Fox Cinema Archives DVD Review: Margin for Error (1943)

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AKA Clare Booth Luce’s Margin For Error 

Directed by Otto Preminger, who also starred as the villainous Nazi during the Broadway run of Clare Booth Luce’s flag-waving ode to democracy, when Twentieth Century Fox brought the play, they wanted Preminger to reprise his role for a different director altogether.

Purchased as a hot property for Ernst Lubitsch, Preminger stuck to his guns, bargaining hard with the studio he’d already helmed a screwball comedy for years earlier with Danger – Love at Work.

Offering to act for free if they didn’t like the dailies he presented after a week on the job, Fox gave him the opportunity to act and direct which Preminger vowed to make the most of by reworking the wooden, speech-filled script adapted by Lillie Hayward. To give it the right edge, Preminger employed a newcomer fresh from the army in the form of an uncredited Samuel Fuller who helped load every scene with the utmost potential for suspenseful double-cross.

As this film finds him working in the mystery thriller genre that would become his wheelhouse, Margin for Error is bogged down less by Preminger the director than by Preminger the over-actor.

Failing to adapt his stage performance adequately for the small screen, Preminger comes off far too broadly and boldly in the process, emoting to the cheap seats and shouting to the rafters forgetting that he only needed to play to the camera in what is ultimately a B-movie thriller.

Though of course the art form was still evolving and this was made a good ten years before more naturalistic performances became the norm with the popularity of Lee Strasberg’s Method and The Actors Studio, Preminger’s hammy, campy Nazi turn fit right in with what Fox was hoping to achieve in translating the stage show to the screen. In fact, the executives were so impressed that they signed him to a seven year deal as both an actor and a director for the studio.

While Luce’s original plotline about a Jewish policeman assigned to protect the life of a Nazi German Consulate member had its roots in history as a FDR inspired plan to make an Anti-Semitic speaker look even more ridiculous when given a Jewish police protection detail, unfortunately the usually comedic Milton Berle is well out of place in his film role as the NYPD’s “most promising cop.”

Although the infinitely clever ending recalls the set-up that helped construct the murder mystery in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park as we’re given a death that plays out multiple ways, overall it’s an uneven B-movie.

Despite this, it’s perhaps best appreciated by Preminger fans hoping to see one of the filmmaker’s earliest achievements of merit before he would go on to helm the definitive Film Noir just one year later with the divine Laura.

An interesting example of a filmmaker finally starting to grow confident about the right material and the right collaborator in terms of thrillers and Samuel Fuller, Error brings film buffs back in time with this Fox Cinema Archives release.

A lost look at a director we’ve come to know well, Margin shows us a Preminger who wasn’t afraid to work for free to show those studio heads what he could do, knowing he could leave no margin for error if he ever wanted to work behind the camera as well as in front of it to release the films that would become synonymous with his name.

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