When the movies became more open to vulgarity, violence, and sexuality in the late 1960s, a wave of young filmmakers took advantage, and reshaped American cinema. Meanwhile, the generation of directors before them responded to the new permissiveness in ways that exposed Hollywood’s innate aesthetic conservatism. Some of the more accomplished auteurs—like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks—mostly stayed the course, because they’d always worked well within the restrictions of the various Hollywood production codes. Otto Preminger, on the other hand, had frequently bucked up against what the studios would allow, and made a lot of films between the late 1940s and early 1960s that were scandalous at the time, but today seem more tame and neutered. Once Preminger had an opportunity to show what he could do, unfettered, he didn’t suddenly start cranking out masterpieces. But he did make some lively failures. Preminger’s late-period work shadows what was happening in the New Hollywood, and ultimately makes what artists like Robert Altman and Arthur Penn accomplished look all the more impressive.
Olive Films has three of those movies out now on Blu-ray: the 1967 social melodrama Hurry Sundown; the psychedelic 1968 satire Skidoo; and the 1971 upscale relationship dramedy Such Good Friends. (Preminger only made one other film during that half-decade: the earnest Liza Minnelli romance Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.) On their own, each has strengths and weaknesses, and none is a classic—though Skidoo is pretty unforgettable. Strung together, they map out the dead-ends and new avenues of a rapidly changing industry.
Even the gap between Hurry Sundown and Skidoo is wide. The former came out in the year of Bonnie And Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, and The Graduate, but looks like it belongs to another decade. Based on a novel by Katya and Bert Gilden—with a script by Horton Foote, rewritten by Thomas C. Ryan—Hurry Sundown stars Michael Caine and Jane Fonda as an old-money Georgia couple who navigate the racial tensions in their small town while trying to close a big real estate deal, in the years immediately after World War II. The material is a warmed-over hash of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, building to an ending that’s simultaneously tragic and ridiculous. But there’s a sense throughout of Preminger pushing beyond Hollywood phoniness, trying to be more honest about the characters’ sexual desires, and showing the real discrepancy between the fancy homes where the rich white people live, and the muddy shacks of the sharecroppers. Hurry Sundown opens with a series of stunning explosions, in a field that’s being cleared for the construction of a factory. The dynamiting serves as an overture to a film that means—perhaps too heavy-handedly—to demolish the rigid class system of the American South.
If Hurry Sundown was Preminger’s attempt to turn stodgy prestige filmmaking against the establishment, Skidoo saw him abandoning all pretense of good taste and sound judgment. Doran William Cannon’s freewheeling script (reportedly polished in places by the counterculture-savvy Rob Reiner) is about an ex-hitman who gets called back by his former mob boss, “God,” to bump off an imprisoned stoolie. Preminger cast some of the biggest names in Hollywood comedy to play his aging criminals: Jackie Gleason as the assassin, Mickey Rooney as his target, and Groucho Marx as God. Then he set those characters against hordes of long-haired, half-naked hippies, who have a profound effect on the way the old bastards see the world.
Skidoo is lead-footed and painfully unfunny, similar to most of the comedies from Hollywood’s 1960s send-up era. But the Harry Nilsson songs are bright and catchy (including his sung-through closing credits), the inevitable trippy interludes are legitimately freaky, and the commentary on American materialism (established in a long opening montage of appalling TV commercials) has real teeth. As with Hurry Sundown, Preminger has trouble freeing up his style to fit the material, but unlike a lot of his peers, he does try to understand what’s happening all around him, rather than reflexively sneering.
Preminger finally adjusts to the new modes of storytelling with Such Good Friends, an adaptation of Lois Gould’s semi-autobiographical novel about a woman named Julie (played by mainstream Hollywood favorite Dyan Cannon), who discovers her husband’s infidelities while he’s in critical condition at the hospital. Working from an Elaine May script (credited to “Esther Dale,” at May’s request), Preminger and editor Harry Howard do their best to replicate Julie’s rambling thoughts, which has her searching her memory and imagination to piece together what’s happened to her seemingly perfect upper-class New York life. Preminger’s cinematographer Gayne Rescher gives the film the softer, more natural lighting of early-1970s urban films, while Preminger abandons propriety altogether, letting his characters talk openly and explicitly about impotence, ejaculation, and sexual positions.
Such Good Friends isn’t completely on-target. At times, the frank dialogue seems to be the only real point of the film; even then, Preminger shies away from actual eroticism by using wacky kazoo music to score one scene of the heroine disrobing for a prospective lover. But there’s a great line in that scene—“I bear a very close resemblance to a nude woman,” Julie says while looking at a Polaroid of her naked body—that shows some of May’s hand in capturing both one woman’s anxieties and her sense of absurdity. And give Preminger credit: He was so open to what May and Gould had to offer that he captured a few good, true moments, especially in the scenes between Julie and her eternally disapproving mother. But then, that’s in keeping with Preminger’s overall style, even in his earlier films. When he moved his camera, he tried both to bring some dynamism to a scene and to show the audience as much as he could. He’d establish a perspective, then shift it.