Otto Pilot

We had a strange Otto Preminger double feature of THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL and BONJOUR TRISTESSE, two of the bald auteur’s movies I’d never caught up with. I find him simply unwatchable in anything but the exactly right aspect ratio, and TCMOBM hadn’t been screened on TV in anything but wretched pan-and-scans. Seeing it in ‘Scope was a revelation — unfortunately it was a revelation of how not particularly good a film it is.

(I’ll possibly look at BONJOUR in a separate post.)

The late Billy Mitchell’s family hated the casting of Gary Cooper, saying that he was a small, explosive man, and Jimmy Cagney would have been ideal. Cagney wasn’t quite the dynamo he had been by 1955, of course, but he’d still have held the interest better than Coop. HIGH NOON would tend to suggest that he’d be a good man to suggest the character’s inner torment — basically, the lifelong military officer is forced to denounce the army’s policy toward aviation in the press, because he sees it as essential to national security. In the dock, he predicts the attack on Pearl Harbor by decades. So you could imagine Coop’s eyes revealing a lot of tension and sorrow and doubt. Doesn’t really seem to happen, though.

It’s one of those movies, also, where you know exactly what to think. Preminger is often praised today for his even-handedness, but he isn’t able to get any of that in here: Cooper’s chief opponent in the army is Charles Bickford, a competent but unlikable actor, good at unlikable roles (as in Otto’s FALLEN ANGEL). The prosecutor is played by Fred Clark, king of the fatuous falling face, hired to look astonished whenever his prosecutorial gambits collapse on him. And then they bring in the heavy hitter, top lawyer Rod Steiger, who brings all the expected chubby smarm to the role. He’s exactly the equivalent of George C. Scott’s dangerous opponent in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, but Scott is wonderfully unexpected in that role, which can’t be said for Rod. As Fiona observed in astonishment back when we viewed AOAM for the first time, “My God, George is sexy, even though he’s… almost deformed.” Sexy gargoyle beats smirking dumpling.

Still, Rod brings the entertainment. Prior to his appearance, there are some future TV stars making brief appearances, but the most characterful turn is by Ralph Bellamy, whom we love, but who perhaps can’t quite add the necessary animation and engagement to a static colossus like this. As an early Cinemascope film, the movie lacks the fluidity and dynamism of later Preminger outings — lots of flat twos. His previous MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, though hampered by cheap sets, was vastly more interesting.

The correct pairing for this film would have been IN HARM’S WAY, where Billy Mitchell’s prophecy of air war comes horribly true, but that would have been a REALLY dull evening.

THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL stars Longfellow Deeds; Oliver Niles; Bruce Baldwin; Mr. Joyboy; Lizzie Borden; Sheldrake; Honorious; Felix Leiter; Captain Clarence Oveur; Carl Kolchak; J. Jonah Jameson; Ben Hubbard; Cueball; Horace Greeley (uncredited); Lover Boy; Detective Dickens; and Fanning Nelson (uncredited).

17 Responses to “Otto Pilot”

  1. Otto loed courtroom drma and his “Anatomy of a Murder” is the best ever made. “Billy Mitchell” is definitely sub-par. Can’t wait for your take on “Bonjur Tristesse” Seberg is Perfection in it. Recently on Facebook I ran into Geoffrey Horne who played her discared boytoy in it. He also had a featured role in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and as if that weren’t enough he played the adult “Franklin Shepard” in the original Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along’

  2. Otto had legal training, of course. Which certainly feeds into Anatomy’s authenticity, but can’t find much purchase here. But there is a trace of Preminger’s fair-play approach: the court martial is obviously a kangaroo court, at least mostly, but the movie and its hero refuse to say so.

  3. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    “Bonjour Tristesse” reveals David Niven at his creepiest.

  4. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Speaking of DE’s pick, am I the only person who thinks Preminger is a terrible, terrible filmmaker? “Laura” is a parody of cinema.

  5. Hollywood is a place where war is abhorred except on the big silver screen. It delivers on its promise of bloodshed and grotesque action, while creating an environment of disastrous mistakes in the ransomed randomness of war.

    Actually, the screenwriters are to blame. They assume the audience is stupider than it really is. Starkly writing their screeds, the screenwriter collects his money and runs with it. The writer doesn’t stand by his work.

    At least with blogs you know there’s sincerity behind it.

  6. Laura isn’t where it’s at (but it’s good and weird). Fallen Angel is more impressive to me: when Otto is in long take mode, his stuff has incredible beauty. It just doesn’t do what movies usually do.

  7. Yes you are Daniel. Preinger’s career is uneven but at his best there’ no one quite like him. “Laura,” “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Carmen Jonesaaaaaaaaaaa’ are all great films. And that’s not tomention his Maudit Masterpiec

  8. Otto wanted to make a film about late 60’s “Youth Culure.” He opioned John Hersey’s “Too Far To Walk” and had planned to make a fil of it starring (wait fot it) Amy Taubin. But then Ottodropped acod and made “Skidoo” instead

  9. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Funny. I had one encounter with AT. Skidoo looked promising. Gotta say I thought it was garbage. I see Preminger’s output as strictly middle-class filmmaking.

  10. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Preminger and Succession have too much in common.

  11. Preminger’s formal interest is what makes him, rather than his later devotion to big cause white elephant filmmaking. Somebody trashed him by saying that he had mastered the art of appearing to tackle big important subjects without ever making the tactical mistake of actually doing so. More sympathetic analysts like Chris Fujiwara see his reluctance to take sides as a strength.

    Wherever you stand on his approach to his subject matter, you gotta be blind to not appreciate the long takes of Bunny Lake is Missing.

  12. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Never saw BUNNY LAKE, but will give it a shot. I guess I agree with the first “elephant” criticism if we’re speaking generally. If it’s possible for anything to nullify formal beauty, it’s empty grandiosity where social issues are concerned. Hence, my Succession and “middle-class” digs.

  13. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Or, to put it another way, formal beauty at the service of — well, nothing — depresses me. That kind of capital “F” Formalism is not art, it’s a visual reinforcement of privilege, a kind of wall sealing out more than it reveals. Formalism that tries to stop… Seeing?

  14. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    “Bonjour Tristesse” fits the bill, though it certainly has one thing going for it: you’ll never want to watch another David Niven movie minus a handy vomit bucket.

  15. For a behind-the-wcenes peek at “Skidoo” be sure to read my husband’s memoir “Early Plastic” He was crshing in John Phillip Law’s basement at the time of its making.

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