Romance noir

31 July 2010

A confluence of recent events provoked me to acquire and watch a copy of the Fox Film Noir DVD of Laura (1944). [Still image showing portrait of Laura Hunt in background] Included on the disc are some commentary from David Raksin (who scored the film), from film professor Jeanine Basinger, and from historian Rudy Behlmer. Some of these comments add real value, but I was unhappy about things that the commentaries missed, and am thus provoked to write this entry.

Most useful discussion of this film entails some spoilers, and will further presume familiarity with the film. Behlmer strongly urges his listeners to have watched the film with its ordinary soundtrack before listening to his comments. Similarly, I suggest that, if you haven't watched Laura, you stop reading this entry right after I give you just one piece of advice.

That advice is that, while you watch Laura, you dismiss if you can the lyrics that Johnny Mercer later wrote for the theme melody, which impose a new significance to the melody that it wouldn't have had when the film was first made and shown. The melody actually figures within the story (at least in a minor way), and within the story is not about Laura. (By all means, recall and enjoy the Mercer lyrics after watching.)

When we first see Lydecker, he is in his bath tub. [Lydecker, sitting in a tub, with his type-writer on a special platform in front of him] This isn't simply to present Lydecker as self-pampering; it is so that the audience will see him as puny and physically unappealing. Raksin notes McPherson's expression when Lydecker rises from the tub (off-camera). [McPherson reaction to Lydecker's exposed body] Raksin calls it a grimace; it might also be seen as a bit of smirk; it is certainly not a look of approval.

The film puts Lydecker back in the tub in a later scene:

Notice what's been done here. Lydecker discovers a husky rival: I never liked the man; he was so obviously conscious of looking more like an athlete than an artist. Note that the implication that it were somehow not natural for an artist to look like an athlete. And Lydecker sets-out to take from Jacoby his status as an artist. To convey the notion that this is Lydecker expressing a hostility which is related to his own lack of physical beauty and efficacy, the film again strips Lydecker naked, so that we can see his puniness as he attacks: [Lydecker, sitting in a tub, typing-out his attack on Jacoby]

(It's a little surprising that Clifton Webb didn't look to be in better shape, as he was a well-established dancer and singer, and only 55 years old. BTW, contrary to what one often hears or reads, Laura was not Webb's first appearance in a sound-film. In 1930, he had appeared with Fred Allen in a 10-minute short, The Still Alarm.)

One of the commentators takes special note of a prop used to tell us something about McPherson: [image hand-held game] McPherson reports that the game keeps him calm, and the commentator wants the audience to use it as an indicator of when McPherson's calm is threatened. But the commentator has missed a much more important prop: [McPherson, consulting his note-pad] Note through the film how often McPherson takes out his note-pad, flipping through it for every detail. Consulting it almost every time that thinking is involved. [McPherson, consulting his note-pad] The function of this prop is to make McPherson seem more of a regular fellow — not brilliant, or at least markèdly lacking confidence in his own intellect.

(Otto Preminger, the producer, had earlier conceived of McPherson as an especially intellectual detective. Zanuck had rejected this conception. Preminger had then blamed the conception on Rouben Mamoulian, who was originally the director. Eventually Mamoulian was removed from the project, for whatever reason, and Preminger took-over direction.)

The dialogue here is hugely important:

McPherson is unhappy with the thought that Carpenter had a key to Laura's apartment — a key that Laura may have given him, a key that may have been an invitation to her bedroom. And, whatever audiences may think now, in 1944, they wouldn't have been happy with that thought either. McPherson and the audience are told that the key wasn't given to Carpenter, that he never had his own key to her apartment, that he had taken a spare key from Laura's office at work. The apparent invitation wasn't there.

And this interaction is very significant:

McPherson is still imagining Laura as his wife, even though he presumes that she's a high-society dame who can't even fix bacon and eggs. He's brought food with the intention of making breakfast for her, an act of courtship. And notice Laura's question: Do you always sound like this in the morning? Laura's imagining more than one morning with him.

Gene Tierney claimed that people gave too much credit to her performance in Laura, because of the appeal of the character herself. I don't know whether this modesty were false or sincere, but in any event I disagree with it. In particular, I want to draw special attention to what Tierney does with her eyes, in reäcting to the character of McPherson.

Here's a clip from when McPherson has taken Laura down to the station house to interrogate her:

Watch her expression as McPherson demands Now, did you really decide to call it off, or did you just tell me that, because you knew I wanted to hear it? [Laura looking at McPherson] Laura turns to look at him, her eyes briefly narrow and she quickly searches his face. She is very guarded, very vulnerable.

