Pre-Modernist Preminger

Along with “Laura,” “Anatomy of a Murder” has long been one of Otto Preminger’s most frequently revived films, perhaps because its confidently naturalistic style (unlike, to chose a random example, “Skidoo!”) requires no adjustment from the casual viewer. Yet, as Criterion’s excellent new Blu-ray edition of “Murder” makes clear, it is among Preminger’s most subversive works, a film that lovingly documents the American legal system while suggesting that truth will always remain elusive and justice a remote ideal. The enigma at its core anticipates the self-conscious modernism of Michelanglo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” by a year. I give it another look in this week’s New York Times column, along with another interesting revelation, “La Visita,” from the neglected Italian director Antonio Pietrangeli (“Adua and Her Friends”).

Above is the Polish poster for “Anatomy,” courtesy of Heritage Auctions — the only paper for the film I could find that didn’t use the famous Saul Bass design.

78 comments to Pre-Modernist Preminger

  • Alex

    An interesting type of ending is the ending that totally redefines a film, as do the endings to

    –SPOILER ALERT?–

    THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE ROMANTIC ENGLISH WOMAN, not to speak of such many less dramatic instances Donalsson’s SPECIES, De Palma’s CARRIE and PSYCHO).

    Many such endingS open things up.

  • Oliver_C

    David Mamet muses about such ‘revolutionary reconfiguring’ at the very end (appropriately enough) of his House of Games DVD commentary track, citing The Sixth Sense.

    Didn’t Shyamalan get the idea from Carnival of Souls, though..?

  • Mr. Kerr, I enjoyed your piece on *Anatomy*. Wondered if you knew that the
    prosecuting attorney was played by Eve Arden’s husband, Brooks West? As far
    as I know he never worked with her again in films though I worked with them
    on stage ( *Natural Ingredients* by Lee Thuna, directed by Arthur Storch) )
    and became a friend of theirs toward the end of their lives. They were a
    fine pair and Brooks really was a house husband who took care of her
    without too much resistance though after a drink or two, would start to get
    snippy and Eve would say, “OK Brooksey, time to go home!”
    And yes, *Our Miss Brooks* was deliberately named after Brooks West. He was also a painter who liked to paint old barns as his subject. Their son is a writer and lives in Los Angeles.

  • Brian Dauth

    MY FAIR LADY — the ending of which Dave K. has declared “impeccable.” In fact, MFL is a film that begins in medias res and ends on an anticlimax — so it is open-ended on both ends.

  • Philip Smith

    Speaking of Preminger, I just watched the new Olive Films DVD release of “Hurry Sundown.” Is it my eyes, or is the anamorphic transfer slightly stretched wide? Maddening.

  • Alex

    Doesn’t MFL end with Higgins saying, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”?

    That could be taken as open ended –Higgins’ snobbish oppression is not over. Or it could be taken as a nice affirmation of the resolution of Eliza’s classist opressions at the hands of Higgins via (Victorian) marriage –Higgins’ bountiful paternalist assistance aside. (Part of the marital end to class oppression is formalization of sexual opression.)

    I always took that as a very tidy ending, albeit one qualified as well as accented by a cautionary note.

    A little like the end of “Marnie” where Mark and Marnie’s marital union is affirmed by Marnie quip to the effect that marriage is better than prison.

  • Oliver_C

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day and Happy Corbett–Fitzsimmons Fight Day, for it was on this day, 115 years ago, that the oft-overlooked Enoch Rector filmed a Nevada boxing match in its entirety, running well over an hour, and so directed cinema’s first feature. Rector himself went on a long time (appropriately enough), living into his 90s before passing in 1957.

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert Klein used to have a joke; “George Washington, the father of our country. If he were alive today I’m sure he would be proud to know that we now celebrate his birthday with a mattress sale.”

    Similarly, St. Patrick’s Day is now the pretext for the twentysomething singles to start their Saturday night beer party in the afternoon al fresco. With green clothing of course.

    The fight which Rector filmed of course is the one in which James J. Corbett lost his heavyweight title, Unfortunately, there is no sequence where Corbett presents Fitzsimmons with the championship belt after the fight.

  • Robert Garrick

    Thanks to film, newsreels, and public demand, we have an astonishingly good record of major boxing matches from up to a century ago. If you want to watch Jack Johnson versus Jess Willard (1915) it’s available, in remarkably good quality. Same with Dempsey v Firpo (1923), and dozens of other important fights from the early days of film.

