Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Laura (1944)

In the debatable contest of discerning the identity of Otto Preminger's greatest film, his Laura must be thoroughly discussed. With a tripartite team of screenwriters—Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt (credited as Betty Reinhardt)—working from Vera Caspary's novel and play, Preminger essays everything that makes his cinema unique and almost convulsively, delightfully rewarding. Steeped in the formalism and classicism from which he formed his sensationally arresting art, Preminger's cinema is as sound a definition of mise-en-scene itself as any director's. Utilizing his “objective” camera, Preminger cinematically embroidered seamless, continuous visual constructions. Commonly misunderstood, Preminger's cinema is chiefly birthed out of the director's exceptional surveying of people and places, characters and settings, movement and discontinuation. Preminger's main focus must be read between the filmic lines. Normally casual “establishing” shots are more correctly establishing in the truest sense within Preminger's purview. This particular economy of style is transcendental, for it speaks in the richly fluent and supple language of cinema.

It is that belletristic sensibility that in no small measure comprehensively disguises the frequent subversively risque content of Preminger's films. This enticing thematic blending begins in earnest with the film that catapulted Preminger's reputation in Hollywood, Laura. (Preminger was nominated for Best Director for the film, one of five Academy Award nominations the picture received.) Originally to be directed by Rouben Mamoulian and lit by Mamoulian's master cinematographer Lucien Ballard, the cinematography was provided by Joseph LaShelle, whose gorgeously shadowy black-and-white compositions and beautiful lighting schema provided the film with the aesthetic accentuation that so richly buttressed the action of the plot. (The cinematography of LaShelle's won the film's only Academy Award.) LaShelle's cinematography sweetens the strong brew of Laura, lending a nearly constant luminosity to the characters and places in which they are captured.

Laura, in major, definable ways, marks the most attractive beginning of Preminger's refined technique as authorial voice. If Laura's ensemble cast is made up of possible suspects in a murder case, then the great Austrian director's latter films likewise portray multifarious characters, in plentiful and disparate environments, denominated as much by the director's correlation between persons and the movements by which they traverse as any narrative-determined consequence of their actions. In Preminger's work, characters stand out in overwhelmingly large rooms, walking about and speaking to one another with purpose, forging identities for themselves through their actions as impeccably as his camera gradually posits their true natures. Taken as something as trifling as a simplistic whodunit, Laura in actuality provides the framework for Preminger's later work, including Daisy Kenyon, Whirpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends and Angel Face, as well as the late epics of one manner or another—characterized by speech-making, having to do with the personal, the political, the legal, the dutiful—Exodus, Advise and Consent, Anatomy of a Murder and In Harm's Way, respectively.

It is in the former group of films wherein an observer of Preminger finds the keenness attendant to swiftness and narrative economy. Marked as they are by mutual incisions and tokens—beautiful black-and-white creations out of which despair and humiliation fester, sometimes uncontrollably, these pictures are emphatically accompanied by masculine obsessional behavior, juxtaposed against wantonness and perversity of the feminine. Laura deserves a special place as an unsettlingly gleeful meditation on the kinkiness that resides in the hearts and minds of pundits, of playboys and of policemen. As much of the film takes place in flashback, it is intriguing to linger on the lack of veracity supplied by the narrator, one acidic theatre critic, Waldo Lydecker (the openly homosexual Clifton Webb, in his first “talkie” performance, and first film in nineteen years, the security of his role consequently threatened by studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, giving a virtuoso performance). This untrustworthiness of the storyteller is an indelible contrast to the objectivity that characterizes Preminger's mise-en-scene. The risque qualities of later Preminger pictures such as The Moon is Blue, which was disallowed the Production Code's seal of approval and withheld due to supposedly provocatively dirty dialogue such as the word “virgin” and The Man With the Golden Arm, about a heroin addict played by Frank Sinatra, find in part their inspiration the director's interest of pushing the proverbial envelope, for the sake of greater, more unvarnished truth.

Laura is a perverse romance of sorts, with three different men loving a woman who is apparently dead. The portrait of Laura, often accompanied by David Raksin's famed “Laura” theme, hangs on the wall like a specter, and magnetic lure for the widely different men who pine for her. This beguilingly melancholic component of Laura speaks to the noirish feature of entrapment, beckoning the three men out of their respective pits of alienation and despondency. For Lydecker (who was evidently based on New Yorker theatre critic and broadcaster Alexander Woolcott, his tale of how he came to know Laura is tinged by his personal stake in the matter of the titular character, and how he attempted to evoke the socialite buried within the woman as he viewed her. The opening of the film revealingly ushers in the exclusivity that is at once outstanding and simply complementary to Preminger's greater style—like characters incongruously captured alone, usually stolidly and quietly, in a more subduedly static framing that richly unravels the layers of protective artifice, in this instance before the figure is able to ever display such self-supported aegis. And yet this character, Lydecker, a preening fop, is matchlessly anomalous, so endowed he is with a shield of support that he carries it with him wherever he goes, including the large, beautiful marble bathtub in which he furiously writes his corrosively astringent editorials. Literally, this is especially rewarding, as Preminger's insistence on portraying Lydecker's nakedness—including the subsequent reaction of another character, in which case the columnist is soon seen by homicide police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). The visual scheme is brilliant, as Preminger's objective viewpoint demonstrably articulates with stunning eloquence and economy the literalism that authentically supplements the metaphorical bulwark of Lydecker's. His nudity is blocked by his typewriter—a bit of sly commentary unto itself that hides in plain sight.

