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August 13, 2006

Otto Preminger: A Girl in Trouble is a Film Noir Thing

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Whirlpool
Otto Preminger - 1949
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

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Bunny Lake is Missing
Otto Preminger - 1965
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

" . . . read masses of noir novels and see film noirs in abundance. As long as you only do your killing in your imagination, we'll be able to to sleep in peace. It's the blessing I wish for us all."
Marcel Duhamel from the preface for A Panorama of American Film Noir by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton.

I've been reading Borde and Chaumeton's book on Film Noir. Duhamel published crime novels as part under the banner of La Serie Noire (Series Black). While the literary roots of film noir are explored, I had to think of the other color, yellow, and how much of what Borde and Chaumeton write could easily be applied to Giallo, both in print and on the screen. The relationship between noir and giallo has yet to be fully explored. It would be facile to say that giallo is a less polite version of noir, a more obvious display of noir's sex and violence. Neither of the Preminger films that I saw could be defined as giallo, but some of the more lurid aspects to Whirlpool and especially Bunny Lake is Missing suggest these films could be viewed as transitional links.

Both films are about women in peril, in situations that defy rational explanation. Both women are also made to doubt their sanity by both well-meaning and not so well-meaning men. While Whirlpool is the more conventional film, from Guy Endore's novel, Methinks a Lady, an examination of Endore's bibliography suggests a greater interest in sex and horror than could be accommodated in an American film in the late Forties. The narrative of the "crazy" young woman would be explored by such giallo filmmakers as Mario Bava and Sergio Martino. Both of Preminger's films have Gene Tierney and Carol Lynley as the victims of men who are revealed as crazier than is alleged of either woman. In the Preminger films, as is often the case in giallo, the plot hinges on a psycho-sexual secret.

Being the Forties, one of gorier parts of Whirlpool is described, leaving its vividness up to imagination of the audience. In the more open Sixties, Preminger could openly mention abortion and hint at incest. The scene of a doll set on fire in Bunny Lake is not far removed from Dario Argento's troubled characters haunted by childhood trauma. Sado-masochism, a frequent staple of giallo, is also clearly suggested in Bunny Lake by the whip wielding Noel Coward. Bringing things to a sort of circle, it should be noted that De Sade was the subject of a book by Guy Endore. In the Preminger films, like the giallo films, the villain isn't just crazy, he's "let's lock the door and throw away the key" nuts.

Because of the crumbling restrictions of the Production Code, it may be that Preminger took on Bunny Lake not only to make a smaller film in the midst of his larger scale works of the Sixties, but also to make the kind of film he could not make in the Forties during the period between Laura and Angel Face. A tentative connection to horror films is made by the inclusion of the British invasion band, The Zombies, most famous for their song, which would have been fitting for Bunny Lake, "She's Not There". What is interesting about Bunny Lake is that there is what could be described as a subjective breakdown of the narrative during the scene of adults playing childrens' game such as "Hide and Seek". The transition is initially jarring. At the same time the scene anticipates some of the subjectivity that would appear in giallo films which would reflect the disoriented and disorienting worlds of villains and victims. Preminger, unlike someone like Argento, would still have one foot in the "real" world, returning within a few minutes to a more objective view. This scene, plus the explanatory scene that precedes it are not only key to Preminger's film, but suggest that Bunny Lake is Missing could be re-examined as a transitional link. Preminger may have been reworking Film Noir for a post-Psycho audience, but Bunny Lake also contains some of the seeds that would grow wildly, colorfully, and often with little inhibition, in Giallo.

Posted by peter at August 13, 2006 09:00 AM