Skidoo (1968) *

Hubris can only get you so far. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill. Whatever possessed Otto Preminger (In Harms Way, 1965) to believe he could deliver a contemporary satirical comedy beats me. And it beat him, too.

Despite the comedic input of Jackie Gleason (The Hustler, 1962) and Groucho Marx there’s nary a single laugh, except, sadly, at the director’s expense as he attempts to shine a coruscating light on social mores and instead ends up fluffing his lines. The highlights (!!) are gangster Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) having a bad trip, his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) falling in with a bunch of hippies and having her body painted, his wife Flo (Carol Channing) trying to seduce another gangster Angie (Frankie Avalon) and some attempted gags at the expense of technology.

There’s even the old one of kids making out beside a parking meter and when busted complaining they are not getting their allotted time. And there’s an ongoing “joke” of Flo tussling with various men for control of the television set through rival remote controls.

The story, if you can call it that, has Tony infiltrating a prison in order to bump off inmate Packard (Mickey Rooney) who plays the stock market, complete with ticker tape, inside. Flo and Darlene, trying to find his whereabouts, end up at Angie’s hi-tech pad. Then all the hippies go back to the family house where Flo washes their hair.

You can imagine where hippies come into all this, making with the hip talk, and trying to set up an alternative world to the Establishment.

Carol Channing makes her feelings known by donning pirate garb.

In the style of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) the main attraction are the cameos, Peter Lawford (Ocean’s 11, 1960), John Philip Law (Hurry Sundown, 1967), Burgess Meredith (Rocky, 1976), George Raft (Five Golden Dragons, 1967), Mickey Rooney (24 Hours to Kill, 1965)  and Frankie Avalon (The Million Eyes of Sumuru, 1967). But they will all cringe at their participation.

Channing, only just Oscar-nominated for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) makes the worst career choice of her life, Alexandra Hay (Model Shop, 1969) not far behind, though with less marquee value to play around with.

Every acclaimed director has an off day, taking on a project through poor judgement or, more likely, financial necessity. But Preminger was still a Hollywood high-roller and this just looked like a dose of career suicide.

Behind the Scenes: “In Harm’s Way” (1965)

In October 1962 Otto Preminger bought the rights to Harm’s Way, a thumping big bestseller by Ronald Basset with a host of characters and sub-plots which serve, like Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, to analyse an American institution, in this case the Navy, pre- and post-Pearl Harbor. In some respects, it was an odd choice, Preminger better known for pictures that filleted such august institutions, The Cardinal (1964) exposed the inner workings of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it rubbed shoulders quite happily with Exodus (1960), a tale of battle against the odds.

Preminger’s aim was to blunt the current onslaught of movie pessimism with a picture that ended on an optimistic note. He observed: “We are attacked, we are unprepared in every way, and manage by sheer guts, character and resourcefulness to start to work out of it.” He concluded that such action “should remind us and perhaps other people that there is never any reason to give up or to give in to anything that is not right or dignified.”

Celebrated Saul Bass poster.

“One of the reasons I made In Harm’s Way,” explained the director, “is that it is a big step away from most of the films I have made so far. I try not to repeat myself too much…not to make pictures in just one category…I was very fascinated by the characters and the story..,(which) shows that people will act even if they are unprepared and don’t want war.”

Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent, 1962) started on the screenplay right away, taking it so far as embarking on a rewrite with the director in London. But the  project was unexpectedly shelved for a couple of years. In the meantime Preminger assigned a different writer, Richard Jessup. But when the concept received the director’s full attention once again Mayes was at the wheel and with a different approach. “I had a fresher point of view and did many things that were not in the book at all. I think we improved it for that reason, since we had quite forgotten the novel.”

But collaboration with Preminger was exacting. “We sat together and and worked over almost every line,” explained the director. “I always work very closely with the writer on the screenplay…There is one man, the independent producer-director, who from very beginning takes the whole responsibility and has complete autonomy. I feel responsible for the script: I engaged the writer and I worked with him. Like I direct actors, I feel a director also directs the script.”

In particular, into sharper focus came the son, Jeremiah (played in the film by Brandon de Wilde) of Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne). In the book he had been a passing, insignificant character, who quickly befriended his father. “He had no feelings about the fact that his father had left his mother, and we changed that in the script,” said Mayes. This provided not just a source of dramatic tension but a more mature role for Wayne, who had to express regret for the estrangement, all his fault. (Although the idea of a son enlisting against the mother’s wishes reflect a similar situation in Rio Grande, 1950).

Wayne was Preminger’s first choice. “Because it has passive elements, a strong actor like Wayne is ideally cast,” said the director. Despite being sent an incomplete script, the star signed up – for $500,000. “I don’t look for stars and I don’t avoid them,” he said. The leading roles in Bunny Lake Missing (1965) and The Cardinal (1964) went to relative unknowns. “I would not ask John Wayne to play, say, a coward because his image is not the image of a coward, or have him play a Greek philosopher…He at least fulfilled all my expectations more than I could possibly hope for. Kirk Douglas, too, came to my mind almost immediately.”

The movie should have ended up at Columbia which had funded the director’s last two movies and would back Bunny Lake. But Preminger had just struck a deal for seven pictures with Paramount and in January 1964 that agreement was announced with the re-titled In Harm’s Way (a phrase associated with John Paul Jones). 

Mayes completed the new draft two months later with the rest of the cast now assembled, including Preminger contract players Tom Tryon (The Cardinal) and Jill Haworth (Exodus) who replaced original choice Carol Lynley (Bunny Lake). Keir Dullea turned down the part of Jeremiah. Advise and Consent’s Henry Fonda came on board as the overall Navy commander  at the expense of Chill Wills who was fired after shooting had begun.

One uncredited recruitment was Hugh O’Brian (Africa, Texas Style, 1967) who undertook the part of Liz Eddington’s lover. “He played a role as a favor without compensation,” recalled Preminger. “He did not want billing and only asked that I give some money to a charity. I needed somebody who was a secure actor and right for the part because I used a complete beginner (Barbara Bouchet) for the girl he plays opposite. And if I used some other young actor with her, people would have felt that this couple would disappear almost immediately at the beginning of the film. It was important to me to establish this young couple as an important episode at the beginning of the film and he helped that.”

The director spent three days scouting locations in Hawaii but decided to shoot in black-and-white because “ a picture like this has much more impact and you can create more of the feeling, the illusion of reality, than when you shoot it in color.” False guns mounts were attached to more recent ships since the older relevant vessels were no longer available.

Wayne with co-star Patricia Neal.

Shooting started on June 23. The biggest issue was transportation, drivers getting lost reaching locations for the night-for-night sequences. Preminger struggled to meet his shooting schedule and the movie was soon over budget thanks to long hours, Sunday working and extra local staff. Even so, the Hawaii shoot came in 17 days ahead of schedule. Five days were assigned for shooting at sea. Larger than usual miniatures – some as much as 55ft long – were shot over a month on a lake in Mexico and in the Gulf of Mexico, the battle of Leyte Gulf costing an estimated $1 million. “I needed the real horizon,” said Preminger.

