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A major step forward in the early career of Otto Preminger, Margin for Error is an okay wartime morale builder that tries to tackle serious anti-Nazi politics yet works on the level of a Borscht Belt comedy. Two years earlier the Bogart picture All Through the Night covered most of the same bases, before America's entry into the war.
Actually, Margin for Error had begun as a patriotic anti-Bund 1939 Broadway play, written by Clare Boothe Luce. More of a straight murder mystery, the play took itself fairly seriously. Preminger directed it for the stage, and when a main cast member suddenly left to "return to Adolph", he stepped in himself to play the major Nazi villain. The result didn't attract much praise -- Preminger claimed that Luce refused to re-shape the second act -- but the director-turned-actor became the new Nazi impersonator audiences loved to hate.
After several failed starts as a Hollywood director, Margin for Error came along just in time to re-launch Otto Preminger on a solid career path. Darryl Zanuck had written him off, but Fox hired Preminger to act and direct, possibly because Zanuck's wartime replacement was eager to establish his independence from the mogul's edicts. Preminger quietly hired writer Sam Fuller to make some sense of what he thought was a mediocre screenplay. By the end of the first week's work, Fox offered Preminger a very special directing contract that included producing privileges. It was one of the smartest career moves of the decade.
Somewhat dated now as rah-rah patriotic fare, Margin for Error is nevertheless an amusing entertainment, capped by some engaging performances. To update the show to 1943, it is told as a flashback to pre-war days -- a character even announces that he's going to see the 1939 release Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Jewish flatfoot cop Moe Finkelstein (Milton Berle) reluctantly accepts an assignment to guard the German Embassy. He becomes involved in shady doings in the building and has a major effect on the Germans that work there. Moe's streetwise charm begins to attract cook and maid Frieda (Poldi Dur), who has not learned any English because she has been told that America will be speaking German soon enough. Loyal first secretary Baron Max von Alvenstor (Carl Esmond) has discovered that his boss Consul Karl Baumer (Otto Preminger) has been gambling away the Embassy's operating budget. The Machiavellian Baumer withholds funds from the pompous German-American Bund leader Otto Horst (Howard Freeman). Horst is a buffoon who thinks he will become the Führer of the soon-to-be-conquered America. Baumer is certain that he can stave off recall and punishment by pulling off a major sabotage event on the New York docks. Rotten to the core, Baumer schemes to shift blame for the embezzlement to Baron Max, who he has discovered has a Jewish grandmother. The Consul tests some poison on a pet parrot (named "Mister Churchill"), poison with which Max is supposed to commit 'suicide.' Worst of all, Baumer continues to hold his Czechoslovakian wife Sofie (Joan Bennett) by threatening to have her father liquidated -- the old man is already in a concentration camp.
Margin for Error holds together as a reasonable enough light comedy about Nazi perfidy, if one is prepared to handle some lapses of taste here and there. Ernst Lubitsch passed on the original script, which is interesting in that the great director's To Be or Not To Be was also accused of political bad taste. But Lubitsch's film faces the threat of Hitler head-on and with a consistent black comedy tone. Margin for Error grafts a sober murder mystery (with an almost ridiculously evil villain) into a framework dominated by the 'comedy finesse' of clownish Milton Berle. Berle's Moe Finkelstein puts a stopper on his broadest schtick, but when he issues forth with proud declarations of the beauties of American democracy, he sounds like a (benign) propaganda machine. Moe expresses his loathing of Nazis to the police chief, but is soon coaching both the maid Frieda and the fervent Baron Max on the glorious advantages of Yankee free speech and ethnic tolerance. Jokes include Moe tiptoeing around the hated swastika symbol on the Embassy floor, and Consul Baumer insulting Finkelstein by refusing to say his name properly.
Meanwhile, Joan Bennett's gorgeous Sophie suffers quietly, repeatedly denied a divorce. Neither she nor her admirer Baron Max plays any part in the comedy. The movie suffers somewhat from instant character changes -- cute Frieda becomes a Yankee-phile after just a couple of jokes from Moe. Even less compelling is Carl Esmond's utterly earnest Nazi functionary. More loyal to the Reich than anybody, Baron Max is also a rather unbelievable innocent. When he learns of his part-Jewish heritage, he falls apart, and then changes his allegiance far too quickly.
Milton Berle is actually rather endearing, although his character never seems quite right. There isn't exactly a stereotype for Jewish NYPD cops (how many could there have been?) but Moe Finkelstein, as Foster Hirsch would say, still sounds like a Jewish comedian as written by a Gentile. 1
Preminger's direction is slick and his performance as the conniving Nazi is amusing -- the sneering Prussian Baumer is forever making sadistic jokes at others' expense. Consul Baumer is quite a guy, all right, as every move he makes is hateful, malicious or downright murderous. He's such an untrustworthy schemer that one would think his fellow Nazis in Berlin would have him liquidated, ASAP.
Usually a director's leap to prominence can be associated with a major hit or accomplishment. It wasn't that way with Preminger, as Margin for Error was not considered anything particularly special. At this point he was a Broadway name yet hadn't made any kind of mark in Hollywood except as a celebrity Nazi-for-the-movies. Preminger's ship would come in two pictures later with the sublime Laura. As a contracted Fox director-producer, Preminger was perfectly situated when Rouben Mamoulian's first stab at the show faltered. Otto took over, hit a home run, and the rest is history.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of Margin for Error looks great -- I'd say that the transfer is a fairly recent B&W remaster. The picture is bright and sharp and shows no damage, just a bit of unsteadiness in the main titles.
There are no extras. For the life of me I couldn't figure out the cover illustration for the disc (above right), which comes straight from a 1943 Fox one-sheet. Only after seeing the picture did I realize that the VERY feminine artwork for the cop to the right of the title text is supposed to be Milton Berle. The caricature has a smile like Lucille Ball and feminine eyes with big eyelashes. It looks like a cartoon of, say, Aline McMahon as a cop, not a male of any description. What's with Milton Berle and cross-dressing, anyway?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Margin for Error rates:
1. Important source: Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, Foster Hirsch, Alfred Knopf 2007
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T'was Ever Thus.