Our Oct. 17 blog about Erich von Stroheim brought to mind another film director of Austrian descent who occasionally acted before the cameras as well, the indomitable Otto Preminger.
Fans of vintage movies will recall that he often portrayed a Nazi. His most famous role is probably that of the camp commandant opposite William Holden in Billy Wilder’s 1953 World War II POW adventure, Stalag 17. (Preminger may have been in the cast but the Oscar went to costar Holden.)
Unlike von Stroheim, whose directing career went bust (because he flouted all studio rules about movie lengths and budgets) and who had to act to earn a living, Preminger’s career as a director (an occasional producer at 20th Century Fox) flourished, and in later years he only acted as a lark.
His most famous films are 1944’s Laura costarring Dana Andrews and the incomparable Gene Tierney, 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm, (with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak –pictured below) and 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder starring James Stewart (backed by an extraordinary musical score by Duke Ellington). He was nominated for Best Director twice but never won a Oscar.
His reputation (amply justified) was that of a bully on the set, one prone to throw tantrums. Jean Seberg, the corn-fed 17-year-old unknown from Marshalltown, Iowa, was picked by Preminger out of a field of some 18,000 prospects to play the title role of Joan of Arc in the director’s 1957 costume drama, Saint Joan. It was billed as the biggest talent search since the quest for Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With The Wind.
Seberg’s screen test for the role — seen by us years later — amply demonstrated that Jean, who pinpointed her age at the time (1956) as 17 years and 11 months, was fresh-faced and gorgeous, an obvious choice for the part of the saintly “Maid of Orleans,” a French naif of heroic accomplishments done in by ruthlessly amoral 15th century aristocrats.
When the off-camera voice of Preminger asked Seberg, “do you want to be an actress,” she earnestly replied, “very badly.”
Well, “badly” sums up how things went with the teenage actress during the making Saint Joan under the infamously dictatorial Otto. She sustained continual verbal abuse, and was almost incinerated in the film’s all-too-realistic burning at the stake climax.
Years later, Seberg told a French interviewer that the whole experience permanently damaged her. She compared Preminger to a “tank, who crushes people and terrifies them. He yells and shouts and insults you. Bit by bit I drew back inside myself like a turtle.”
Despite this, Seberg again wound up under Preminger’s direction in the 1958 screen version of French writer Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), playing the spoiled, worldly-beyond-her-years daughter of playboy father (David Niven). The character she played in Preminger’s film (much admired by the French Cahiers du Cinema crowd) became Seberg’s spoiled and aimless girlfriend of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s signature New Wave outing, 1960’s Breathless.
A lesser-known Preminger title worth checking out is his 1951 noirish suspense drama with Linda Darnell, The 13th Letter, in which Charles Boyer portrays a revered doctor at a French Canadian hospital who is not what he seems.
Preminger’s last feature was 1979’s The Human Factor, based on the Graham Greene novel. Frank in his former life as a trade journalist caught up with Preminger at that time for an interview in a New York City hotel. Formidable Otto was in his mid-70’s by then (he was born in 1905) and had mellowed. Still, before the interview began, Preminger — ever the director — demanded that his inquisitor adjust his seat on the sofa to better capture a late afternoon light.
Preminger died in 1986, at the age of 80. He was one tough nut, but as long as his films were successful (unlike von Strohiem’s) his “eccentricities” were tolerated, unlike von Strohiem’s.