Some scenes were proving impossible to capture first time out. A second unit had two attempts filming a car going over a cliff, a marine landing was spoiled by water on the lens, and technical problems prevented Preminger achieving a “mystic-hour shot” of a plane taking off.  Part of the director’s problem was his insistence on rehearsal. “I could make every picture in ten days if I slough it. Some actors just need more time and more rehearsal.”

Despite observers expecting – perhaps hoping – for volatile confrontation between the director and star, the pair enjoyed a cordial relationship based on mutual respect. Of Wayne, Preminger commented that he was “the most cooperative actor, willing to rehearse, willing to do anything as long as anybody. I was surprised really how disciplined a professional Wayne is and he liked this particular part very much.”

From Wayne’s perspective, “He had my respect and I had his respect. He is terribly hard on the crew and he’s terribly hard on people that he thinks are sloughing. But this is a thing that I can understand because I’ve been there (directing The Alamo) and I know that if a fellow comes on and he’s careless and he hasn’t thought at all about his…I come ready and that he appreciated that. I was usually there ahead of him on the set and he couldn’t believe that. So we had a really nice relationship.”

It was surprising Wayne remained on such an even keel since he was beginning to suffer from the cancer that would eventually kill him. “He looked ill,” Tryon remembered, “He was coughing badly, I mean, really awful. It was painful to see, so God knows what it was like for him. He’d begin coughing in the middle of a scene and Preminger would have to stop filming.” Although he refused to consult a doctor during filming, he agreed to a check-up once shooting of his role was complete, three weeks earlier than scheduled. He may indeed have owed his life to Preminger’s speedy shooting.

Kirk Douglas had a bone to pick with Preminger after the director stole the glory of being the first director to publicly announce, on Exodus, that he had employed a blacklisted writer, pre-empting Douglas who had done the same for Spartacus (1960). Although Douglas didn’t rank Preminger as a director he enjoyed a good relationship with him except for one minor confrontation.

Douglas got on well with Wayne: “There was a mutual respect…We got along quite well…He was a strange fellow. I’ll never forget the talk we had about my playing in Lust for Life (1956). Although emotionally we were not close and politically we were antipodal he asked me to work with him several times.” (Not entirely true – Douglas would have been the driving force for their collaboration on Cast a Giant Shadow in 1966 and he fell out spectacularly with Wayne on The War Wagon in 1967).

But others suffered from Preminger’s notorious temper, Tom Tryon in particular. The bullying became so bad Kirk Douglas once walked off the set. Douglas advised Tryon to fight back but Tryon could not pluck up the courage. Chill Wills who endured Preminger at his “absolute worst” did stand up to him and was fired. Patrick O’Neal turned on actors who refused to fight their corner. “Stand up to him once and find out he’s a human being,” was his advice.

Myth has it that Paula Prentiss’s role was truncated after she fell foul of the director but rumour was baseless. In fact, Prentiss was another of the director’s defenders, claiming he was “absolutely wonderful to work with. For a scene to work, tension needs to be put into a scene. There have to be genuine efforts to make the scene work. And Preminger understood this and was able to get much conflict and tension into the scenes.” And he was not all tough talk. She recalls him as particularly gentle guiding her through the scene where she asks her husband to make her pregnant. 

Although surpassing the original $5 million budget, it was not by much, an extra $436,000. The Production Code had objected to the phrase “screw the captain,” a line Preminger refused to remove and despite further protest from the censor, who threatened to withhold the precious official approval,the director got his way. Preminger had shot the scene where Barbara Bouchet was dancing topless from the rear but the still photographs were sensational enough for publication in Playboy in its May 1965 issue. 

The decision to shoot in black-and-white probably accounted for the picture’s relatively poor box office. Its length and the all-star cast should have qualified it for roadshow. (It was roadhsow for all of one day at two prestigious new York first houses; the next day it went continuous, but you could advance book a seat for an extra 50 cents). It was a sign of how quickly audience perceptions had changed that only three years previously the black-and-white The Longest Day had appeared as a roadshow and proved a resounding hit.

As a result of Wayne’s illness The Sons of Katie Elder was postponed. Preminger moved onto a smaller project, Bunny Lake Is Missing and Douglas reverted to top billing for The Heroes of Telemark (1965). Tom Tryon never worked for Preminger again and after top-billing in The Glory Guys (1965) faded from Hollywood view, re-emerging as the bestselling author of The Other. Paula Prentiss shifted sideways into television with He and She (1967-1968) and Jill Haworth made very few films after this, of which most were horror.

SOURCES:  Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber and Faber, 2008), p317-329; Scott Eyman, John Wayne, The Life and Legend, (Simon & Schuster, 2015) p385-387; Maurice Zolotow, Shooting Star, A Biography of John Wayne (Simon & Schuster, 1974) p361-362; Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth (Robson Books, 2003) p254-255; Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, 2012), p387-381; Ian Cameron, Mark Shivas, Paul Mayersberg, “Interview with Otto Preminger,” Movie 13 (Summer 1965), p15-16; Patrick McGilligan, Backstory 3, p266; Otto Preminger, “Keeping Out of Harm’s Way,” Films and Filming, June 1965, p6;  Newsweek, April 20, 1964; New York Herald Tribune, October 17, 1965, p55. 

In Harm’s Way (1965) *****

Preminger at a peak, the more I watch this picture, not just the more impressed I become but the more I want to watch it again – three times, as it happens, for this review. A tale of heroism populated by morally wounded heroes, the undertone of critique for the Naval establishment dealt with in brilliant narrative fashion, terrific pacing, one of John Wayne’s very best performances, Kirk Douglas not far behind, great action scenes, and one of the few movies to fulfil this director’s original intent.

You can, of course, argue that it’s the height of political PR. Just as the Americans managed with The Alamo and the British with Dunkirk, the aim was to turn defeat into victory, so this moves beyond the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the victories beyond. But in some sense Pearl Harbor is just the prologue to a stiffer examination of men at war, rather than sailors taken to task over the complacency that left them so open to cataclysmic attack.

And while there’s a number of sub-plots, these are more expertly handled than I can recall in many another lengthy big-budget picture, no endless cutting between major and minor characters, but the minor characters only entering the frame when they have a dramatic part to play.

Captain “Rock” Rockwell (John Wayne) falls foul of his superiors for basically being in command of a ship sunk by a torpedo. On a technical point, he’s stripped of command, and reduced to a desk job, a casualty of the peace-time hierarchy determined to find someone to blame, only returning to active duty – and promoted to Admiral – when more war-oriented figures are put in charge.

The desk job gives him time to romance feisty nurse Lt. Maggie Haines (Patricia Haines) who has the cojones to take charge of the budding relationship. She happens to share an apartment with another nurse, the much younger Ensign Annalee Dorne (Jill Dorne) who is dating entitled Ensign Jeremiah Torrey (Brandon de Wilde), Rock’s estranged son.

Jeremiah works for slimy glory-hunter Commander Neal Owynn (Patrick O’Neal), a former U.S. Congressman using his political skills to worm his way into the office of by-the-book Vice Admiral Brodick (Dana Andrews). Rock shares his apartment with Commander Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), a thrice-married playboy, high up in Navy intelligence.