Lydecker recounts in the opening scene, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For Laura's horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her.” Lydecker's pomposity and pretense, coupled with his supercilious haughtiness and sense of self-importance are conveyed with a campy, almost caustic delirium by Webb, who savors every lacerating line of insult and self-deluding romanticism. Viewing himself as Laura's social creator, his unrestrained amour-propre is joyfully brought to animated, cerebral life. Through narration, monologue and dialogue, Webb's vocal delivery is amplified and mellifluously enunciated. Yet the actor places just the necessary amount of dignity to the role, so Lydecker does not descend into mere buffoonish caricature. The almost botanically aggregate creation by Caspary's story, the character is a dense cluster whose divergent parts and carpels only underline the uncondensed quantities to be found in his form. The humor at the character's expense is admittedly significant. In one of the film's most bizarre beats, early in the picture Lydecker stands up in his bathtub, fully nude (off-camera), standing before the questioning McPherson, asking the policeman to hand him his robe. Andrews' McPherson stares at Lydecker, looks down and smirks, reaching for the writer's robe.

McPherson himself is slowly drawn into a pathological, perverse love affair with the murdered Laura. An offbeat, hardboiled cop—with handsome but ambiguously sabulous features and demeanor—McPherson is a steadied, thinking man, who literally enjoys playing puzzles for amusement and satisfaction. Andrews is marvelously understated as the cop whose laconically verbalized comments to other main characters such as Lydecker and the duplicitous, two-timing playboy fiance Shelby Carpenter (an unassailably indecorous Vincent Price), acknowledge a knowingness to the policeman that is nevertheless corrupted by his own budding, quixotically romantic feelings for Laura. As he longs for the woman, gazing through the shadowy haze in which Preminger and LaShelle so persuasively immerse the viewer, the character is further fleshed out. McPherson's blunt language infuriates Lydecker, particularly the cop's use of the term “dame” to describe all women, including Laura. A chain-smoker, known for his heedless dauntlessness, McPherson is etched as something of a self-destructive man, with an unhealthy crasis that stresses the decisions he makes.

Yet a case can be made that it is Gene Tierney who makes the most memorable impression, or at least lends the most vital luminescence to the proceedings. As McPherson works tirelessly to entrap her murderer, the screenplay provides an estimable examination of the woman at the center of the whodunit. As viewed through the male lenses of Lydecker, McPherson and Carpenter, Laura is perhaps an incomplete figure, or at least could easily have become as much without such a bedazzling actress. Equally wispy and strong, Tierney as Laura is a contradiction amidst others. As McPherson and Laura stare at one another—he at her portrait, she back at him while he stews—he is busily chasing any clues or hunches he can uncover, practically living in the woman's apartment. She is projected through long flashback sequences, the details of which are provided by the questionable source of Lydecker. These, among other points, serve to illustrate just how divinely paradoxical and conflicting so many disparate paradigms established by the film. Laura's very identity is most intrinsically related to the viewer through the cockeyed viewpoint of Lydecker's. Preminger's camera brilliantly conveys the smoky murkiness of Laura's personage, and in one instance shoots her through a cloud of cigarette smoke blown by Price's Carpenter at a party. This framing of Tierney's, and Laura's, ethereal beauty through such impediments and accretions further transmits the thematic touchstone of excavating the role the unreliable brume that accompanies the male gaze, and discovery of love, plays in the story.

The contrasting lightness and darkness of the film is intriguing; Laura's sumptuous cinematography often points to film noir, but much of the picture's events take place in fully lit rooms that could have belonged to a 1930s crime picture. The greater the sensuality present, the more seductive the lighting patterns become. Sitting before the haunting portrait of Laura, McPherson, drinking, finally falls asleep. Preminger gently nudges the camera towards the protagonist. A moment transpires in which McPherson is caught as totally still, sleeping away; time has elapsed. The camera reels back from him, and soon a woman enters the apartment. Much later, as this woman is interrogated in a darkly foreboding room by McPherson with strong lights beaming directly into her face, her breathtaking beauty radiates, glowing like light itself. The woman's pulchritudinous countenance shimmers in the shot, exquisitely framed by Preminger's taut control of mise-en-scene.

In many sequences, Preminger opts for the triangular compositional schema that he would perfect in subsequent pictures. (Where the Sidewalk Ends must be noted for this tremendously consistent stylistic. That will be reviewed in this space soon.) In numerous shots, one central figure hosts the primary line of view, forming a the pivoting point that bisects between the two characters on either side. (Again, Where the Sidewalk Ends powerfully brings this directorial signature-branding device to greater fruition and elan, as it conveys the tightening tension that wraps around Andrews' different, more recognizably noirish cop protagonist like a noose.) The first major three-person configuration occurs at the eight-minute mark, as McPherson questions Lydecker and Carpenter in the early afternoon. Another highly engaging composition features this three-person framework at the forty-minute mark. (This is almost immediately followed by a painterly shot of a man walking on a sidewalk on a very rainy evening.) At the fifty-one minute mark, a variation of the three-figure staple is utilized, with McPherson and another individual serving as bookends, separated by a brightly lit lamp. In Laura, Preminger's configurations speak to the disorder of the whodunit plot; the aesthetic brings a semblance of visual order and symmetry to the film's dyspeptically twisty tale.

