A debate over the worst film Otto Preminger directed might be an unfortunately varied conversation. There's quite a bit of mediocrity in his career, perhaps as much as or even more than any of the great classic Hollywood filmmakers. The periods before Laura and after Bunny Lake Is Missing are generally regarded quite poorly, though most of those films are difficult to find and conveniently unavailable on DVD. I can assert with confidence that the oft-maligned 1968 comedy Skidoo is just as atrocious as its reputation, yet still an essential curiosity for anyone with the slightest bit of interest. Preminger's penultimate film Rosebud, released in 1975 and adapted for the screen by his son with Gypsy Rose Lee, usually gets thrown into that same fire as a candidate for his career low. Both of the recent biographies on the director, one written by Chris Fujiwara and the other by Foster Hirsch, spend much more time on the chaotic making of the film than trying to rehabilitate the reputation of a seeming lost cause. So is Rosebud indefensible? Is it just a bad movie by a director past his prime who let his inexperienced son take on a role way over his head? Well, maybe.
There's little argument that Rosebud is a messy film rife with script problems. It's not fully coherent or in possession of any sense of purpose. There are downright awe-inspiring absurdities in the screenplay that also bleed into the film. The acting is almost uniformly poor. It presents a situation of vital importance completely stripped of any consideration into the ethics or underlying ideas behind the conflict at hand. Without having read the book, I can only assume it was more efficiently plotted instead of the haphazard bouts of confusion the viewer is given while watching the movie. Those massive deficiencies aside, Rosebud isn't a total failure. Each shortcoming can be addressed rather convincingly if the mood is right. The messiness lends a certain unpredictability that's also accentuated by the film's jumpy incoherence. Why are all five of the girl hostages completely naked when the terrorists take over the boat? I have no idea but it's sort of something to think about, is it not? Kidding aside, there's no reason to completely dismiss a movie so obviously inept when it still manages to be this intriguing and, yes, watchable. For a supposedly bad movie that runs over two hours, Rosebud is hardly dull.
At this point, the only defense that could be taken seriously is probably one of restraint where the argument isn't that the film is among Preminger's best but only that it isn't among his very worst. That's a reasonably comfortable position, I think, because of the plate-spinning plot and the lead performance of Peter O'Toole. Preminger originally had his friend and Angel Face (one of the director's absolute best films) star Robert Mitchum signed up to play Larry Martin, a mercenary passing himself off as a Newsweek magazine correspondent who gets involved in the main plot of trying to recover five girls kidnapped by the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Mitchum filmed a few days and probably would have been great in the role had he not, by most all accounts, imbibed quite so heavily during the production. Preminger politely let Mitchum go and brought in a rail thin Peter O'Toole. Mitchum reportedly likened it to "replacing Ray Charles with Helen Keller." Equally noted drinker O'Toole would cause production to halt for ten days while he was hospitalized for stomach pains. Though they're two of my favorite actors, it wouldn't be a stretch to say Preminger traded one indifferent and alcoholic movie star for another.
As played by O'Toole, however, the lack of concern in the character becomes endearing and vital. It's unclear exactly how he segues from the Newsweek gig into saving the world one teenage girl at a time, but O'Toole quite obviously couldn't care less. Martin's trotting around Paris and Berlin and Corsica with absolutely zero personal investment, and this may well be a more realistic portrayal of the mercenary life than we'd like to think. You could view the performance as a bit removed from the tension normally associated with such international cloak and dagger work, but it's actually this very disinterest that I found to be roguishly charming. O'Toole is very nearly winking at the audience with a healthy awareness of how muddled the plot has become. A film that begins with five spoiled rich girls kidnapped by the PLO to make an international statement in the crusade against Israel becomes an unlikely showcase for Peter O'Toole and his funny hat.
It's unfortunate that only O'Toole and Richard Attenborough, in just a couple of scenes, are able to make any sense of Erik Lee Preminger's script. The girls, including a spirited but green Isabelle Huppert and a plainly horrible Kim Cattrall, are mostly abandoned on screen after the abduction. Former mayor of New York City John Lindsay appears as a U.S. Senator but does himself no favors. That whole subplot tying in the media to the terrorists' demands sort of goes nowhere, and not for a lack of potential. There's an almost tense scenario where the President of the United States doesn't want to show weakness by caving to the terrorists' demands of having a tape air on all three networks one particular night so he basically recuses himself from it all, letting the networks decide. This chess game of power between heads of state and terrorists, with the media the willing middleman, is a fascinating one still very much relevant and with difficult circumstances. Preminger wants to explore this ambiguity but he shows little conviction in doing so, instead moving along quickly to the next chapter of the story. This is what Rosebud is skilled at - planting seeds it has no intention of harvesting.
In creating any sort of reasoned defense of the film, a key element must be Preminger's surprisingly rigid attention to process. The plot has its flaws and the dialogue is often comatose on conception and flatly beaten to death in delivery, but some of Preminger's directorial skill remains visible in the details. He presents fascinating - some might say tedious - steps of seemingly secondary activities while just as freely ignoring what one would typically consider as important aspects of the plot. A terrorist's corkscrew-like weapon of choice is showcased prior to, during, and after it's used. We also witness a series of encounters involving Martin and a German photo developer which sort of lead to furthering the plot, but, like another incident where Martin visits a lab that uses computers to identify the origin of a pebble he picked up, the sequence also plays like an end to itself. These odd fragments have a soothing rhythm amid a disjointed and highly imperfect movie. There's always the possible conclusion that Rosebud isn't quite as bad as its reputation would suggest (and it's not), but I think that does a small disservice to everyone involved. Making a movie that isn't particularly good but that's nonetheless compelling in a very narrow way is a small art unto itself. That feat has certainly been accomplished here. Preminger admirers or apologists may be easier on Rosebud than others, but I'd maintain that it's neither a bad movie nor a particularly good one, placing it, then, alongside a host of other Preminger outings instead of in the dungeon area of his filmography.
Optimum released Rosebud on R2 DVD earlier this year. The film runs over two hours but has only been given a single-layered disc. Some extra noise seems to be a byproduct of this. The 2.35:1 image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. It looks a tad soft, but adequate on the whole. Aside from a few stray marks and lines, the image looks fairly clean. Colors are on the dull side while still being within reason. If you want to own or watch the film, the quality shouldn't keep you away, though it's probably not going to add much extra persuasion.
One audio option and no subtitles, as usual with Optimum. The lack of subtitles is especially annoying here because there are various accents being used and quite a lot of dubbing. The English mono sounds well enough for what it is and there are no major issues with the actual track. Rosebud is not exactly an action film despite having that sort of plot so the audio is still mostly dialogue and a wide range of sounds in the score. There's nothing I'd consider too demanding here, and the unambitious track obliges, though the dubbing can be obvious and distracting at times.
A theatrical trailer (2:34) is the disc's only extra feature.
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