With the close of both the Holiday Season and Awards Season, I move again to my series of reviews on American film noir in the 1940s.
Where Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon have survived into the 21st century with reputations intact as noir classics, Otto Preminger’s masterpiece Laura has been relatively forgotten outside of more expert circles. Even in Preminger’s own ouevre, Laura has lived in the long shadow of his 1959 legal epic, Anatomy of a Murder. This is obviously to all of our detriment. Few films of the 1940s American noir movement so readily embrace the romantic Expressionism that defined the era. Even more so, few films of that movement even remotely compared to Laura in creating a marriage between the visual dynamo on screen and the sounds that would accompany it. In this regard, Laura is the noir vestige of the late 1930s, where films like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz worked to give profound new life to the medium that was once succinctly visual but would become more like a Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk”.
For those newcomers to my blog, this idea of film Gesamtkunstwerk is central to my “Slice of Cake” theory and its corollaries. My summation of this theory in my revisit of the Slice of Cake theory is probably the best place to find this best explained. In its simplest definition, this Wagnerian tradition was one of multimedia expression: the marriage of design, choreography, literature, photography, and film to create a composite work of art. Like so many post-silent era films, Laura is a triumph as a Gesamtkuntswerk. This is because it worked to brilliantly incorporate sound into its predominantly visual framework.
It’s the visual element that is so obviously the most important. As has been ever clear in this blog, the Gesamtkuntswerk-approach to film criticism is limited because it disregards the actual medium of film and gives too much weight to non-filmic media like literature, music, and art design. Film noir’s status in the era of Great American Screenplays is dependent on its screenplays, to be sure, but these would die were it not for their visual appeal. Like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, the story is bright to life through an Expressionist world of shadows and obscurity.
The story starts out simple enough, as a sort of whodunit; this one, though, is set free from the confines of a single building or evening. Dana Andrews plays a police detective named Mark McPherson, who is called in to solve the tragic death of Laura, played in flashback by Gene Tierney. The themes of the story play out from the film’s very first image: the camera rests on a picture frame, one that surrounds a painterly portrait of Laura. The action of the film tends to play around this portrait; even in death, she is like a magnet to those obsessed with her. This is magnified as McPherson unravels the interesting story about her from the parts and parcels told him by the film’s primary actors. Everyone, it seems, was in love with her. And yet, someone killed her.
All these lovers may be her killer, and one of the greatest pleasure of viewing this film is getting to know who these players are. You have Waldo Lydecker, the eccentric tabloid writer with a key to the city, played by the suave yet neurotic Clifton Webb. You have a young Vincent Price playing Laura’s fiance, Shelby Carpenter, a playboy sponsored by Laura’s aunt Ann. You have her loyal maid, Betsy, whose undying fealty seems to transcend even those others who love her. You even have unseen lovers, like the unfortunate man who painted that beautiful portrait that hangs above her fireplace.
The casting of Gene Tierney to play the role of Laura was as visually brilliant as it was pragmatic. Tierney has just that sort of magnanimous and alluring personality that makes her perfect as a muse, but, even more than that, her face is one made for the role. Just as Hawkeye Pierce likes to point out her enticing underbite, I can’t help but notice the distinctive look she brought to the screen. She had a deceptively innocent face, one mature, yet youthful. There seems to be so much virtue in that face. There isn’t the the softness of Bergman, nor is there the sharpness of Stanwyck. It’s a different face for a different role, one that Laura, I believe, is partly responsible for bringing into the cinematic mainstream.
I call this special role the femme fatale vertueuse. This added wrinkle to the film noir landscape places greater depth on the cynicism of noir romance. Where the femme fatale had come to dominate the genre in the form of Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich by emasculating the men around them through seduction, this “virtuous” “deadly woman” was bringing them in—like moths to a flame—by her lovability. There is an attraction to innocence here that, at the end of the day, brings about similar consequence. Hence, the inevitable cycle of the noir. Love and sex is power, and it’s told in black and white.
