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The Reeler Blog

When Otto Met Ernst

Gene Tierney and Jose Ferrer in Whirlpool, the closing-night film of Film Forum's Otto Preminger retrospective

By Miriam Bale

"Otto [Preminger] had the sense of humor of a guillotine," observed Vincent Price after watching Preminger "murder the comedy" in A Royal Scandal, a film that Ernst Lubitsch wrote and produced but could not direct because of illness. Yet the two heavily-accented European directors were neighbors and were -- if not friends -- at least friendly. Lubitsch tolerated Preminger; Preminger wanted to be Lubitsch. (Who wouldn't?) So relentless in this particular goal was Preminger that he was beastly: According to Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, Preminger called studio boss Darryl Zanuck from an informal wake the very night of Lubitsch's death, falsely proclaiming Lubitsch had told Preminger that should anything happen to him, he wanted Preminger to take over his latest movie, That Lady in Ermine. He did take over and, even according to Preminger defenders, smothered it.

Lubitsch's strengths -- subtlety, structure and a consistent tone of artifice -- were ungraspable concepts for Preminger. Obsessed with realism, he whacked at all sides of a character until overwrought and melodramatic characters became fully-shaded portraits of neurosis. Joan Crawford's portrayal of the title character in Daisy Kenyon is a notable example of this, as is Gene Tierney's performance in Whirlpool (screening Thursday at the closing night of Film Forum's Preminger retrospective). Tierney plays the perfect wife of a renown psychiatrist who has some troubles of her own; she's also a secret kleptomaniac. She gets involved with an astrologer/swindler (José Ferrer) who uses hypnosis to psychically blackmail her. Tierney plays crazy better than anyone; in every scene in which she is forced to confront these two conflicting sides of herself, every twitch of thought passing through her head like electricity is completely visible in her watery eyes.

It's this conflict -- the self-consciousness -- that Preminger brings out in this character and that makes her performance so great. While Lubitsch had previously highlighted her otherworldly charm in Heaven Can Wait, and she had been brilliantly yet relentlessly psychotic in Leave Her to Heaven, the conflict here between those two sides is both the style and the content of her performance in this film. "Now relax with me," Ferrer says as he hypnotizes her. "You don't have to exhaust yourself by trying to seem normal -- the serene and devoted wife who doesn't upset your busy husband." Preminger resolves this conflict with typically sledge-hammered ambiguity -- maybe his own greatest strength. All secrets are revealed (and given a Freudian source!), but it also become clear that the happiness in their marriage is because of the roles they play. "A successful marriage is based on what a husband and wife don't know about each other," one character says.

A different take on the same plot can be seen in Benoît Jacquot's fascinating 1997 remake, Seventh Heaven. The issues are made newly topical (the hypnotist is now a sex therapist into feng shui,) but in Jacquot's version each peak in melodrama is followed by self-conscious laughter about it all -- very light and Lubitschian -- by the couple while drinking a little too much together in the kitchen.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.

Posted at January 16, 2008 10:10 AM

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