Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Laura


Laura  
Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson
1944

 “How singularly innocent I look this morning.” Thus speaks Waldo Lydecker, one of the central characters in Otto Preminger’s film noir Laura. Well, yes, it’s film noir, but it’s also more. It’s a mystery, beyond anything else, and a psychological thriller. It’s an immensely satisfying film, one that feels more fresh and modern than other noir films of the era.

Laura Hunt (beautifully played by Gene Tierney in extensive flashbacks) has been murdered. Detective Mark McPherson (the immensely attractive and brooding Dana Andrews) is the man on the case, going back to interview all the suspects again. And hoo boy, are there lots of suspects. There’s Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price – yes, THAT Vincent Price), Laura’s fiancé, who seems to be more a gold-digger than an honest man. If Laura had broken off the engagement, could he have killed her? There’s Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an older newspaper writer who seems obsessed with Laura, and was troubled by her engagement to Shelby. Was he trying to keep Laura all to himself? There’s also Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who seems to be carrying something on with Shelby on the side. Did she want Laura out of the picture?



The opening scene of Laura in many ways sets the tone for the rest of the film. We see an overly decorated apartment; at first glance, it appears elegant and beautiful, but looking again, it becomes grotesque and garish. It is Waldo Lydecker’s apartment, and he is narrating about Laura’s murder. We see Detective McPherson, who is bemusedly looking at the strange whatnots on the wall, immediately distancing himself from both this lifestyle and Waldo himself. He is then called in to see Waldo, who is naked in a tub smack dab in the middle of the room. This jarring revelation is shocking, almost vulgar. There is no nudity, to be sure – this was 1944 after all – but Clifton Webb, topless in a tub, is quite enough of a disturbing surprise. The detective, for his part, doesn’t seem to bat an eye. This is the essence of Laura: pretty apartments, nice furniture, beautiful set dressing, lovely costumes, all to play out an incredibly ugly, underhanded, seedy story, all while the coolly composed detective sorts things out. This is what places Laura both thoroughly in the noir category and also makes it stand apart. Such seedy, filthy stories of corruption and murder and double-crosses fit completely well within the noir genre, but it is the setting here that makes the story seem jarring. Few other noirs put their action in the upper middle class, in properly furnished apartments and country cottages, fancy restaurants and lovely rooms. Preminger shoots the film in a sort of gauzy haze, playing up the lush and rich, elegant settings. People seem to glow from the candlelight, they’re warmed by the fire, and they look absolutely beautiful. Look at the curtains – nearly every room has them, framing every shot in stereotypical luxury. It makes the viciousness of Laura’s murder – a gunshot in the face at close range – that much more ugly.

Mmmmm... Dana Andrews...
“I’m not kind, I’m vicious; it’s the secret of my charm.” “I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves.” “I don’t use a pen. I use a goose quill dipped in venom.” Waldo Lydecker is easily the most fascinating character in the film. He is a bitter, cynical old man, but the way he talks about Laura seems to imply he was in love with her. Well, maybe love is a bit too strong of a word. Frankly, Waldo Lydecker is gay. Of course, you can’t put that in a film in 1944, but it's not a stretch of the imagination at all. An old man who lives alone and decorates his apartment so well? Please. Call me small-minded if you will, but I believe that if Lydecker is gay, it makes the film much more interesting. Clearly, he’s not in love with Laura, and he’s certainly not sleeping with her. What is it then? In a word, obsession. Lydecker views Laura as his possession. He plucked her from career obscurity and taught her how to dress, how to act, taught her taste and refinement. It’s a sort of fanatical My Fair Lady, with a sick, twisted, unsettling edge. Clifton Webb dives into the character headlong, never flinching from the distasteful aspects of the character. Ugly though he may be, Waldo Lydecker is immensely entertaining to watch as he runs around snipping at people, gleefully tagging along on McPherson’s heels, almost interrogating the other suspects himself.


