Otto Preminger wanted Clifton Webb for the role of Waldo Lydecker in what was going to be, in effect, his comeback film: Laura. He had been frozen out of Hollywood seven years earlier for daring to yell at Darryl F. Zanuck.

During this time, he directed plays – one being a comeback vehicle for John Barrymore, who would improvise lines on some nights and on others simply sit, sullen and silent, center stage, whether he was supposed to be there or not. Zanuck went away, to supervise training films for the army, and his fill-in rehired Preminger (possibly, probably to establish his autonomy).

As author Foster Hirsch explains in Otto Preminger: the Man who Would be King, Webb – a stage actor appearing in Blithe Spirit – was too “flamboyant” for the studio, whether perfect for the part or not. “He’s flying,” they would say, and Preminger – unproven, on parole – should go with an actor they all agreed was more palatable.

Risking all, Preminger would not back down. It’s a pivotal moment in his life, his career as a Hollywood director, and he wins. The film is a great artistic success. He was 38.

Preminger would fight, or more often than that yell (often at young women like Linda Darnell, who were pretty fragile to begin with) over the course of a career that stretched into the late ’70s, making some perfect film noirs along the way, “women’s pictures,” a pretty bad western with Marilyn Monroe, The Man with the Golden Arm, the incredibly hot Carmen Jones and graduating to cinemascope “event films,” perhaps the kinds of films – with his aesthetic of realism, psychological honesty, the desire to peel back the skin and see how people relate to one another, often betray one another, in large institutions – that he had wanted to make all along.

Of these later films, Anatomy of a Murder is the masterpiece. It would be a masterpiece if there weren’t a lick of music attached to it. That Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed an original score that lifts your head off makes you wonder if masterpiece is a good enough word. While some of Preminger’s other films have dated badly, this one will last.

Grade: A

Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King is currently available.