Starring Joan Bennett, Milton Berle, Otto Preminger, Carl Esmond, Howard Freeman, Poldi Dur, Clyde Fillmore
Directed by Otto Preminger
Margin for Error is an interesting film for the way it handles tensions among Americans and Germans in the US during World War II, but interesting is about the kindest thing you could say about it. It’s not all that entertaining, nor does it deliver any deep message, so instead it just feels like some kind of pro-American propaganda film. The Germans are predominantly of the villainous “Sieg hiel!” variety, with the main villain sporting a monocle and doing absolutely nothing to hide his outright hatred of America, the country he’s living in and is a diplomat to. If he had a mustache you can bet he’d be twirling it like the war depended on it, too.
But before we get to this guy, Margin for Error opens on a military boat carrying a load of soldiers off to some unnamed foreign shore or WWII battle. Max (Carl Esmond), one of the soldiers, has a thick German accent. When the red-blooded American soldiers give him a hard time, Moe (Milton Berle) stops the group and tells them the story of how Max came to become an enlisted man. No, this doesn’t lead into a 1940s version of the Full Metal Jacket boot camp scenario; it’s about the intrigue that develops at the German consulate in some unnamed East Coast city.
Y’see Moe is a policeman tasked with protecting the German consulate from the anti-German rioters in the streets. Most of the time he just tells the Consul General, Karl (Otto Preminger), that he’s a dirty Nazi, making sure that he also knows that Moe is a Jew. The rest of the time he’s trying to woo the German maid who doesn’t speak any English. The whole protection thing comes into play by the third act, but even then Moe ends up stationed outside the door of the room where he really could have done some good. Oh well, Moe. You can’t win ’em all.
If you’re having a hard time figuring out where I’m going with this, or what the movie is actually about, you’re not alone. It’s just as disjointed as it seems. The film initially presents itself as the story of Max and Moe, but as soon as we get into the meat of the movie it’s Karl who takes center stage. And Karl may have provided wonderfully nefarious comic relief for an American public waiting at home for their friends and family members to return from the war, but at this point 71 years later it’s a little less effective. This is no fault of the film, but I can’t help but think that if it were a better constructed movie my opinion would be different.
I watched Margin for Error because according to Sam Fuller’s memoir, director Otto Preminger paid Fuller under the table to help him with the film’s script. The film was based on a popular 1939 play (which explains all the references to the US being a neutral party in the war), and with this being the case, you can’t expect that much of Fuller’s essence would make it on-screen. This is predominantly true, although I did find the ultimate message — that you can’t judge a person simply by your first impression of them or their outward appearance — to have something of a Fuller-esque ring to it. This message is delivered almost completely through the film’s opening and closing bookend scenes on the boat, which I found out through some research are some of what Fuller contributed to the script. Go figure! Max may have a thick German accent, but after hearing his story the American soldiers have learned respect for him. This film might be something of an outdated propaganda-style film, but this message still rings true today.
Couldn’t find a trailer, but I did find this version of the entire film narrated for the visually impaired (which, in the case of this horrible quality YouTube video, is everyone!)