    There’s no complete footage of the first Super Bowl, from the 1960s, and it’s tough to find complete copies of important baseball, football, or basketball games from earlier than about 1980, though there are exceptions here and there. When you do find an early football game on ESPN Classic (for example), the quality is often bad.

    But early boxing–really early boxing–looks great, because the big matches were generally filmed, from start to finish.

    It’s the same reason we’ve been watching “I Love Lucy” for all these years.

  • An informative books is FIGHT PICTURES by Dan Streible.
    This is an account of how important boxing pictures were to early cinema and its development.
    Dave Kehr recommended it on this blog – which is where I heard about it.
    *
    Think Shaw wrote PYGMALION so that it would have an open ending, leaving the audience discussing later whether Eliza goes off with Prof Higgins or young Freddie.
    Shaw’s own choice: he thinks Eliza will marry Freddie.
    This is not a bad idea. It might not be romantic. But Freddie might be a much more suitable husband.
    Beside, he can really sing ON THE STREET WHRE YOU LIVE :)

  • David Cohen

    One of the most famous omissions in sports history: Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, 50 years ago this month. There’s no footage – and only a partial copy of the radio telecast.

  • Robert Garrick

    Let me combine the recent topics on this thread by noting that “Body and Soul” (1947) ends with John Garfield defying the gangsters who wanted him to throw his fight. Then he walks past them, mockingly asking “What are you going to do, kill me”?

    Well, yeah, as a matter of fact I imagine they’re thinking of doing just that. Or something pretty close. But we never find out, because the film is over.

  • Robert Garrick

    I should add that “Fight Pictures” looks terrific. I had not been aware of it, but it’s already on its way here from Amazon. I am amazed that such a book exists.

  • Barry Putterman

    Now that it has come up, I must say that I’ve always thought that BODY AND SOUL had just about the most pathetic excuse for an ending that any otherwise relatively decent movie ever could boast. My memory of Garfield’s line is ; “What are you gonna do, kill me? Everybody dies.” And then he walks away with a wise guy smirk as if this remark constituted some kind of one-upsmanship triumph on his part.

    Of course, the previous year Garfield had made a film called NOBODY LIVES FOREVER. Which leads me to wonder what exactly the joke is, and who is supposed to be in on it.

  • Larry Kart

    Not on topic, but the other night I was watching “Pickup on South Street” again and noticed for the first time that about three times in the movie (during romantic or semi-romantic encounters between Jean Peters and Widmark) composer Lionel Newman uses the melody of the haunting song “Again” that he wrote (words by Dorchas Cochran) for Ida Lupino to sing in “Road House,” in which of course Widmark appears. Quite effective, as is Newman’s agitated, “urban jazzy” score for “South Street” itself, with its prominent part for tenor saxophone. I’d love to know who was playing there.

  • Alex Hicks

    Robert Garrick,

    Garfield’s courage at the end of “Body and Soul” (1947) is so upbeat, as well as moving, that I think we’re meant to be left with a message of hope that he’ll somehow tough or luck it the mob threat. I don’t think Rossen’s intention is to be open ended, though perhaps he’d have been more rational had it been so. (After all, lefty Rossen “knew” that the revolutionary only comes close to winning when he’s nothing to lose: you gotta believe.)

    Could be a directorial oversight, like Scorsese art the end of “Taxi Driver” being so caught up in the early 1970s sway of of “silent majority” reaction that he overlooks the implausibility of Travis getting off after his killing rampage.

    Like “Taxi Driver,”“Body and Soul” is a great film, its uninnovative classical style and its utterly stereotyopical scenes of Garfield’s Ma and Pa and their store aside.

  • Barry Putterman

    On the other hand, lefty Rossen cooperated with HUAC. So you gotta believe that he felt that he had something to lose. Had FORCE OF EVIL ended with such a similar message of hope, we would all be inspired to spend our money on lottery tickets today.

  • Brad Stevens

    According to Abraham Polonsky, Rossen shot an ending for BODY AND SOUL in which Garfied’s character is killed, but eventually decided not to use it.

  • Larry Kart

    Rossen’s script for the delirious and deliriously allegorical “Desert Fury” is IMO the most revealing film portrait there is of the thinking/ideology/fantasies, etc. of the pre-Hollywood Ten (pre- by only a short stretch of time, I believe) Hollywood CPUSA. The most revealing portrait period is the chapter in Christina Stead’s novel “I’m Dying Laughing” in which characters based on Ruth McKenny (“My Sister Eileen”) and her husband, both CPUSA members and screenwriters. are subjected to a CPUSA show trial at an elegant home in the Hollywood Hills circa 1945 at the hands of character based on party guru-screenwriter John Howard Lawson because they are, you should pardon the expression, Left Deviationists. The icing on the cake comes when McKenny and her husband, who are trying to adopt an adolescent girl to whom they are devoted, are told that by the assembled film industry figures that some of them will testify falsely to the adoption authorities that the couple have sexually abused the girl. In spirit — and this owes much to Stead’s artistry — we feel that we are only a few steps removed from the basement of Lubyanka Prison.

