Preminger through the eyes of Pierre Rissient
After Ernst Lubitsch (2010) and Vincente Minelli (2011), the Locarno Film Festival embraces for its traditional retrospective the work of another major director from the Hollywood Golden Age: Otto Preminger. His masterpiece Laura (1944) has played a significant role in many cinephile’s upbringing. But not only, Pierre Rissient holds Whirlpool (1949) as one of the two films that sparked his passion for cinema. The second being Night in the City by Jules Dassin (1950)
Pierre Rissient, man of cinema (see Todd McCarthy’s eponymous documentary – 2007) aka filmmaker, film festival advisor, programmer and friend of many many great directors, was in Locarno to present some of Preminger’s films. Among which Whirlpool.
“This film defines cinema in the sense that it’s mainly about the art of the director, of his mise en scène. And Preminger was one of the few to master this, he was no illustrator of theatrical or literary themes. He was a proper cinematographic film maker”, insists Pierre Rissient.
Even tough Otto Preminger’s artistic career started in Vienna’s theatre scene and flourished also on Broadway when Preminger settled in New York (1936), the French film expert strongly believes Preminger was entrusted with a rare gift: “he had the eye for the job. Cinema is all about the lens you use, the distance between the camera and the actors. This determines the weight given to the space and air around the actors and also how movement is organized within the frame. Otto Preminger is one of the few to grasp these fundemantal technical and aesthetic elements”, say Pierre Rissient
Like many other film historians and critics, Pierre Rissient acknowledges that Preminger’s aura, built on the critical and commercial success of Laura and following other gems such as Angel Face (1952), River of no return (1954), Saint Joan (1957), Anatomy of a murder (1959) and many more, weakened after Hurry Sundown (1967). “Indeed afterwards, his films were not as good”, admits timidly Pierre Rissient who remembers that in the fifties and sixties French critics at Les Cahiers du cinema were among the only ones to appreciate Preminger’s command of mise en scène.
Which is not to say Hollywood was not dazzled by the director’s aura. “There it was more about his audacity and energy as an independent producer”, remembers Rissient. As of 1953 and The Moon is Blue Otto Preminger was the sole director and producer of his feature films… which doesn’t mean the studios were not involved. “They were financial partners, explains Pierre Rissient. But Preminger kept the overriding control on the artistic side of his productions”. And he decided on how the money was spent. Otto Preminger drew from this freedom and independence a stinging and humorous ability to tackle the moral and political taboos of his times.
Marc MenichiniMarc Menichini