This understated, eloquent expression appeared at least three times earlier. Here she looks up at him during their initial encounter: [Laura looking at McPherson] She's learned that some woman, thought to have been her, has been murdered in her apartment (and part of her is dealing with the thought that the killer could be Lydecker). McPherson has just told her that she should change out of her wet clothes, lest she catch cold. In a time of calamity, someone young, handsome, strong, and authoritative has expressed concern for her well-being. Here's much the same look the next morning: [Laura looking at McPherson] This is very shortly after the scene in the kitchen where Laura and McPherson had begun to prepare breakfast. McPherson, who had seemed to begin courting her, and whom she began to imagine as her husband, has just been told that her engagement to Carpenter is back on. Here, during the same meeting: [Laura looking at McPherson] Laura has expressed concern for Lydecker, and McPherson has snidely responded Don't tell me you're in love with him too. McPherson's reäction speaks of alienation, which warns that she may be losing her chance with him even as it further suggests his underlying attraction.

Although this film is genuinely classic, the story was worked and reworked by many people, and never settled into perfect coherency. The original novel was constructed as sections each representing the testimony of one character. This is reflected in the film's beginning with narration by the character of Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb).

I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. The 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 with Laura's horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her. And I had just begun to write Laura's story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door. I noted that his attention was fixed upon my clock. There was only one other in existence, and that was in Laura's apartment, in the very room where she was murdered.

That narration, which is plainly to the audience on the other side of the proscenium, ends and is never resumed. There are other parts of the story where Lydecker seems to be narrating a flashback, but his audience is now the character of McPherson, and the flashback is really illustrating the tale that Lydecker is telling (which tale may not be perfectly reliable). The earlier narration by Lydecker is a mode of story-telling that doesn't fit with that of the rest of the movie.

Another area of incoherence involves Laura's promise to McPherson, after her reäppearance, that she wouldn't call anyone or go out: [Laura, promising not to go out or contact anyone]

McPherson: Oh, I must ask you not to leave the house, or use the phone.
Hunt: But… but I've got to let my friends know I'm alive.
McPherson: Sorry, Miss Hunt, but I must insist you do as I say.
Hunt: Am I under arrest?
McPherson: No. But if anything should happen to you this time, I wouldn't like it.
Hunt: All right; I promise.

Laura of course promptly breaks her promise, phoning Carpenter and then going to meet him. Later, McPherson confronts her about this: [Laura explaining her breaking of the promise]

McPherson: Why did you break your promise, and go out and see Shelby last night?
Hunt: You forced me to give you my word. I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don't do of my own free will.

McPherson hadn't forced her to promise anything. He hadn't actually even asked for a promise. Laura had responded with the promise to his (hard-boiled) expression of attraction and concern. Either the writers had simply been hoping that the audience had forgot the earlier exchange, or these two scenes are taken from different tellings of the story.

We see some of the coherence problem also in the very ending of Laura. One ending had been shot, Zanuck rejected it, and essentially wrote a new ending, with a significant amount of dialogue (including Laura's denying a significant part of the story as it had been related by Lydecker to McPherson). When the film as then constructed was shown to Walter Winchell, he told Zanuck that the ending needed to be changed. Preminger claimed that they used his original ending, but it seems that what they really did was largely to pare-away significant parts of Zanuck's ending. One result is that the ending just suddenly comes, with Lydecker saying Good-bye, my love. quite off-camera, as we look at the shattered clock, rather than at any of the characters.

That's the end of the serious stuff here. I'll note a few minor amusements.

There's a fair amount of tossing of things in this film. Most of the time, it's just a bit casual, but occasionally it provokes an Eh? Early in the film, Lydecker tears a bit of stem off a flower, in preparation of a boutonniere. But just where does that bit of stem go? [Lydecker, tossing a bit of stem to the side] Lydecker seems a fastidious sort, not one for bits of plant-matter around the bedroom.

There's nothing particularly incongruous in Carpenter just tossing his hat in the general direction of a table as he enters a home, [Carpenter, tossing his hat to the side] Still, I laughed as the shadows showed that, off-camera, the hat fell from the table onto the floor:

and, if you keep watching the shadows, you'll see one cast by crew or by equipment in the floor near Dana Andrews. (It is on the wrong side and moving in the wrong way to be a natural shadow cast by Andrews.)

Speaking of equipment, back in the first scene, as Lydecker is recognizing McPherson's name, [Clifton Webb, in tub, with bit of swim-suit showing] one can see a bit of the waist-band of the swim-suit being worn by an apparently modest Clifton Webb.

As an artefact of some sort of paring of the story, Dana Andrews makes an apparently magical appearance in a restaurant. No one is seated with Lydecker in the long shot: [Lydecker, seated alone] but Andrews is in the other chair as we cut to the closer shot: [McPherson and Lydecker at table]


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