Preminger’s Last Film

DATELINE: Graham Greene Spy Novel!

 Robert Morley.

Based on a Graham Greene novel, this movie is the ultimate in dry British style. In some ways it is the antithesis of what you’d expect from James Bond or George Smiley. There is really no action, but it is hilarious in its microcosmic scenes.

The Human Factoris a far-cry from the action flicks Preminger gave us fromLaura  to Stalag 17  to Bunny Lake is Missing,and on and on. Preminger’s list of credits is astounding. So, this may be a bit of a shock to fans who may think the old master had lost it in old age.

The cast is nothing short of dead-pan marvelous: Nicol Williamson, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Richard Attenborough, and Robert Morley in fine fettle.

It’s 1979 and there is a leak in security at the MI-5 HQ. Maybe it’s serious, and maybe they are just over-reacting—think of Kim Philby.

Preminger just lets the actors downplay. As for the plot, it has to do with Britain’s involvement in apartheid Africa, which is lost on most American audiences. Flashbacks a decade earlier show Williamson with his beautiful African wife, Imam. You know it’s a flashback because he doesn’t have a mustache.

In between the dull parts, you have Robert Morley mugging at the girls in a strip bar, most unconvincingly but comic for sure. It’s all veddy-veddy British.

It is almost quaint to see the simple tools of spying, dropped off messages, phone calls on land-lines, and simple codes.

Noted actress Ann Todd appears in a pivotal, harsh role as Williamsson’s mother toward the end—and the defector games seem almost like Edward Snowden modern.

Otto Preminger’s low-budget effort is in a minor key, but he stayed active and possibly relevant, even in his final movie directing.






Predictions of Billy Mitchell at His Court Martial

DATELINE: Court of Public Opinioncoop-as-mitch

If you have a fondness for court room drama, you may have overlooked an Otto Preminger film, starring Gary Cooper. It’s out there if you look: The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.

It was not well-received back in 1955, though it was fascinating even then to look back on Col. Billy Mitchell, an aviation pioneer in the U.S. Army who was court-martialed for decrying the incompetence and negligence of the 1920s military authorities.

Cooper always brought a built-in sympathy to his biographical roles—and Col. Mitchell was, above all else, a patriot—even when his peers, a who’s who of military heroes, came together to demote and to suspend him. History vindicated him and the short-sightedness of the Army.

An all-star cast, by later standards, filled out the ranks: before they were really big, Darren McGavin, Peter Graves, and Jack Lord, played Col. Mitchell’s friends. And, the cast even featured a Douglas MacArthur lookalike as one of the judges. Well, MacArthur was among the real life judges.

Charles Bickford is his usual tough-guy general—and usually comic Fred Clark is the prosecutor who is relieved of duty to bring in the big gun: Rod Steiger, to shred Col. Mitchell in the climactic testimony scene. James Daly and Ralph Bellamy are his defenders.

It’s all rather pedestrian in its film style, but Billy did predict an Air Force Academy, jets that could fly 1000 miles an hour, and the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1923.  We don’t hear the name Billy Mitchell on Donald Trump’s list of military heroes—but he should be. The film is color, but feels like it’s black and white.

Mitchell went after government and tried to change it abruptly with a turn toward the future. He failed, but hindsight recognition is better than none at all.

We thoroughly enjoyed this historical episode, brought to life by a generation of top-drawer professionals.

Where Good Scripts End


 Image Not Laura, Not Even Close

Nothing irks us like a plot that only an idiot could appreciate. When we see such bad writing in a major motion picture, no matter where and when it was produced, we are ready to take our machete to the film stock.

We came to 1950’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, as always, with high hopes and good intentions. We never finished watching the film, becoming incensed that Otto Preminger could make such a bad film.

We can’t spoil such a movie because we have no idea what happened, but we can guess.

This movie starred some fairly good actors in interesting roles: Harry Von Zell as a rich gambler, Craig Stevens as a drunk playboy, Gary Merrill as a gangster, Karl Malden as the police captain.

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are teamed again for Preminger, hoping Laura’s lightning will strike twice. This film has no thunder or lightning. The stars are wasted, and Clifton Webb is nowhere to be seen.

Inexplicably, there is no David Raksin haunting musical score that gave Laura its mesmerizing edge. The earlier film was based on a solid Vera Caspary novel, whereas this is some cheese-pot boiler.

Here again Dana Andrews is a hard-bitten police detective in the Dirty Harry mode. As foreshadowing of the Clint Eastwood character, this one is prone to violence on the job and disapproval from his superiors. There it ends.

When a culprit dies at his hand (a one punch knockout), Andrews could simply call in his colleagues and say he found the man dead. Instead, he goes through an elaborate and unnecessary coverup.

Our guess is the mob poisoned the victim to die in the detective’s presence to implicate him. We have no idea because we shut off the movie.

We prefer our police detectives to be intelligent and overeager, not stupid. The Andrews character would send Sherlock Holmes into gales of laughter. At least Detective Lestrade was honest.

Maybe we are wrong about this movie, but with all its talents, no one bothered to think about how dumb the script was.