Another special visual that permeates the picture is the story of lighted windows. This is not unique to noir film, or to film generally. In Laura, it is a predominant theme, made even more significant by the black and white world in which the story takes place. Most of the scenes take place at night, and what occurs behind closed doors at night is never fully private. There seems to always be someone in the streets below, aware of the goings-on indoors because of the shadows cast against the glass. It is a whodunit, a mystery story. In stories like this, all those secret deeds shall be made known to the world, shouted from rooftops, as it were. Everyone, therefore, seems to keep their fingers to Laura’s ghost, still in love, and, in some cases, falling in love evermore.
These lights and shadows are the anchors, the cornerstones, of Expressionist cinema. It is this stylistic continuity that breathes life into Laura the film, and into Laura the character.
This is also where the film’s greatest strength (and also its greatest weakness) comes into play. The main character, after all, is Detective Mark McPherson. He is not immune to the magnetism of Laura, just as the film’s other characters are not immune. Even Laura herself could not evade her own allure—who would ever have a gigantic portrait of herself above her mantle? How then, can McPherson escape her virtuous, but deadly, tentacles? Short answer: he cannot. The most interesting part of the story is watching McPherson become obsessed with Laura. He reads her letters religiously, he combs her diary enthusiastically, rummages through her lingerie and perfumes, and he sleeps in the shadow of her gorgeous portrait, the music she loved so much (the “ode to her”) playing in the background.
And the best part of the film is watching Webb’s character, Waldo Lydecker, when he calls out McPherson for this strangely dark voyeurism, after discovering McPherson through a lighted window and hearing that McPherson has put in a silent bid for that portrait.
“Have detectives who buy portraits of murder victims a claim to privacy?…It’s a wonder you don’t come here lie a suitor with roses and a box of candy—drugstore candy, of course. Have you ever dreamed of Laura as your wife, by your side at the Policeman’s ball, or in the bleachers? Or listening to the heroic story of how you got a silver shinbone from a gun battle with a gangster?…You better watch out McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”
This is the film’s most honest moment, and its most intriguing. Through the lecture, McPherson is playing with his handheld pinball-puzzle game (I guess the 1940s equivalent to Candy Crush), something he has done periodically throughout the entire movie. He does what he can to ignore the rebuke, but there is a lack of sincerity in the way he plays the game this time around. Throughout the picture, his handheld game was a symbol of detachment: he was an isolated character, who operated above the fray of violence and deceit. He was a person independent of the crime he investigated, an unbiased third-party as it were. In the noir world, the detective is judge and jury, even attorney, and McPherson’s deadpan approach to the murder in question was faithful to this character type. But, this time, we see something else. He’s in deep. He’s obsessed—even in love—with a ghost.
From a literary standpoint, this is the most interesting part of the film. It may also be the film’s greatest weakness, because this interesting element was not fleshed out as much as I wish it would have been. His obsession doesn’t happen gradually, nor is it focused on to such interesting lengths as we see in other films that deal with similar content matter.
In particular, I have in mind movies like Vertigo and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (which also starred Gene Tierney). Tierney would take her role in this famous film only three years after the release of Laura, and would take the love story of ghosts and the living to new heights. Channeling many of the noir traits, including Expressionism in the German influence, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir follows Tierney’s “Mrs. Muir” as she moves into a new estate, haunted by the ghost of its former owner, played by the incomparable Rex Harrison. The story takes the whole movie to develop, and is not afraid to address the darkness and melancholy necessary to properly deal with such content.
A decade later, Alfred Hitchcock would deal with these themes in a plot far more similar to the one in Laura. Unlike The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, in which the ghost story was far more explicit and real, the issue in Laura and Vertigo is more abstract and indirect. The “ghosts” in these movies are the constructs of the detectives investigating them, and it’s in that process of construction that the obsession begins. In both these films, there is a portrait that merited key thematic focus. And in both these films, this portrait was a symbol not only of the ghosts, but of the people worshipping them.