Rock’s second-in-command is Commander – junior to a captain in case you don’t understand the U.S. Navy ranking system – Paul Eddington, a hothead whose mourning for dead wife Liz (Barbara Bouchet) results in him also being reduced to a desk job and exiled to the Pacific. On the fringes of the story are Lt. Commander “Mac” MacConnell (Tom Tryon) and pregnant wife Beverley (Paula Prentiss).

How all these characters enmesh is the consequence of a quite brilliant screenplay by Wendell Hayes (Advise and Consent, 1962). Rockwell and Eddington both seek redemption, the former to prove his Naval worth and regain the affection of his son, the latter to absolve himself for his terrible actions.

You can always tell the hero in war films because they are so rarely a physical casualty of war, all the others are killed and wounded but hardly ever the hero, so it takes something for the Hollywood Hero of the Century to play a character who is wounded not once but twice, and for the early part of the picture walks around with his arm in his sling (not quite an echo of the way he holds his arm in The Searchers, but evoking the same internal conflict).

The only supposed out-and-out hero is MacConnell, but his inaction at the beginning of the movie fails to prevent the death of Eddington’s wife. And his heroism largely takes place off-screen and it’s worth noting that Rock doesn’t raise a rifle or pistol in anger (or even get into a punch-up as was the actor’s wont in other films). Being in charge he’s removed from the core action even if suffering the consequences of battle. In a marvellous touch of irony, Rockwell is the most passive hero to hit the screen. It’s an incredibly bold and self-confident director who would even think of luring audiences into an action picture starring the Hero of the Century and then denying him a single moment of screen glory.

Much has been written about the cinematic arc John Ford took in the beginning and ending of The Searchers, the symbolic opening and closing of doors, but since Preminger is long out of critical favor nobody’s has bothered to notice how much of this film concerns cinematic echo.

To take the most obvious example, the first witnesses of the airborne Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are illicit pair Liz Eddington and her paramour (Hugh O’Brian) and towards the end it’s her husband Paul, by this point guilty of horrendous behaviour, who leads the airborne fightback against the enemy.

A beach – where Liz and escort make love – is how the director initially pushes the audience towards sympathising with the drunken Eddington. A beach is where we later learn to despise him, as he brutally rapes Ensign Dorne. And it doesn’t take much to work out that his wife’s exuberant wildness explains Eddington’s initial attraction to her, not realising that psychologically it provides him with an excuse for his own darker wildness, initially restricted to self-destruction but when it truly emerges it’s to the detriment of an innocent.

And that’s before we get on to Rockwell as the messenger of death, delivering the bad news to wives, and then being on the receiving end after his son dies in battle. And finally, the political peace-time high-ups get their come-uppance in actual war.

It’s insulting – as some have suggested – that the performance of John Wayne (The Hellfighters, 1968) is the result of undiagnosed cancer when in fact this is a finely nuanced role of a high-ranking figure living out in his life in regret, at times quite shamefaced about abandoning his son at a very early age. Preminger cracked down on Wayne’s habit of splitting his lines in two, so those typical pauses we have come to expect are in large part gone, and it helps the movie’s pacing. For most of the movie the character is saddled with consequence. That passivity that the director saw as essential to the role is virtually present all the time.

Preminger wrings a different performance, too, from Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968), equally laden with regret, but not enough to prevent him lashing out and the actor is accorded two quite stunning scenes, the first as he broods in silence over his wife, but for the second, prior to raping Ensign Dorne, the stone-cold look on his face suggests a serial killer held at bay for too long and now about to explode.

Burgess Meredith (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is another brought to directorial heel, his more common scene-stealing and vowel-stretching also eliminated, but in exchange given a larger-than-life character on which to expend screen energy. The entire cast is good-to-excellent and it’s jam-packed: Patricia Neal (Hud, 1962), Tom Tryon (The Cardinal, 1964), Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1963), Brandon De Wilde (Shane, 1953), Jill Haworth (Exodus, 1960), Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965), Franchot Tone (Advise and Consent, 1962), Patrick O’Neal (Stiletto, 1969), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), Henry Fonda (Battle of the Bulge, 1965), Barbara Bouchet (Danger Route, 1967) and Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964) Many of the supporting cast were also playing against type – Prentiss as the young wife falling to pieces, Andrews and O’Neal as slippery political types, Holloway  a guerrilla, and perhaps most interesting off Neal, not the typical woman left behind when the man goes off to war but, in her role as nurse, entering harm’s way herself.

And despite criticism of the miniatures used in sea scenes while that might have been obvious on the big screen you don’t notice it on the small screen. The action  scenes are very well-done for the time, and quite unusual in that by and large it’s the Americans who appear shell-shocked not the enemy.

Cramming this much narrative into the overall arch of Pearl Harbor and retaliation against the Japanese, while bringing so many different characters to the fore with clear dramatic purpose is an amazing achievement, screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent) doing the heavy lifting in this department.

But Preminger the director is very much to the fore, in his composition and use of the camera for long tracking shots (a particular favorite of mine) such as at the beginning. A riveting watch full of splendid acting. Shooting it in black-and-white might have at one time appeared to date the picture but instead it has rendered it ageless. Five stars without a doubt.

When Caine Was King

Producer Joseph E. Levine was so carried away by the sensational performance of Zulu (1964) in Britain that he earmarked a million-dollar marketing budget for its U.S. launch. Levine was already doing the rounds of U.S. exhibitors in January 1964 and it was reviewed that same month in Variety – which predicted it would be a “sturdy box office prospect” – leading observers to believe its launch was imminent. That it was held back till the summer suggested interest from the trade, not as fascinated by an obscure war in Africa as the British, was not as high as the producer would have liked. Even then Box Office magazine reckoned it “should be a box office smash” to emulate the $589,000 it had taken in nine weeks in the first run Plaza in London’s West End coupled with two weeks in 29 houses on the British ABC circuit.

But somewhere along the line Levine had lost heart and promoted it as if was Hercules all over again, 500 simultaneous bookings in a month, little time to build on the decent box office it attracted in New York in two weeks at the first run Palace. The drubbing Zulu (1964) received at the American box office – it did not even attract the $1 million in rentals needed to place it in the Variety annual box office chart – made trade journalists, while recognizing Michael Caine’s initial promise, reserve judgement on his future, observing that he “still has some ground to cover before he becomes as familiar to filmgoers as Sean Connery.”

Michael Caine is way down the cast list.

Despite Zulu’s failure, Variety predicted that Caine’s performance had “won this blond young man a swift passport to potential stardom” and even while The Ipcress File (1965) divided critics, the trade paper reported “there’s no disputing Caine’s personal impact…the sky’s the limit.”

To justify his deal with Harry Saltzman, Caine was committed to appearing in ten films in five years, although the producer was not only happy to loan him out to other studios but share the spoils. That was an unusual trait, given that stars as varied as Sandra Dee, Carroll Baker and Rock Hudson bristled at what they saw as exploitation, when their paymaster  retained the entire amount gained from loaning their services to other studios, often pocketing a hefty profit in the process. Caine, on the other hand, “kept the major share of any loan-out loot.”