Laura is an entrancing picture, which at the very least grazes the supernatural and horror film elements that decoratively contribute to the forlorn mood the film conjures. As for the perversion at the center of the plot—driven by deleterious masculine obsession—the film may be able to go only so far in graphic terms. Nevertheless, the screenplay is taken by Preminger fully, and directed with fine perspicacity, melding an austere formalism that does not betray a rigidity with an unpredictable playfulness that does not descend into parody. Gothic, humorous, satirical and cognizant in matters relating to the social strata to which Lydecker belongs, Laura is a kind of cinematic buffet, well worth revisiting.

19 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, your eloquent study certainly makes me want to revisit Laura and appreciate it more deeply.

I think it is the erotic under-current that is most interesting, and the theme of sexual obsession that marks the films as a noir. Preminger and Joseph LaShelle render Gene Tierney as the archetypal angelic siren. Dana Andrews' obsession is a frank motif of sex as death - la petite mort of climax. I am glad you avoided referring to 'necrophilia', as some others have - this obsession for a dead woman is neither really strange or perverse. Each time we feel wanton eroticism for an actress long-gone, we are projecting normal and exquisite sexual fantasies.

Alexander Coleman said...

Tony, thank you for the kind remarks and very thoughtful comment.

I agree: the three men, all quite varying forms of masculinity, are drawn with empathy--and Andrews' character's obsession can be easily summed up as "a frank motif of sex as death - la petite mort of climax." It's an interesting point you make, especially seeing the correlation between the film's dark romantic theme, finding expression in these three remarkably different--but perhaps ultimately ever so slightly similar, or at least reduced to equally earthy objectives vis-a-vis Laura)--male archetypes comparatively placed with "the archetypal angelic siren" of Tierney's Laura.

christiandivine said...

Awesome essay, Alexander. But allow me to correct you: Preminger's greatest film is SKIDOO...

Alexander Coleman said...

Hahaha. Why'd I have a feeling you would say that? :)

Alexander Coleman said...

And thank you, Christian.

tim watts said...

This is a remarkable, mature essay on a great film.

A 23 year old should not be allowed to know so much and be so talented!

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, Tim, thank you for the kind comment.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, Tony and Alexander of course, it is definitely the undercurrent and the theme of sexual obsession that has always attracted people to this film, establishing it as a classic, and my choice for Preminger's greatest film (you had posed that in your opening sentence Alexander).
In some ways this film makes me think of Hitchcock's VERTIGO, but I think the parallels there aren't difficult to connect.
So, as this film is rather a 'cinematic household word for me for many years' what did I like best about Alexander coleman's review here?

The historical career of Preminger, spanning from this early period of LAURA to the later years of EXODUS and ADVISE AND CONSENT. Preminger's favored stylistics like "opting for triangular composition" and the entire strain on sexuality and "seduction." The "contrasting darkness and lightness" posing and the superb teaming of Preminger and Joseph La Shelle, who gave the film it's unique visual style. (interesting that you mention there that originally it was going to be Rubin Mamoulian and lucien ballard to direct this--Ballard went on to direct THE BLACK STALLION, a film known primarily for its stunning color camerwork)
Your explanation of "Lydecker," the exhaustive discourse on gene tierney, that unforgettable "Laura's theme" by David Raskin, and the erstwhile portrait of Laura hanging on tyhe wall, the film's central image.

There's much more here of course, but I found all of these enlightening and passionately conveyed.

Kudos again.

COPIED AND PASTED from Dark City Dame's site, "Noirish City."

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, I considered bringing up Vertigo as a comparison, but it seemed needless to say.

Thank you so much for the thorough consideration of my review in your comment, Sam. If I can review your comment of my review--haha--I am most impressed by your almost bullet-point analysis of the review and its analytical components. And thank you for the kudos.

It is a rich film and a veritable classic. It would have been in certain ways a very different film if Mamoulian and Ballard had conspired in making it rather than Preminger and LaShelle.

Your choice of Laura as Preminger's greatest film is as usual perfectly sound, Sam!

Moses Hernandez said...

Erudite in the extreme, Alexander. I can only repeat what others have said. What a great look at this famous movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Moses.

Sergei Smirnov said...

I read this last night. What a marvelous piece of writing and analysis.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sergei.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating review but I have never seen this one before.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous. You should try to see this in the near future. It may change your life.

Bobby S. said...

I just wanted to say I am a college student and I had to write a paper about Preminger's film Laura, and your article helped me a lot in being able to understand the film more thoroughly. Excellent job!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Bobby. Did you quote me? :)

Frederick said...

What a review! Great look at Preminger's genius.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Frederick.