Contrasting entirely with Clifton Webb’s deliciously cynical, embittered and possessive Waldo Lydecker (by the way, what a wonderful name) is Dana Andrews’ cool, calm, calculating Detective McPherson. He wisely underplays the character; surrounded by crazy characters like Lydecker and Carpenter, the film needs someone who can be the moral compass, someone who’s grounded in reality. He has a small pocket game, one of those ball bearings contraptions, where you have to get the balls in certain positions, and he brings it out whenever he questions anyone. He never questions people face to face, preferring to concentrate on his game or his cigarette lighter. He exudes self-confidence, as if he knows exactly how upset he’s making his suspects by questioning them in such an off-handed way. What makes the film so unsettlingly dangerous is when McPherson, our core, our weight, our center of gravity, starts to fall in love with Laura. Wait, what? But she’s dead! Exactly. That’s what makes this such a great film. McPherson desperately wants to keep from falling in love with the beautiful dead girl, but he cannot help himself. She somehow has a power from beyond the grave, and even McPherson is not immune. She is beautiful, lovely, and as he stares hungrily at her portrait in her apartment, we begin to see him unravel. Preminger takes this careful world, this crafty detective, and starts to throw it off-kilter. From my standpoint, however, I will admit to completely being in love with Dana Andrews being completely in love with Gene Tierney. It’s a strange romance, a bizarre romance, one that you might even call sick, but watching Andrews grow increasingly desperate, watching his cool calculated detective unravel… it has a bizarre, gothic sense of romanticism about it that is immensely appealing to me.


I honestly cannot believe that I haven’t reviewed Laura before. I love absolutely everything about it. I love the noir story contrasted with the lush, gorgeous sets. I love how oily Waldo Lydecker is, how controlling and depraved. I love watching Dana Andrews grow increasingly unsettled. The mystery of Laura and her murder has been kept, for the most part, under wraps in terms of great movie mysteries, and I’ll be hanged if I tell you who did it. The more I see it, and I’m making a habit of watching it fairly frequently (my current count is up to at least six or seven), the more I fall in love with the whole thing. It’s a film that is quickly and insistently making an argument for being one of my all time favorites, and for those of you who know just how seriously I take my films, you know exactly what a big deal that is. If you haven’t seen Laura, by god, it’s less than an hour and a half long and weaves a cracking good yarn. Do yourself a favor and give it a watch.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. One of my all time favorites.

5 comments:

  1. Very good review, especially showing restraint in not mentioning a major something that most reviews I've seen do mention.

    This is my favorite Tierney movie. You get to look at Dana Andrews, but I get to look at Gene Tierney.

    I agree that Lydecker is the most interesting character in the film. While I'm not as positive as you that he's gay, I did have thoughts in that direction. And it actually adds to the bathtub scene if he is. I saw that as a move to establish dominance over the detective. By appearing to him that way Lydecker is potentially triggering some homophobia in the detective, which gives Lydecker the upper hand. He's all about controlling things and being top dog.

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    1. Thank you for... appreciating my restraint. I worked very hard at it, as you can probably imagine.

      I can totes understand the Gene Tierney thing. She's utterly luminous in this film. I always come back to that adjective for her here.

      Definitely agreed re: bathroom scene. McPherson is certainly put off by Lydecker there.

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  2. I found both Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews kind of forgettable in this one. However, Vincent Price and Clifton Webb more than make up for leads I found generally bland.

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    1. I can somewhat see Gene Tierney as coming off bland here, but my little crush on Dana Andrews lights up his character for me.

      But yes, they are certainly surrounded by interesting characters!

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  3. So, I got to read your review and why you are so extatic about this movie. I understand you very well. It is a great movie. There multiple layers in it, themes if you will, besides an interesting murder mystery. But what really wins it over for me are the extraordinary characters in it, especially Lydecker. You got him nailed spot on. He want to be her. And what lines he got, man!

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