  • David Cohen

    The Onion’s AV club seems to have gotten in the spirit of our recent discussion:
    http://www.avclub.com/articles/so-the-lady-or-the-tiger-28-stories-that-make-the,70991/

    They illustrate it with last year’s TAKE SHELTER, which seems like a great choice.

  • Barry, the joke is on the man Garfield’s boxer says it too, Mr Roberts. “Everybody dies.” has been Mr Roberts favourite phrase in the film, and now it gets thrown back in his face. But yes, the ending is horrible. Not that he says the line and walks away but the close-up and music, which makes it preposterously upbeat.

    Brad, which ending had Polonsky written?

    I find BODY AND SOUL uneven, but it has a wonderful locker room poetry to it, and the sequences with boxing and from pool halls are amazing. Here Rossen is really in his element. So I really like the film a lot. In addition Hazel Brooks is very attractive, not to say smoking hot. The credits are impressive too. Besides Rossen, Polonsky and James Wong Howe Robert Parrish was editor and Robert Aldrich assistant director. Still, it can’t compete with THE HUSTLER or LILITH (or FORCE OF EVIL for that matter, but then few films can).

  • Robert Garrick

    I am not as down on the ending to “Body and Soul” as the rest of you. It’s pure existentialism. Garfield makes what he considers to be the correct, and brave choice, though he expects that it will cost him his life (or at least get him beaten up, like Robert Ryan in “The Set-Up”). He’s come to grips with that and he’s happy with his choice; hence the rising strains of the titular song as he walks offscreen.

    It’s not unlike the endings to Ford’s “Seven Women” or Val Lewton’s “The Seventh Victim.” There’s also that scene in “The Big Sleep” where a meek little operator drinks a glass that he knows is poison, in order to save a woman’s life.

    The ending to “Body and Soul” is a little different, because Garfield could have taken the easy way out and thrown the fight. The others were more trapped. But all of these characters did what they thought was right, at the cost of their lives. This type of death can be positive and liberating, as Sydney Carton explained at the end of “Tale of Two Cities.”

    I think it works better in the two “Seven” movies than in “Body and Soul,” but I understand what Polonsky and Rossen were trying to do.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, which ending had Polonsky written?”

    He wrote the ending that’s on the film. He was very annoyed about the other ending Rossen shot, and begged him not to use it.

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, there is a slight difference between the endings of 7 WOMEN and BODY AND SOUL. Anne Bancroft dies. John Garfield walks off in seeming triumph. That is all but the literal difference between printing the fact and printing the legend.

  • Robert Garrick

    Barry, I think the precise translation of Garfield’s smirk is pretty close to “So long, bastard,” and I think Garfield fully expects to die in the next reel.

    I do see your point. But people are all over the place on the ending to “Body and Soul.” Our mutual friend Scott Langley once said that Garfield’s last line was “one of the great moments in film for me.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, we seem to have circled back to that V.F. Perkins notion about LA NOTTE. Garfield knows what is going to happen in the missing last reel but Rossen spared our delicate sensibilities and allowed us to go home happily humming the title tune. The word “fraud” somehow comes to mind here.

    No offence to our mutual friend Scott Langley, but shall we say that he is a bit more enthralled by the wildly fanciful than I am. And actually, if everything in BODY AND SOUL had been tonally consistantly leading us towards such an ending, I would have no problem with it either. But, as it stands, the film seems to be a long journey to a cliff that it is afraid to leap from.

  • Robert, the problem I have with the ending is not that he decides to stand up for himself (that last fight sequence is brilliant), but that the last shot of the film is so cheerful and upbeat. If Rossen had ended the film inside the arena, with for example a shot of Charley, still in the ring, looking triumphantly at an angry Mr Roberts, that would have been great, and an open ending at that. Suggesting though that he and Peg will live happily ever after is, I feel, wrong, as well as weird.

    Thanks Brad!

  • No underestimating the soundtrack work by Duke Ellington. There had been some “real” jazz here and there in feature films, but nothing like this. Duke’s crime jazz score has long lost its ability to startle, but it was plenty surprising back in that day. Ellington was still relevant in ’59, you can hear it all here.

    Plus, Duke’s cameo bit is hilarious.