Otto Preminger, so beloved of Cahiers du cinéma in the late 1950s, has slipped out of the pantheon of American directors in recent decades. The final phase of his career, although prolific, yielded barely a film still discussed by film buffs today. And yet, in his heyday, Preminger embodied all the characteristics of the immigrant filmmaker embraced by Hollywood. Despite a prickly relationship with Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, Preminger managed to assert himself as the director of such distinctive movies as Laura (1944), Whirlpool (1949), and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). An ego as large as his, however, could not slumber beneath the roof of any one studio, and by the early 1950s he had become an independent producer, going on to release controversial dramas like The Moon Is Blue, The Man with the Golden Arm, Saint Joan, and Anatomy of a Murder through United Artists and Columbia. Actors often quaked at the prospect of working under Preminger, not just because of his legendary explosions of fury on the set but because he so relished performing in front of the camera himself. Who can forget his imperious portrayal of the Nazi commandant in Billy Wilder’s 1953 black comedy Stalag 17, donning his riding boots whenever he makes a call to his Berlin HQ?
I met Otto in 1970, in his suite of offices at the top of the Columbia Building on Fifth Avenue in New York. As I entered, he was sitting at a vast desk that seemed about a mile away across the petrol blue shag carpet. I was soon to publish a book about his career, written by Gerald Pratley, the Canadian broadcaster and journalist, who had frequently visited Preminger on locations and earned his trust. Now I had come to ask for help with obtaining illustrations for the book. “Listen,” he barked in his not unfriendly Austrian accent. “I don’t mind vot you say about my films. But if you toucha my vife or my kids—I kill you!” With that caveat out of the way, he became most cordial, and suggested we go to lunch. As we entered the elevator, he drew a small electric razor from the pocket of his blazer and ran it over his domed head to ensure that no fuzz would mar the elegance of his image.
On my next trip to New York, Otto invited me to dinner at his Manhattan town house, along with Gerald and a young David Steinberg, then at the height of his fame as a stand-up comic. As I admired a Picasso (or was it a Gauguin?), the painting began to tilt outward, and then upward, to reveal a beaming Otto at his wet bar behind the wall. Clearly delighted with our astonishment, he mixed drinks for everyone. After dinner, we proceeded upstairs to his custom-built movie theater. Paramount had sent him a 35 mm print of a new feature (I forget the title), and Otto sat beside a discreet console, pushing buttons to open the curtains, dim the lights, and alert the projectionist to start the movie. At the end of the evening, a little the braver for booze, I asked him if life had become difficult in the years since he had enjoyed a box-office hit. “Listen,” he intoned, “early on I discovered that in order to have some freedom I had to become my own producer. And if you are your own producer, you get a fee irrespective of what happens at the box office.”
He offered to get Saul Bass to furnish us with versions of the color logos he had created for some of his most famous productions, so that we could use them on the cover of Gerald’s book. A month or so later, I was stunned when a courier staggered in to our London office with a massive piece of artwork, mounted on what appeared to be polystyrene and featuring some of these designs. Bass had also just created a font for Preminger’s name, with each capital letter slit discreetly from top to bottom, and this became an emblem close to Preminger’s heart, and one that adorned the spotless white door of the office on Fifth Avenue.
I last saw Otto at the Tehran Film Festival in 1973. He was checking in to the Hilton, and I suddenly heard him shout, “Vair is my sveet?” The concierge explained that all the suites in the hotel were occupied—apart from one, and that was reserved. “Who has zat?” asked Preminger. “Buster Keaton,” replied the concierge. At this, Preminger seemed ready to explode. “Buster Keaton,” he said dismissively, “has been dead for years!”
The concierge, imperturbable, gestured to a poster on the wall behind him. “There, you see, sir, the Buster Keaton retrospective is taking place this week.” Preminger, stunned, paused and then said firmly but not harshly: “Listen carefully. I am going to the restaurant to have some caviar. If my sveet is not ready ven I return, I vill fly back to New York.”
During the evening, I saw Preminger enjoying what appeared to be a relaxed meal with colleagues. I asked Hagir Daryoush, the director of the festival, how he had resolved the problem. He shrugged and said with a smile: “I simply told the concierge that if the suite was not ready in ten minutes, he would be in chains.”
This incident underlines the state of terror that permeated every level of the shah’s Iran, but it also shows how Preminger had managed to get his way in life. He had learned from Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox, and he had realized that to survive in Hollywood one had to have an iron will and an unquenchable optimism. Unlike his mentor, Otto listened to other people when he respected them. His tagline might well have been “Don’t say no until I’ve finished talking.”
Peter Cowie has written more than thirty books on film and was the founding editor of the annual International Film Guide. He was international publishing director of Variety throughout the 1990s and now consults for the Berlin and Venice film festivals, and he is a longtime contributor of commentaries, supplements, and essays to the Criterion Collection.
This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.