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Monday, January 20, 2014

THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1955)

Otto Preminger found his distinctive WideScreen shooting style on CARMEN JONES/’54, and stuck with it for the rest of his career.* Excepting the one film he subsequently made for a producer not named Otto Preminger, this one. It's a fictionalized (military) courtroom drama about a WWI Airman who tries insubordination to make a point, and lots of national noise, to call attention to the woefully under-funded post-WWI Air Force. Most of the film, looking a bit tired in a mediocre transfer from Olive Films, might have been shot by any studio hack filling out the big, big CinemaScope frame. Briefly, le vrai Otto shows up in a sweepingly staged shot that follows Defense Attorneys Ralph Bellamy & James Daly descending a grand D.C. stairway, panning along a grassy incline and down to the Mall Reservoir as Washington Monument shines in the background. Now there’s an Otto Preminger shot! Gary Cooper gets one too, right at the end as his Billy Mitchell takes leave of his old unit. But elsewhere, he just looks plumb tired in the same damn period aviator helmet which would soon defeat James Stewart in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS/’57. Baby-boomers will enjoy spotting future ‘60s tv icons: James Daly from MEDICAL CENTER; Liz Montgomery of BEWITCHED; James Lord pre-HAWAII 5-0 and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE’s Peter Graves. Otherwise, just hints of a more interesting story than the one we get.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Preminger must have known he’d missed the mark and returned to courtroom drama on ANATOMY OF A MURDER/'59 which tweaks the embarrassing prosecuting ham attorney played here by Rod Steiger with George C. Scott's masterly display in a similar role.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The likely source of Preminger’s WideScreen breakthrough on CARMEN JONES was uncredited Dance Director Herbert Ross. Otto's follow-up pic, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM/’55 with its drab, suffocating studio-bound look, isn't part of our theory since it was shot ‘flat’ with a 1.85:1 frame ratio.

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