Consider the point I made earlier about Laura the character. She was the one who posed for the picture, and she was the one who put it up in her apartment, over her very own mantelpiece. This tells us a lot about that phenomenon of obsession born of creation. Like the portrait itself, Laura was the product of a focused process of improvement and perfection. As Lydecker’s protege, Laura was honed, molded, and purified from an amateur trying to make it in the world to a seasoned and accomplished professional woman who was the love of every one that surrounded her. She was the product of Lydecker’s work (at least, as far as Lydecker saw it), and Lydecker loved her for it. She was the product of her own blood, sweat, and tears (at least, as she saw it), and she loved herself for it—enough, even, to post her own shrine in her living room. And now, her ghost was the creation of McPherson’s toil and investigation, and he finds himself obsessed.
This is the ultimate manifestation of film noir and its approach to relationships. It’s all about the establishment of a role-relationship dynamic, not unlike the sort of role-relationships that I described in my essay on anthropology in film. In film noir, as it is in the screwball comedy and the American Western, all existing in 1930s and 1940s American cinema, this relationship is categorized by a god-complex. Whether it be the dynamic between cop and criminal, man and woman, or human and nature, the focus is on creation, domination, or both. Just as James Stewart’s character in Vertigo could make a creator-like claim on his protege, so could Barbara Stanwyck’s character make that claim on Fred MacMurray’s in Double Indemnity. And, in Laura, you have men fighting over that claim to Laura, who may make that claim herself. You also have her aunt Ann’s frightfully disturbing claim on Laura’s fiance Shelby, as if all this wasn’t enough already. The establishment of dominance in the sexual relationship is as straightforward and distinct as black and white.
That is why Laura plays out so well as a film noir masterpiece. It is a distinctly visual fare, perfectly operating in the black and white Expressionism of 1940s American mystery cinema.
But, like I established at the outset, the visuals do not operate in a vacuum. In Laura, perhaps more than any other film noir of the generation, you have a beautiful marriage of sight and sound that makes the film as much a Gesamtkunstwerk as it is an adherent to film as the seventh art (again, see my “A Slice of Cake Theory: Revisited”).
To reference The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Vertigo again, there is an important musical element that needs to be addressed. Both of these movie scores are stunning and vibrant, and both are characteristically repetitive. This is not a knock against either, their faithfulness to their own themes is of imperative importance in their respective movies. They both operate as gorgeous movie themes that tie the movies together and keep the viewer focused. They do exactly as movie music should.
It should be no coincidence, then, that these scores were both mentioned in my list of the greatest movie scores, along with Laura. All three share distinct qualities, including their recycling permutations of the main theme throughout the entirety of their respective picture. The great Bernard Herrmann did the music for both The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Vertigo, while David Raskin (a lesser genius, to be sure), was the master behind Laura. I would highly encourage you to visit my list of the greatest movie scores (hyperlinked above) and listen to each of these movie themes. You will find differences, for sure—they are different scores, after all—but you will impressed, I think, with the similarities they share.
What makes Laura‘s music so unique and special and remembered in film history is that it is mostly diegetic. The score is incorporated as a plot device: it is Laura’s favorite new composition, and a record of it rests in her record player. The film’s characters will play the music periodically as the film goes on. It also works as a bridge from what goes on on screen to what goes on with the audience: the music shifts from diegetic to traditional, non-diegetic music at times, particularly in the flashback scenes with Laura herself. The music is what introduces the film during its opening credits, and it ends the film with the closing credits. Not until John Williams entered the fray in the mid-1970s did a single piece of music have so much tell when it came to a single character, and even then, that score did not have such a predominant role in the entire evolution of the film. Like Laura’s portrait above the mantelpiece, the music that plays is written as an ode to no one but Laura herself. She is embodied in its swelling chords and its overwrought dynamics.
The film is one of perfect synchronicity of the visual and musical to tell a story about a character, who, in death, wielded supreme influence on all who came in contact with her. The movie’s main character may be the detective, but the plot is all about this new woman in film noir, a subject of art both realist and Expressionist, the muse of a symphonies, and the breaker of hearts. It is about a new kind of femme fatale: a virtuous one, but a deadly one nonetheless.
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