After The Ipcress File, Caine would have five films released in the U.S. in the space of eight months from July 1966 to February 1967, an output that could make or break him. In order of U.S. launch these were: black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), ribald sex drama Alfie (1966), caper movie Gambit (1966), a second outing for Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin (1966) and big-budget steamy Otto Preminger drama Hurry Sundown (1967) not to mention a reissue in 1967 of Zulu to capitalize on his growing fame.

The breadth of acting skills Caine brought to these diverse movies caught the attention, by and large, of the critics as well as the industry. The National Association of Theater Owners, proclaimed him their Future Star of the Year in September 1966 with the ringing endorsement of “never has a newcomer to films so fully and immediately captured the imagination of the world audience.”

Oddly enough, there was no better follow-up as far as America was concerned to The Ipcress File than The Wrong Box in which he was a last-minute replacement for American actor George Hamilton.  The Wrong Box (1966) presented Caine as the timid romantic opposite of the lothario of Alfie and the accomplished seducer of The Ipcress File (1965) but it was the kind of role to make critics sit up and wonder what else he had in his acting box of tricks. 

But the release strategies employed by the various distributors, Columbia for The Wrong Box, Universal for Gambit and Paramount for the other three, ensured that the movies did not go down the Levine saturation-release route that had done for Zulu. Limited openings in prestigious arthouse-style cinemas allowed for slow build. In fact, it was almost tantamount to creating ‘sleepers’ out of every film. A film that remained for months at a time in one or two cinemas in a major city was the best way of driving up word of mouth. And during this hectic period whenever Caine was promoting one film, he was also being asked about all the rest.

It was almost inevitable that when a new picture opened, all the others were still playing. As a measure of how well this unplanned strategy worked, at Xmas 1966 his films were playing in six first run cinemas in New York, far more than any other star, and far more than any other star in the history of Hollywood. Each new opening boosted the box office of all the rest and when Oscar consideration or Year-End Best Awards entered the equation they served notice that, through his other films, this was an actor with a wide range of skills.

What had become quickly apparent to studios was that they had no idea how to assess Caine’s box office appeal.  Such reticence proved invaluable. The limitations imposed on his film launches ensured that audience demand would dictate the release pattern. Only after Universal had opened The Ipcress File to sensational business at the Coronet in New York at the start of August 1965 did it consider widening the movie out. Audience response gave the studio the confidence to book it towards the end of the following month into Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles for an “unprecedented booking.” The two cinemas could not have been more opposite – the New York house seating just 590, the Los Angeles venue nearly three times as much with 1,517 seats.  The studio was “evidently convinced to go commercial with the picture nationwide as booking into Grauman’s indicates.”

Columbia almost copied that campaign to the letter. The Wrong Box opened in early July   1966 to an “amazing” $35,000 at the 700-seat Cinema One. What was just as astonishing was that it was pulling in $28,500 in its seventh week by which time it had begun first run engagements across the country – a “socko” $25,000 in Chicago, “wham” $25,000 in Philadelphia, “boffola” $20,000 in Boston, “boffo” $18,000 in Washington D.C.

Although distributed by a different studio, Alfie followed a similar pattern, opening in New York again at the Coronet and also at the 500-seat New Embassy, breaking all-time records at both cinemas. Alfie, however,was less of a risk. On the financial front, it had already recouped its $750,000 costs solely from its London run. On the critical front, the film had won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

Just as important was Paramount’s marketing backing. A 16-page A3 Pressbook began by detailing both the critical acclaim enjoyed by the picture on its New York opening and its subsequent commercial success. Every advertisement was garnished with critical quotes: “Alfie bubbles with impudent humor and ripe modern wit” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times), “delightful comedy” (Judith Crist, NBC Today Show), “you are going to enjoy Alfie very much” (Life). “There’s no question about it,” crowed the Pressbook, “Alfie has completely conquered New York…(and) is the new champ of the press.” The New York Times had run four separate articles on the film, major magazines lined up to profile the star, on publicity duties Caine had come across as charming and personable, and the movie’s theme song topped the charts.

Three pages of the Pressbook were devoted to Michael Caine, calling him “multi-talented” and setting out the proposition, “Will Alfie’s Michael Caine Become the Newest Teenage Idol?” Caine predicted, “I believe it takes at least five movies to make a star of anyone,” counting Zulu as his first, plus The Wrong Box and Alfie. Given Funeral in Berlin and Gambit were still to come, he was already well on the way to proving himself correct.   

Alfie launched in New York a few weeks after The Wrong Box had already whetted appetites. The Coronet delivered a $43,000 opener and the New Embassy $33,400, both all-time non-holiday records. Second weeks were equally potent, $40,000 at the Coronet, $33,000 at the New Embassy.

So Paramount “nursed” the sleeper. It didn’t properly expand until Thanksgiving and even then was limited to 56 theaters which had to commit to 14-week runs that would see it safely past Xmas and New Year so as to be “in active exhibition” during Oscar season. Before the first Oscar nomination was in, Paramount had pulled in $3m million in U.S. rentals (the studio’s share of the box office gross) and about the same again overseas (including Britain). Winning five Oscar nominations – including Best Picture and Best Actor – boosted takings.

The Xmas 1966 unofficial “Michael Caine Season” saw a three-cinema New York opening for Funeral in Berlin (budgeted at $2.6 million) and one house for Gambit while Alfie was still playing in two houses. The Harry Palmer sequel rocked up with a “wow” $40,000 – equivalent to $356,000 today – opening week at the 813-seat Forum, an “amazing” $21,000 ($187,000 equivalent) at the 450-seat Guild (extra shows to cope with the demand) and $37,000 ($330,000 equivalent) at the 568-seat Tower East. Gambit knocked up a “smash” $20,000 at the 561-seat Sutton with Alfie bringing in a “wham” £21,000 in its 18th week at the  New Embassy plus $14,000 in its first week at the 430-seat Baronet. The capacities of all these cinemas showed that, in reality, they were glorified arthouses rather than the bigger 1,000-plus-seaters where the big-budget pictures resided.

In Britain, a top box office draw, in America king of the arthouses.  

How well his movies did outside that limitation depended on popularity and accessibility. Pairings with top female stars like Shirley MacLaine (Gambit) and Jane Fonda (Hurry Sundown) ensured that the actor’s transition into the Hollywood elite was painless. His career has had many ups and downs, and many fans know him only from his appearance in Christopher Nolan films, but in celebrating a career that encompasses nearly 70 years as a star, no one should forget the eight months that turned him into one.

