Monday, January 01, 2007

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)

Otto Preminger's 1955 CinemaScope curiosity The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell came right on the heels of the great critical and financial success of The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), his Frank Sinatra heroin addiction film. Perhaps taxed after that intense drama - he shows zero interest in the story, focusing entirely on how to organize people in the frame.

Gary Cooper plays the title character, a General in the Air Corps who served in WW1. After the war, he agitates for further investment in the air fleet, convinced that is where the future of combat lay. He runs into bureaucratic indifference as his fliers die in large numbers due to out of date equipment. In order to shine a light on these deficiences, he intentionally slanders the Army and Navy brass in order to be court-martialed to give himself a bully pulpit to espouse his views.

Cooper is effective as always, and the supporting cast is uniformly superb, with Ralph Bellamy as a Southern congressman/lawyer, Elizabeth Montgomery as the widow of one of the fliers, Peter Graves and Darren McGavin as flyboys, and Rod Steiger, who shows up in the last 20 minutes as a psychotically intense prosecutor and pretty much steals the movie.

All that is well and good, but Preminger could care less. There's no effort given at creating tension, as all of the crashes are kept off-screen and when Mitchell's best friend dies, there's no scene of mourning or even consolation for the widow, who serves as the most important witness in his trial. She disappears from the film after her husband's death and returns only to fulfill the needs of the plot. This spartan plot procession is fascinating in its own right, it's skeletal quality becoming hypnotic as events pile up with no one seeming to care that much.

All this is incidental though, because what matters is those frames, of which every possible inch is used. No film I've seen made me more aware of the distortions the CinemaScope format makes at the edges of the shots - the left and right sides are slightly curved. There's a great shot on the National Mall where the Washington Monument looks about to tip over because of this effect. But I became aware of this because of how much of the frame he uses. There's always somebody on the extreme edge, I was struck by one shot in Cooper's office where he dismisses his guest once his assistant walks in, but the assistant is barely visible, his legs protruding from the extreme left side as Cooper sits down to the right. It's a throwaway shot, but an unbelievably strange one. It's filled with such curiosities like this, making the film a sort of notebook of ideas that Preminger would use in films he had more of an investment in - like Bonjour Tristesse (1958), which contains the greatest 'Scope compositions I've ever seen.


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