B Roll is a weekly column that digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, and the awesome. This week, writer Nathanael Hood tackles Otto Preminger’s confused and cartoonish Margin For Error.
At first glance, Otto Preminger seems like the perfect choice to direct Margin for Error, a film based on a true story about a Jewish policeman assigned to bodyguard the Nazi German consul in New York City in the years before America’s entry into World War Two. Preminger enthusiastically tackled sensitive and controversial subjects such as drug addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm ), racism (The Cardinal ), and violent class warfare (Hurry Sundown ). Preminger steeled his camera with a cool, detached eye that destabilized audiences looking for clear-cut battles between “good” and “evil.” But those looking for moral ambiguity in a story about a Jew being forced to protect a man sworn to exterminate his entire race will be sorely disappointed in Preminger’s Margin for Error (1943).
In fact, the film represents almost the exact opposite of what Preminger would come to stand for as a director. Where his other films were impersonal, Margin for Error was intensely personal (a fact in large part explained by Preminger’s own Jewish heritage). Where his other films strove for objectivity, Margin for Error was almost cartoonishly subjective: America is indisputably good and righteous, Nazi Germany is indisputably corrupt and evil. Preminger himself stars as the primary antagonist, Nazi consul Karl Baumer. With a bald head and monocle seemingly pilfered from Erich von Stroheim, Baumer is one of the most absurdly over-the-top cinematic Nazis not played by Dyanne Thorne. Ordered to organize a sabotage ring in the States, Baumer gleefully torments his Czechoslovakian wife Sophia (Joan Bennett), browbeats his part-Jewish secretary Baron Max von Alvenstor (Carl Esmond), and shamelessly gambles away Nazi funds.
Compare Baumer with the hero Moe Finkelstein (Milton Berle). Finkelstein divides his time romancing and “Americanizing” one of Baumer’s German-speaking maids, acting alternatively exasperated and enraged by Baumer, and making patriotic speeches about the righteousness of democracy—complete with patriotic musical accompaniment on the soundtrack.
The last act of Margin for Error is the weakest as it collapses into a bizarre murder mystery after Baumer is murdered three times over—shot, stabbed, and poisoned—apparently by three different assailants. One could be forgiven for believing that the last reel had been mixed up by a careless projectionist with the print of a Hitchcock thriller. Yet unlike a Hitchcock film, it doesn’t even have the decency to communicate the mystery via visual language, favoring instead a series of clumsy exposition dumps.
Margin for Error is a film at war with itself. On the one hand it is too unapologetically patriotic in its grandstanding concerning both the supremacy of democratic freedom over National Socialism and how European-Americans, especially German-Americans, detest Nazism (an attribute no doubt credible to Samuel Fuller’s contributions to the screenplay). But on the other hand Preminger’s stylistic choices—frequent medium-long and long shots, abundant two shots, and a multitude of long tracking shots—seem to predict his later concern with cinematic objectivity. Thankfully, one year after Margin of Error was released Preminger would direct Laura (1944), the film that would establish him as a major Hollywood player and help codify his themes and techniques as a filmmaker. It too featured a murder mystery. But this time the mystery would be both compelling and crucial to the narrative.
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