SOURCES: “Levine Heads Zulu showmanship Meets,” Box Office, January 13, 1964, p8;  “Big Zulu Whoop,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p3;  Review of Zulu, Variety, January 29, 1964, p6; “Levine Sells His Theatres,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, pNE2; Advert for Zulu, Variety, April 29, p26-27; “Britain Bubbles with Talent,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p58; Review of Zulu, Box Office, June 22, 1964, pA11; Review of The Other Man, Variety, September 16, 1964, p41; Review of The Ipcress File, Variety, March 1965, p6; “Newcomer Talent in British Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p57; Advertisement for Zulu, Box Office, Jun 15, 1964, p3; “Ipcress File Pre-Release in NY Aug 2,” Box Office, July 26, 1965, pE4; “Michael Caine No Bottled-In Bond,” Variety, September 15, 1965, p30; “Grauman’s Sets Extended Run of Ipcress File,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pNC1; “Preminger Signs Caine,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, pE1; “Funeral in Berlin Budget $2,600,000,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p29; “Caine Is Able at B.O. with Five Star Roles in 33 Months since Zulu,” Variety, August 31, 1966, p2; “Michael Caine Named NATO Future Star,” Box Office, September 19, 1966, p3; “Par Nurses Its Alfie with Limited Playoff Through Holidays,” Variety, October 12, 1966, p21; “Michael Caine On Tour for Funeral in Berlin,” Box Office, November 21, 1966, pE2; “Embassy Reissues Three Caine, Belmondo Films,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, p10; “Alfie Could Be Par’s Tom Jones,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p3. Box office figures taken from the “Picture Grosses” section of Variety: July 20, 1966-September 24, 1966 and December 28, 1966.

Behind the Scenes: “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965)

Unusually for an Otto Preminger project, this took an unconscionably long time to get off the ground, given he had purchased rights to the bestseller by Evelyn Piper which had been published in 1957. The first problem was that no one could lick the screenplay. Getting first bite was Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, 1967), followed by “wholesale doctoring” by Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, 1960) who delivered a “polished script.” But that failed to satisfy the director either and triggered further attempts by Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mummy’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, 1967). But nobody seemed able to come up with a satisfactory job. The book had been set in New York as had the various subsequent screenplays. The solution appeared to be to shift the location some 3,000 miles to London. Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote a draft but ended up having a fight with Preminger and withdrew and the project was completed by her husband John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969).

The Levin screenplay was dismissed as being too faithful to the book, the kidnapper in this instance turning out to be a former teacher who was childless and afflicted with “menopausal psychosis,” a character Preminger found weak and uninteresting. Trumbo changed the villain into a wealthy woman, not just childless but judged unfit to adopt, an approach the director deemed “very theatrical and wrong.” The Kopit and Eastman versions offered no better solution. “I almost gave up Bunny Lake,” admitted Preminger, “because while working in the script I realized that women would not like the film…because they are afraid of all situations in which a child is in danger.”  After considering transplanting the story to Paris, Preminger finally settled on London, and hired the Mortimers whose villain brought the picture a 2new dimension.”

Until now, and in keeping with the original novel, Newhouse, while assisting in the investigation, had been a psychiatrist. In the hands of the Mortimers he now morphed into a police inspector. Wilson who had been Newhouse’s quite respectable friend turned into a drunken reprobate. At this point the heroine’s name remained Blanche as in the book. There was one other significant element that changed between the initial Mortimer script and the final shooting script: at the start of the film the Ann and Steven were shown reacting as if the child was there, whereas when the movie went before camera the question of the child’s existence remained in doubt. Penelope Mortimer dropped out when, summoned with her husband to Honolulu where Preminger was filming In Harm’s Way, she was roundly ignored.

Filming was originally scheduled to slip in between Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960) with a budget set at $2 million. But something always seemed to get in the way. Occasionally it was a bigger project. After Columbia announced filming was scheduled for 1961, Bunny Lake was pushed back to spring 1962 to permit the filming of Advise and Consent (1961).  Then The Cardinal (1962) took precedence but only to the extent of shifting the Bunny project till later that year. Then it was set to be completed by fall 1963. Further cause of delay was the decision to accommodate the pregnancy of that Lee Remick who had signed for the leading female role. But when she was ready to go, Preminger was not and she fell out of the equation.

At one point, fearful of his schedule becoming too crowded – filled with expensive projects like The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way (1965) – Preminger had tried to wriggle out of the directorial commitment, planning to limit his involvement to producing only, but studio Columbia would not accept this. Preminger was in considerable demand, like a major movie star contracted to deals with rival studios, in 1961 for three pictures with United Artists and four for Columbia and by 1965 adding into the mix a seven-picture deal with Paramount, and most of these big pictures, leaving little time for a relatively low-budget – by his standards – picture.

A good example of the British distribution system. The film opened at the Odeon Leicester Square and quickly went into general release, first in cinemas in North London and a week later the prints shifted to South London. In the West End, it ran solo, in the suburbs as a double bill.

Finally, Bunny Lake received the green light with filming beginning in London on April 9, 1965. Unusually, the movie was shot entirely on location, the director expressing a “yen for realistic on the spot” filming in a dozen places including a pub, the Cunard office and Scotland Yard. A school in Hampstead doubled for the nursery, the mews flat was found just behind Trafalgar Square. He was quick to point this was not a matter of economy. “What you save in studio (time) you spend in other ways. But I think it leads to more urgent film-making.” Somewhat surprisingly, he aimed to shoot in black-and-white, colour now being predominant except for low-budget movies and those wishing to take advantage of black-and-white world War Two newsreel footage as was the case with his previous picture In Harm’s Way.

Carolyn Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) was given the lead with Keir Dullea (David and Lisa, 1962) in the pivotal role of her brother. Neither could be considered a big star although Lynley had the second female lead in The Cardinal and moved up the credit rankings to female lead in the low-budget Shock Treatment (1964). But she was such a hot prospect Preminger in 1965 signed her to a four-picture deal although this was not exclusive as she also had contracts with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia. Dullea was potentially a better prospect, picking up some acting kudos for David and Lisa, the designated star of that picture and The Thin Red Line (1964) but only second lead for Mail Order Bride (1963) and the Italian-made The Naked Hours (1963).

Although some decades away from his Hollywood box office prime, the casting of Oscar-winner and five-time nominee Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, 1960) was something of a coup, although he was only hired because another actor proved too expensive. Other parts were filled by actors experienced in the Preminger school of film-making, Martita Hunt from The Fan (1949)- and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Victor Maddern (Saint Joan, 1958) and David Oxley (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse).

The first day’s shooting was in a television studio to capture the newsreader and pop group The Zombies which the content of the show shown in the pub on television. Contrary to depictions of Preminger as a martinet on set, he was keen in rehearsals to “put everyone at ease” although he emphasised the need for “slow, thoughtful diction.” The famous Preminger wrath came down heavily on personnel failing to carry out their job correctly. But he accepted Olivier’s decision to omit a particular phrase. He was specific about the look he wished to achieve, required high contrast black-and-white cinematography while nothing was to be done “to enhance Carol Lynley’s beauty: instead…to deepen her features, bring out her emotions.”

And he was determined to get what he wanted, 18 takes required to complete a lengthy tracking shot that flows Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) as they negotiate a passage through a group of noisy children in a classroom and then across a hall. Accepting Lynley’s difficulty in expressing the pain of losing a child, he instructed her to forget about subtext and play the moment. However, 14 takes of a scene between Lynley and Olivier was too much for the actress but she was comforted when Preminger told her the famous actor was the problem not her. But on another occasion, Preminger ended up giving her an almost line for line reading of how he wanted the scene played. The only way he got what he wanted was to reduce her to “sobbing uncontrollably” and then start the camera rolling.

