Otto Preminger, 79, one of the motion picture industry's premier directors, whose films broke new ground in the cinema of the 1950s by addressing such issues as drug addiction in "The Man With the Golden Arm" and rape in "Anatomy of a Murder," died of cancer yesterday in his apartment in New York City.
In a career that spanned more than four decades, Mr. Preminger directed, produced or acted in 41 films. He directed such popular pictures as "Exodus," "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell," "Advise and Consent" and "The Cardinal." As an actor he portrayed the Nazi commandant of a German prisoner-of-war camp in "Stalag 17."
Autocratic and quick-tempered, Mr. Preminger was one of the more independent figures in the American film industry. He was one of the first directors to operate outside the traditional studio structure, and throughout his career he habitually flouted normal business mores.
He is generally acknowledged to have been the man who erased the infamous Hollywood blacklist, begun during the late 1940s when leading screenwriters were summoned to testify before Congress about alleged communist affiliations. Hundreds were unable to find work under their own names for years afterward.
In 1960, Mr. Preminger announced that he had hired Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter who had been blacklisted for 13 years after refusing to testify about alleged communist connections, to do the script for the film "Exodus." Ostracism of film talent on political grounds, he said, was "just like lynching."
He signed Joseph N. Welch -- the Boston attorney who attracted nationwide attention during the Army-McCarthy hearings with his comment to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" -- to play the part of the judge in "Anatomy of a Murder," which was released in 1959.
The film initially was to have featured Lana Turner as a woman who claims to have been raped by the man her husband is accused of murdering, but Turner walked off the set in a dispute with Mr. Preminger, who subsequently vowed to "get an unknown and make her a star." He cast Lee Remick in the part, and cast another film newcomer, George C. Scott, in another role.
Mr. Preminger was one of the first U.S. film directors to make a motion picture that depicted black people with dignity when he directed "Carmen Jones," an adaptation of the Bizet opera, with an all-black cast in 1954. He launched a highly publicized talent search in the United States, Canada and Europe for an actress to play Joan of Arc in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan," and after screening 18,000 candidates announced he had chosen Jean Seberg, the 17-year-old daughter of a Marshalltown, Iowa, druggist.
Seberg, who would later characterize Mr. Preminger as "the world's most charming dinner guest and the world's most sadistic film director," drew less than rave reviews for her performances in "Saint Joan" and later for Mr. Preminger in "Bonjour Tristesse." In September of 1979, more than 20 years after her association with Mr. Preminger had ended, she was found dead of a drug overdose in the back of her car in Paris.
Born in Vienna, Mr. Preminger earned a law degree at the University of Vienna, but he was drawn to the theater, and he staged and acted in stock companies in Europe during summer vacations and holidays while still a student. Mr. Preminger, who was Jewish, came to the United States in 1935, partly because of attractive opportunities here and partly because of the political climate in Europe, where the Nazis had already seized power in Germany.
During the late 1930s he directed and acted in stage and film productions in New York and Hollywood, then in 1941 signed a contract to direct, produce and act in pictures for Twentieth Century-Fox. Because of his accent he was often cast as a Nazi officer during the early years of World War II.
In 1944 Mr. Preminger directed the haunting murder mystery "Laura," starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, a film that brought him widespread attention. Alton Cook, writing in the New York World-Telegram, said the film "finally makes it clear that he Preminger is one of Hollywood's great craftsmen among directors."
"Forever Amber," a film version of Kathleen Winsor's novel about a Restoration trollop, brought Mr. Preminger his first of several confrontations with the Roman Catholic Church after its release in 1947. New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman and the Church's Legion of Decency called it obscene and placed it in the "condemned" category.
In 1953 Mr. Preminger clashed with the Catholic Church again, this time over his direction of "The Moon is Blue," an adaptation of a Broadway bedroom comedy. That film ran without the Motion Picture Production Code seal of approval and received a "condemned" rating from the church because its screenplay contained the words "virgin" and "pregnant."
In Maryland, state censors banned parts of "The Man with the Golden Arm," the 1955 film about drug addiction starring Frank Sinatra, but that action was subsequently overturned by the state's court of appeals. That and other decisions involving Mr. Preminger's films helped influence a liberalization of the motion picture code in 1956.
Mr. Preminger's last film was "The Human Factor," a 1980 adaptation of a novel by Graham Greene about a British Secret Service desk officer who is drawn into a plot of double-dealing involving his black South African wife.
Mr. Preminger was married three times. His first wife, Marion, divorced him in 1949 after 18 years of marriage because, she said, of his "violent temper." In 1951 he married Mary Gardner, an artist, who divorced him six years later.
While filming "Exodus" in Israel in 1958, he married Hope Price, his production costume coordinator. They had twins, Victoria Elizabeth and Mark William. Mr. Preminger also had a son, Erik Lee Kirkland, by striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, but it was not until after her death in 1970 that he acknowledged his paternity and the son assumed Preminger as his last name.