pragmatist, Preminger realized over the course of his career the importance of finding a sound starting point (e.g. popular literary work) for a script he would then use to create intriguing and charismatic characters that defy simple characterization. He employed artful provocation wherever he could, although without risking misinterpretation by mass audiences. Although they did not achieve Laura’s stature, Daisy Kenyon (1947), Whirlpool (1949), and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) nevertheless confirmed Preminger’s reputation as a skilled directing craftsman who never went over budget or beyond schedule.

For the filmmaker himself, however, his comfortable if limiting position as a director under studio contract started to chafe. He was one of the first to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the Paramount antitrust case, a revolutionary event in the history of the Hollywood studio system. In 1948 the United States Supreme Court ruled against the big studios, barring them henceforth from controlling movie theaters in addition to production and distribution. The effect of the ruling was to increase the chances of an independent producer reaching audiences with a movie that had been shot beyond the control of the Dream Factory’s key players. With his adaptation of the theater play The Moon Is Blue (1953) Preminger entered the history of film not only as one of the first “indie” directors and producers but also as an unflinching fighter against both hypocrisy and the system of censorship, whose antiquated rigidity he turned upon itself to promote his own work. In the case of this rather wry romantic comedy, the director’s indulgent approach to seduction and out-of-wedlock sex twisted the knickers of the morality police, while in the musical Carmen Jones (1954), a filmed version of Bizet’s famed opera, Preminger shocked with his decision to cast a black woman as the story’s assertive and self-confident heroine (played by Dorothy Dandridge, the first female African-American movie star in Hollywood history). Preminger’s inaugural trio of independent films was rounded out by another controversial creation, the well-known drama The Man with the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra as a junkie trying to kick heroin.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, Preminger’s career as a director and producer entered what is doubtless its most successful and noteworthy period. Godard and Truffaut – soon to exchange their caustic pens for handheld cameras – praised him for faithfully capturing the ambience of the French Riviera in Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and, especially, for discovering their ideal cinematic goddess – the ethereal Jean Seberg. At the height of his career Preminger turned an almost ceremonial admiration for the procedures of American institutions into two riveting on-location dramas staged, as was his wont, in typical unsentimental fashion: Anatomy of a Murder (1959 – the court system) and Advise & Consent (1962 – the hierarchy of power in the Senate and the principles of its operation). Clearly influenced by his formative experience in the theater, Preminger second-tiered sophisticated shot sequence editing in favor of camerawork whose fluid movements, rife with significance, carefully scanned the scene and convincingly positioned the characters within it. Tirelessly seeking intriguing stories, the filmmaker drew upon novels mainly, transforming them into motion pictures that betrayed a touch of the spectacular without straying from a carefully constructed narrative that kept viewers’ eyes glued to the screen (Exodus, 1960; In Harm’s Way, 1965).

While film historians and critics puzzle over the burning question of why the quality of Preminger’s work stagnated in the final decade of his creative career, with movies like Skidoo (1968), Rosebud (1975), and The Human Factor (1979 – Tom Stoppard script based on Graham Greene novel) failing to attain the level of his many unforgettable titles, the fact remains that three solid decades in the history of American film would have been poorer and drabber without his impressive energy (not to mention his achievements as an actor, including the commandant of the Nazi POW camp in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) and the fearsome Mr. Freeze from the 1960s American TV show “Batman”). A director with the disposition of a producer, Preminger purposefully crafted a distinctive media persona (even featuring, for example, in trailers to his own films) and lavished his cinematic creations, just like his wife and children, with unconditional luxury, attention, and love.

Karel Och

  • Advise & Consent Rada a souhlas / Advise & Consent
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    USA, 1962, 139 min

    A fundamental film on the American political system, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, takes a fascinating plunge into the world of intrigue and manipulation within the United States Senate. Will Secretary of State nominee Mr. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) be confirmed over the calculated objections of Southern Senator Cooley (Charles Laughton) and his gang?

  • Anatomy of a Murder Anatomie vraždy / Anatomy of a Murder
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    USA, 1959, 160 min

    At the center of this renowned courtroom drama, which irked censors for the use of explicit words such as “rape” and “sperm,” is a small-town lawyer hired by an attractive young woman to defend her husband, a U.S. Army lieutenant, accused of shooting the local bar owner who allegedly raped and beat her. James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, and George C. Scott star in one of Preminger’s most famous pictures, the recipient of seven Oscar nominations.

  • Bonjour Tristesse Dobrý den, smutku / Bonjour Tristesse
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    USA, United Kingdom, 1958, 94 min

    In his adaptation of the Françoise Sagan bestseller, which won Preminger enthusiastic praise from the adherents of the French New Wave, Jean Seberg plays the frivolous Cécile, who spends the summer on the French Riviera with her aging playboy father (David Niven) in conspiratorial intimacy. But with the arrival of old family friend Anne (Deborah Kerr), things start getting out of hand.

  • Exodus Exodus / Exodus
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    USA, 1960, 208 min

    Based on the novel of the same name by Leon Uris, this renowned cinematic epic investigates the controversial circumstances of the creation of the State of Israel by means of a viewer-friendly and critically-respected mix of poignant emotion, stirring action, high politics, and an enticing account of fundamental historical moments in the 20th century.

  • Laura Laura / Laura
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    USA, 1944, 88 min

    Ethereal beauty Laura, cool detective Mark, prominent journalist of effete manners Waldo, and Laura’s simpleton fiancé Shelby are the protagonists of a thrilling drama that goes beyond the traditional murder case drawn from the annals of crime, resembling instead a mystery-imbued hallucination that is far from reality. Preminger’s first big success is considered an essential noir film.

  • The Man with the Golden Arm Muž se zlatou paží / The Man with the Golden Arm
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    USA, 1955, 119 min

    In the role of a lifetime, Frank Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, a much sought-after poker dealer who wants to start over after a stint in the joint. Another installment in the battle Preminger waged against the censors, in this instance an exceptionally bold (for its time) depiction of drug addiction.

  • The Moon Is Blue Měsíc je modrý / The Moon Is Blue
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    USA, 1953, 99 min

    This sparkling and witty romantic comedy, Preminger’s vehicle for becoming one of Hollywood’s first independent directors and producers, presents an adorable acting novice (Maggie McNamara) caught between two men with different intentions (William Holden and David Niven). The first in a series of highly publicized conflicts Preminger waged against the guardians of morality, who reproached his scandalously frivolous use of words like “virgin,” “seduce,” and “pregnant.”

  • Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker Preminger: Anatomie filmaře / Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker
    Directed by: Valerie A. Robins
    Austria, USA, 1991, 115 min

    A classically conceived and informationally rich portrait of one of America’s essential 20th century filmmakers. Narrated by Preminger’s appreciative acting standby Burgess Meredith, the controversial gentleman of rather kingly (over)bearing is discussed with admiration by filmmakers and actors, including James Stewart, George C. Scott, Deborah Kerr, and Frank Sinatra.


© 2024 FILM SERVIS FESTIVAL KARLOVY VARY, a.s. [email protected] +420 221 411 011 All contacts

AccommodationsAccommodations Festival Pass, tickets, reservationsFestival Pass, tickets
HistoryHistory ContactsContacts
Archive of filmsArchive of films KVIFF TalksKVIFF Talks
Industry Days Programme 2021Industry Days Programme KVIFF Eastern PromisesKVIFF Eastern Promises
VideogalleryVideogallery PhotogalleryPhotogallery
ContactsContacts Posters of the 57th KV IFFPosters of the 57th KV IFF
HistoryHistory Festival GuideFestival Guide