Without question, Keir Dullea came off first. “He would humiliate you, he would scream at you…his dripping sarcasm was the worst of it,” recalled Dullea. “I was always very prepared in terms of knowing my lines…but the stress, there was some action where I was supposed to put a glass down or pick up a glass” that Dullea kept getting wrong. In face of what he deemed incompetence, Preminger accused him of being “an actor who can’t even remember a line and if heremembers a line he can’t remember an action…what, you can’t do these two things at the same time.” In the end Dullea faked a nervous breakdown and after than “he never screamed at me again.”

Olivier would occasionally coming to rescue, persuading the director to ease off and “stop screaming at the children.” Olivier found Preminger such a bully that it “almost put me off his Carmen Jones, which I found an inspired piece of work…It’s a miracle it came from such a heavy-handed egotist.” On the other hand Noel coward, who played the landlord Wilson, believed Preminger an excellent director.

Preminger spun his marketing on a similar gimmick to that utilised by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho (1960) in preventing the public from entering once the movie had started. To make this more dramatic, he had clocks installed in the lobbies of theaters that counted down the length of the performance and a sign that stated “nobody admitted while the clock is ticking.” Preminger was credited with coming up with a longer tagline for the advertisements: “Not even Alfred Hitchcock will be admitted after the film has started.”

The only problem was Return from the Ashes, released at the same time, had adopted a similar marketing ruse, nobody admitted “after Fabi enters the bath.” Despite this, Preminger went hell-for-leather for this marketing trick, to the extent of adding a rider to exhibitor standard contracts to that effect, not a problem in more sophisticated cities where by now patrons had become accustomed to turning up for a picture’s announced start time but a problem in smaller towns and cities where the whole point of continuous programme (i.e. no break between one film and another) was that moviegoers could walk in whenever they liked.

The whole tone of the marketing did not meet the approval of two important segments of the greater movie community. The National Association of Theater Owners opined that the marketing campaign was weak and were astonished to learn that there was nothing Columbia could so about it – Preminger had advertising-publicity approval. Allowing that some of the advertising images for Preminger pictures, courtesy of designer Saul Bass – The Man with the Golden Arm  (1953), Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus etc – were among the most famous in Hollywood history, it would appear Preminger knew what he was doing. But, in fact, although the Saul Bass credit sequence showing pieces of newspaper being torn away made sense in the framework of the picture, the idea was not so effective taken out of that context.

Not intentionally, perhaps, Preminger also riled the critics, deciding that to “preserve the secrecy of the surprise ending,” the movie would open without the normal advance screenings for reviewers. Such action was more likely to set alarm bells ringing, it being a standard assumption among critics that the only films that went down this route were stinkers. From a practical point-of-view it also ensured that marketing was undercut since the lack of timed reviews denied the picture an essential promotional tool.

Finally, the movie ended up in a war with the censors. Many states in the U.S. had their own censors. Columbia objected to having to wait on the say-so of a local censor – in this case  Kansas – before being able to release a movie. And for any release to be delayed if there was any nit-picking by the censor, especially as this movie had an undercurrent of incest. So Columbia refused to conform and failed to submit Bunny Lake Is Missing to the Kansas censors. After being promptly banned for such arrogance, Columbia objected again and the case went to the Kansas State Supreme Court which judged that the censor was unconstitutional. That resulted in the censors losing their jobs when the board was abandoned and the movie entering release a good while after its initial opening dates.

Although it made no impact at the Oscars, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris picked it as one the year’s ten best and it was nominated for cinematography and art direction at the Baftas. The film was a flop, failing to return even $1 million in rentals at the U.S. box office. In fact it probably made more when it was sold to ABC TV for around $800,000.

SOURCES: Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, p330-342; (Faber and Faber, 2008) “Trends,” Variety, January 14, 1959, p30; “Ira Levin Pacted by Preminger for Bunny,” Variety, September 2, 1959, p2; “Col Primed To Start ½ Dozen Prods,” Variety, April 5, 1961, p3; “Otto Preminger Views Film Festivals As Important Marketplaces,” Box Office, May 1, 1961, p11; “Trumbo May Script for UA,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p5; “Bunny Lake Delayed,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Preminger Postpones One,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p13; “Otto Preminger to Film Cardinal for Col,” Box Office, August 7, 1961, -10; “Otto Preminger Is Guest of Soviet Film Makers,” Box Office , May 14, 1962, pE-4; “Two Writers Signed,” Box Office, August 6, 1962, pSW-3; “Preminger,” Variety, September 12, 1962, p15; “Preminger’s New Rap at Costly U.S. Distribution,” Variety, October 10, 1962, p7; “Preminger Gets Rights to Hurry Sundown,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p9; “Prem’s Next in London,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p18; “Preminger Signs Actress for Four More Pictures,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pW-3; “Advertisement,” Variety, April 7, 1965, p1; “Preminger-Paramount Pact Calls for 7 Films,” Box Office, April 26, 1965, p7; “100% Location for Bunny,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “Not Even Hitch,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p4;  “Preminger’s Nix on Pre-Opening Critics,” Variety, September 22, 1965, p16; “2 Pix Enforce Entrance Time on Ticket Buyers,” Variety, September 29, 1965, p5; “Time Rules Are Set for Bunny Shows,” Box Office, October 4, 1965, p13;  “Preminger’s Promotional Prerogative,” Variety, October 27, 1965, p13; “Clock for Bunny Lake,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, p2; “Village Voice Vocal on Bests,” Variety, January 26, 1966, p4; “Col Kayos Kansas Censoring,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p5.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) ****

Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown, 1967) returns to his film noir roots (Laura, 1944; Whirlpool, 1950) for this crisply-told tale, mixing police procedural with psycho-drama,  of a missing child who may the figment of her mother’s imagination. It’s beautifully filmed and for anyone brought up on modern cinema of short takes and the camera bouncing from one close-up to the next, it will be a revelation, as Preminger favors classic Hollywood style,  long takes, in a single shot the camera often following a person in and out of several rooms, and equally classical composition, scenes containing three or four characters where everyone acts within the frame.

Single-mother Ann (Carol Lynley) turns up to collect her four-year-old daughter Bunny from her first day at a London nursery only to discover not just the child gone but nobody has any recollection of the child being there in the first place. That is, apart from the school cook (Lucie Mannheim), who promised to look out for the child but who has subsequently disappeared. Ann is anxious anyway because she is moving house and in her new apartment has an encounter with her creepy landlord Horacio (Noel Coward), a master of the innuendo and the casual stroke of the arm.  

It’s a very English school with stiff-upper-lip not to mention snippy teachers. “We mustn’t get emotional,” school administrator Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) warns the distraught mother. Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea), a journalist, kicks up more of a stink, arguing with staff, and with a very threatening manner. Things get creepier still. Upstairs, they hear voices but it’s just the school’s founder Ada (Martita Hunt) who records children talking about nightmares. Steven seems over-protective towards his sister, which is understandable, and somewhat over-affectionate, which is not.

Detective Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and sidekick Sgt Andrews (Clive Revill) investigate. He is an unusual cop. A university graduate but not of the excitable Inspector Morse persuasion for one thing, and reasonable to an irritating degree in that he keeps all his options open. But the cops are thorough, descriptions of the missing child issued, search of the premises and surrounding area undertaken. But it turns out there is no record of Bunny in the school ledger, no sign of her existence in the flat, and it transpires that as a child herself Ann had an imaginary companion called Bunny.  

As Steven becomes more obstreperous and the intense Ann verges on the hysterical, not helped by the unwanted attentions of the landlord, a BBC performer with a melodious voice he believes irresistible to women and more than a passing interest in sadism, the case appears to be heading in the direction of a quick visit to a psychiatry ward. The usual anchor in these situations, the policeman, is not as definite as normal, Newhouse not pushing the investigation in a direction the audience will find acceptable, but largely standing back, as if yet to make up his mind, which adds to the sense of mystery.

Carol Lynley with the potential landlord from hell Noel Coward.

Preminger isn’t in the business of piling twist upon twist, but as these arrive in due course, the options they offer are even more psychologically damaging. And from setting off at a steady pace with everything apparently settled down by the steady superintendent, the minute he departs the scene, the story takes on a different dimension and there are three superb chilling scenes, one in hospital, another in a doll’s hospital and the last in a garden as the question of just who is unhinged becomes more apparent. There is certainly madness in the movie but it comes when you least expect it and from a direction you may not have considered. On another level, the world of children is entirely alien to the adult and the reconciliation between the two worlds impossible to bridge.

Preminger extracts a performance from Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) that cuts the character to the bone, eliminating many of the actor’s tropes and tics, but at the same time making him perfectly human, unable to resist, for example, a traditional school pudding, and finding ways to curb Steven’s excesses while comforting Ann.  By controlling the actor who always exerts screen presence, Preminger makes him come across with even greater authority. It’s an achievement in itself to ensure that Olivier never raises his voice.

Carol Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) is excellent as the distraught mother, one step away from losing her mind and Keir Dullea (The Fox, 1967) constantly raises the stakes. Noel Coward (The Italian Job, 1969) possibly does the best job of the lot, his normal high levels of sophistication eschewed in favour of the downright creepy.  In supporting roles look out for Clive Revill (Kaleidoscope, 1966), Finlay Currie (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969), Anna Massey (De Sade, 1969) and Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967). Pop group The Zombies featuring Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone put in an appearance.  

Husband-and-wife team John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969) and Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote the screenplay from the besteller by Evelyn Piper. But it is most assuredly an Otto Preminger production. He has a surprisingly good grasp of British custom and character, shot all the movie on location, but in black-and-white so it is not dominated by the tourist London of red buses or red pillar boxes, and his probing camera and long takes are a marvel for any cinematic scholar.

Book into Film – “Advise and Consent” (1962)

While Otto Preminger could be quite intemperate on the movie set, he actually toned down the novel on which Advise and Consent was based. He considered author Allen Drury an “arch-conservative.” So from the outset the film takes a more moderate approach. Where Drury named the U.S. enemy as the Soviet Union, Preminger stuck to the more generic communists. it was a different story when he was trying to set up a picture. Not only did the director cut down on the obvious anti-communist stance but veered away from taking a moral high ground.

In any case, there was a great deal that required to be eliminated- especially from a novel that clocked in at 600-plus pages. For example, the Leffingwell story is effectively dealt with 100 pages before the end of the book.  

More importantly, Preminger made the main character Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) more sympathetic. In the book, he is more of a typical politician, able to talk his way out of anything and proud of such a skill. Various scenes, not in the book, were inserted to make Leffingwell more principled, the main addition being the sequence where the politician confesses to the President (Franchot Tone) that he had lied about previous Communist affiliations. In the book Leffingwell and Van Ackerman (George Gizzard) are allies, but not in the film. More importantly, to rack up the tension, the book has Leffingwell easily defeated in the vote, whereas there is deadlock in the film.

It would have indeed been casting against type had Fonda played Leffingwell as outlined in the novel and the Preminger presentation he has a presidential stature and unusual humility for a politician.

Narrative simplification was also necessary. Van Ackerman carries the blame in the film for the blackmail scheme, but in the book this involves a greater conspiracy. Drury portrays Ackerman as a fairly villainous character with severe personality malfunction but the film treats him in more rounded fashion. Orrin Knox (Edward Andrews), one the book’s main characters, was marginalized in the film.

Preminger added scenes relating to the homosexuality of Brig (Don Murray) in an effort to give the character greater depth and to clarify his motivation and especially to ensure his suicide was a result of his internal conflict rather than the blackmail, as was the case in the book. The letter at the end makes no judgement on him.

Drury tended to show his characters in black-and-white, so that instead of a muscular and inflammatory critique of the politicians, with all their chicanery, but Preminger allows the characters to speak for themselves rather than setting them up to be shot down by an audience. As I mentioned in my review of the film in the Blog, many of the politicians engage in verbal duels and present themselves not so much as cocky but confident, not so much smarmy as charming. Here, the actors are encouraged to become performers without their performances degenerating into ham acting.

As congressional correspondent for the New York Times, Drury had an intimate knowledge of the political scene and it is no surprise that each character in the book was modelled on an existing politician – even the blackmail story was drawn from a real-life incident.. By removing much of the party politics in order to concentrate on the main central issues, and by allowing the actors great freedom with their roles, Preminger was able both to humanise the characters and also ensure they were not easily recognizable as current or past politicians.

As in other films, Preminger set to out create a picture about  a moral issue, not one where there is a right way and a wrong way, although the governing party is shown to be generally uncompromising when it comes to dealing with anyone who steps out of line.

In a film that could be easily have been dogged by dialogue or argument, Preminger’s free-flowing camera movement ensures there is a sense not just of excitement and exhilaration but forward movement. Perhaps this film demonstrates more than nay other the director’s mastery of cinematographic techniques.

Behind the Scenes – “Advise and Consent” (1962)

Just before setting off to film Exodus (1960), director Otto Preminger ponied up $200,000 for the rights to Allen Drury’s inflammatory novel three months after publication. He expected to place the picture with United Artists, with whom he was in partnership over Exodus, but perhaps his remuneration package was too high, for Advise and Consent ended up at Columbia.

Preminger postponed shooting of Bunny Lake Is Missing in order to start on Advise and Consent. But filming of the former was in part delayed due to pregnancy of the proposed female lead Lee Remick.

When Wendell Mayes script was submitted in July 1961 to the Production Code for approval, the main issue under discussion was the treatment of homosexuality, and as a consequence some scenes were trimmed or treated in a different manner. In fact, Preminger was more explicit than the novel about same-sex relationships. The Code approved the production with changes on the basis that a revision of the current system was imminent. Preminger was turned down by a number of well-known actors because of this aspect of Brig’s character, before eventually turning to Don Murray.

As mentioned in the review yesterday, Preminger hired actors who had long been out of the business. The blacklisted Will Geer hadn’t made a film in over a decade, Franchot Tone had not been seen on screen since 1951 when he had been involved in love triangle, for Lew Ayres it was nearly a decade, while Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized, had last made a picture in 1955. Martin Luther King was offered the role of a Georgia senator.

Astonishingly since the book and film had taken pot shots at the American political system, beginning late September 1961, Preminger was granted permission to shoot in the Senate, taking over the Russell Senate State building, with the Senate Caucus Room used for the sub-committee rooms. To cut down on shooting time, Preminger often filmed with two cameras and finished filming after two or three takes.  Preminger was racing through shooting in order to release the film in December in the hope of snagging Oscar nominations.

Filming lasted barely three months in total, beginning September 5 and ending on . the early scenes shot included the sequences in Munson’s hotel room (filmed at the Sheraton Park hotel), the White House correspondents’ dinner (the ballroom of the same hotel) and Dolly’s party (at Tregaron, a private residence once owned by joseph A. Davies, an ambassador to the Soveiet Union.

Understandably nervous after such a long time away from filming, and probably doubly nervous to be working with a director known for his titanic rages, Gene Tierney, “though just frightened to death” received nothing but gentlemanly treatment. Franchot Tone, on the other hand, was reduced to tears. Don Murray only once felt the sharp end of the Preminger tongue, but other found that he could manage the director as long as he did not show a weakness. However, Preminger did disparage cinematographer Sam Leavitt and actor Larry Tucker, apparently to demonstrate his fiery side for visiting journalists, fired three crewmen. Arguments with unions set the production back $150,000-$200,000.

Away from the set, Peter Lawford’s involvement in the picture apparently drew the ire of President John F. Kennedy. The Press had a field day after “word leaked out.” There was also concern about Gene Tierney’s role as a society hostess.

Possibly aware of the changing mood in the critical world, Preminger had invited Jean Domarchi of Cahiers du Cinema to observe the shooting.

By the time the film was being prepped for released, Allen Drury’s novel had spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and the author had won the Pulitzer Prize. Drury hated what Preminger had done to this novel, got his revenge by delaying the film’s release. A stage version of the book was not going to complete its run until June 1962 and Drury applied for – and won – an injunction to prevent the film opening before then. Preminger had been aware of the problem and had attempted, while the movie was in the first month of filming, to exploit a legal loophole to allow the movie to be shown in December. (Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 1954 had suffered the same fate). This also put the blocks on RCA Victor’s plans to release a soundtrack album – “for minutes of music…no vocals.”

Sources: Chris Fujiwara, The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Faber and Faber 2008, p280-289; Mark Shives, “Otto Preminger on Advise and Consent,” Movie 4, p26-27; Jean Domarchi, “Voyage a Washington,” Cahiers du Cinema 22, p28-30; “Code Seal to Advise and Consent,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, p8; “Preminger Postpones One; To Start on Advise,” Box Office; January 12, 1961, p23; “Otto Preminger’s Advise Transferred to Columbia,” Box Office, August 14, 1961, p10; “Bunny Lake Is Delayed; Prem Moves Up Casting of Advise and Consent,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Consent Pic Delay Stalls Victor album,” Variety, December 27, 1961, p39; “Lew Ayres into Consent, He and Tierney on Comeback Trail,” Variety, August 16, 1961, p20; “Is JFK Miffed About Lawford Role Or Is It More Pic Ballyhoo?,” Variety, August 30, 1961, p2; “Report Preminger Seeks Early Release of Advise,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p69.

Advise and Consent (1962) ****

Excoriating engrossing political drama in which the unscrupulous take the moral high ground and the principled are destroyed. In other words, the reality of power – gaining it and keeping it and all the skullduggery in between. And it has resonance in today’s cancel culture for it is minor indiscretions from the past that bring down the most upstanding of the species.  

Theoretically, director Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown, 1967) broke one major taboo in touching on the subject of same-sex relationships. But in reality he took an even bolder step from the Hollywood perspective of giving center stage in the main to older players. Many  had first come to the fore in the 1930s or earlier – Walter Pidgeon (Turn Back the Hours, 1928), Lew Ayres (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930),  Charles Laughton (Oscar winner for The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933), Franchot Tone (Oscar nominated for Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935), Henry Fonda (You Only Live Once, 1937). This was the kind of all-star cast you used to get in 1960s big-budget pictures filling out supporting roles. But in this ensemble drama, they all, at various times, hold the floor. And this approach lent the movie greater authenticity.  Even if few viewers today fail to recognize many, that, too, works in the movie’s favor, giving it an almost documentary feel.

Movies about politics are never heavy on plot, so if you’re looking for a thriller in the way of All the President’s Men (1973) go elsewhere. It has more in common with The Trial of the Chicago Seven (2020) with multiple viewpoints and opposing perspectives. What the best movies about politics have in abundance is repartee. Virtually every exchange is a verbal duel, the cut and thrust, the slashing attack, the parry, sometimes a knockout blow delivered through humor. Given politicians spend most of their lives making speeches, even the shortest of sentences, even the bon mots, have a polished ring. And that, frankly, is the joy of this picture, brilliantly written by Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) from the Allen Drury bestseller. In some respects the plot is almost a MacGuffin, a way into this labyrinthine world, where characters duck and dive like a more elevated breed of gangster

A lesser director would have given in to the temptation of filming these duels in close-up.  Instead, Preminger’s direction is almost stately, keeping characters at bay.

A seriously ill President (Franchot Tone), distrusting his feeble Vice-President Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres), decides to fill the vacancy for Secretary of State with highly-principled Senator Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda). This not being the beginning of the President’s term, he can’t just do what he wants, his nomination must go before a committee and then face a vote in the Senate. The Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon) isn’t too happy with the idea, seeing Leffingwell as a dove, likely to appease the growing Soviet threat. Others on the committee, namely Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) side with Munson and the committee hearing turns into a hostile interrogation. The fine upstanding Leffingwell parries well until Senator Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton) introduces a witness Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith) who says Leffingwell belonged to a Communist cell, an accusation Leffingwell denies.

Twist number one: Leffingwell has lied on oath. He confesses this to a friend Hardiman Fletcher (Paul McGrath) who then stitches up the witness. The committee apologises to Leffingwell, which means he is a sure thing for the post, but Cooley smells a rat and starts his own investigation. Leffingwell tries to get out of the job, admitting his perjury, but – twist number two – the President refuses. Munson and Anderson are let in on the secret, the former willing to accommodate the President but the latter outraged and planning to thwart the nomination when it reaches the voting stage at the Senate. Anderson comes under pressure, phone calls to his wife about something from his past that occurred in Hawaii.

And so the stage is set. The pressure builds on Anderson. The President becomes more unwell, making the appointment of Leffingwell more crucial. Aware of Anderson’s intentions, Munson starts whipping up votes, with Cooley doing the same for the opposition. Machinations take over.  And for a movie that was initially light on plot, it ends with three stunning twists, and proving once and for all there is nothing quite so standard as the self-serving politician.

This was the first movie for several years for Henry Fonda (Broadway and television his refuge) and for Gene Tierney (Laura, 1945) – playing a society hostess – who was recovering from mental health problems and the last screen appearance of Charles Laughton. The acting is uniformly excellent and the direction confident and accomplished.  

A slow-burner for sure, but a fascinating insight into the less savory aspects of politics and the human collateral damage.  

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