Saturday, November 25, 2023

A Remarkable Collection of Dopes

It's a shame that they're killers, because cigarettes used to be the most valuable prop in movies. There are whole films from the 1940s and 1950s--the heart of the cigarette century--that consist of people aggressively smoking at each other. Film noir was rife with such films. It's a miracle anyone can see the players in Laura (1944, directed by Otto Preminger) through the haze of cigarette smoke. I'm exaggerating, I suppose, but only a little. The last time I wrote about Laura, I was taken in with its doomed romanticism and with its old Hollywood elegance. This time through, I was struck by the hard-boiled wit and the queerness of it all. It's a film that repays repeat viewings, because it's one of those films that changes with the viewer.

The plot of Laura follows the investigation into the murder of Laura Hunt, an advertising executive and socialite. The investigator is Lieutenant McPherson, who begins the movie by interrogating columnist Waldo Lydecker while Lydecker throws barbs at him from the bath. Waldo is a poison pen, modeled perhaps on Walter Winchell. His position gives him a vantage from which to destroy or elevate those who he pleases. Laura was a woman he elevated. As the film opens, Laura is off-stage, having been shot in the face with a shotgun. Waldo introduces McPherson and the audience both to Laura in a flashback narrative of their meeting and of Waldo's pursuit of her after she shames him on their first encounter. In Waldo's telling, Laura was his protege. He accompanies McPherson on his rounds to interview the suspects, providing bon mots as they go. The other principal suspect is Shelby Carpenter, a gigolo who intended to marry Laura. Shelby has a sugar momma in Ann Treadwell, who understands Shelby's lack of moral conviction. McPherson finds himself falling for Laura, particularly in the shadow of her portrait hanging in her apartment. Her portrait haunts him, and when Laura returns to her apartment unharmed and very much alive, it throws McPherson for a loop. Who was killed? Was Laura complicit? And who knew she was still alive?

Laura is one of the queeniest of classic noir films, with queer actors in the most prominent supporting roles. The bitchiness of the exchanges between Clifton Webb's Waldo Lydecker and Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter and Judith Anderson's Ann Treadwell is hardly the model of Hollywood heterosexuality one expects in a classic film noir. Indeed, Darryl Zanuck resisted casting Clifton Webb in the film because he was known to be gay even outside the insular community of Hollywood (Zanuck preferred Laird Cregar, which would have drastically changed the film). Viewed through this lens, Dana Andrews as McPherson is literally and figuratively the "straight" man. In a film full of venomous dialogue, McPherson cuts through it all. When Lydecker asks if he's ever been in love, he deadpans "A dame once got a fox fur out of me." Practical to a fault. Whenever the other characters are throwing barbs at each other, McPherson is busy playing a baseball puzzle game.

Vincent Price often said that Laura was his favorite of all his movies, though I would disagree that it's the best of his performances. Don't get me wrong. Shelby Carpenter is a role that's well within Price's range and he's good in the part, but Roderick Usher and Matthew Hopkins were in his future rather than more film noir layabouts and cads. Everyone else in the film was firing on all cylinders, too, perhaps because they were all terrified of Otto Preminger. Preminger replaced Rouben Mamoullian on the film two weeks into production and scrapped all of Mamoullian's footage, all of the sets, and even the painting that's central to the plot. The actors were all sure that they were next, and they were not reassured by their initial work with Preminger, who hated everything they were doing. Preminger was a stern taskmaster, and it's a credit to him that several of his actors worked with him again. Gene Tierney in particular felt that this was her best work. Tierney and Dana Andrews both made multiple movies with Preminger after Laura, which speaks well of their working relationships.

The Vera Casparay novel on which the film is based offers the reader five points of view, but the film offers only one. Waldo is our guide through the story. He's the character through which we view Laura's world and circle of friends. He's the voice over the flashbacks. Clifton Webb had been away from filmmaking for decades when he was offered Laura, and he was horrified by his screen presence when he saw the dailies, but most of the film's acid wit comes from him. Webb was one of the film's five Oscar nominees and to tell you true, I prefer him to winner Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way. I'd have to think about whether I prefer him to Claude Rains in Mr. Skeffington. Not that it matters much. Art isn't a competition. Posterity has made its choice, though. Webb's performance endures in part because film noir endures while other classic Hollywood genres like the melodrama and the musical have faded. Waldo Lydecker himself is a bit of an anachronism eighty years later. The power of a newspaper columnist is non-existant in today's era, though I suppose Waldo has podcasting equivalents in the social media era like Ben Shapiro or Joe Rogan. Waldo's advantage over such figures is his wit and his romanticism. His self-delusion is likely of a piece. To my mind, the character Waldo most resembles when you consider what he actually does rather than his erudition and his turn of a phrase is Norman Bates. He's a queer man who is fixated on a woman that challenges his masculinity, one who he would rather destroy than let out from under his thumb. Laura Hunt, as Marion Crane is to Norman Bates, is arousing and repellent to his sexuality at the same time. Of course he's the murderer. No other character in the film could be otherwise, although Webb's relatively unfamiliarity to the audience of the day might have hidden this fact. That the film puts us inside his head to the exclusion of every other character is a bold choice.

Otto Preminger became known as a director of prestige films later in his career, but in the early 1940s his career was sputtering. He had made a string of flops and had alienated the powers that be at Fox. Darryl Zanuck gave Laura to Preminger only reluctantly, because he was so unsatisfied with the work Mamoullian had done on the film (with some heckling from Preminger himself). Preminger's career was resurrected by Laura and by a string of films noir following its success. I think as a body of work, those films play better than the director's more pedigreed films of the late 1950s/early 1960s. They are certainly more streamlined. Laura doesn't sag at all even with its complicated web of flashbacks, less because of the way it's edited than because of Preminger's facility with actors. An actor himself, he knew what he wanted in a performance and generally got what he wanted. He left the technical elements to cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who, contrary to the film's reputation as film noir, only occasionally films it in the noir style. Laura has a lush palette of graytones and only goes in for high key lighting at very specific points of the film. Laura was an expensive A-picture, and the use of heavily shadowed sets wasn't necessary to hide the cheapness of its production. The noir style in 1944 was not yet an affectation so much as it was a necessity for the b-movies that form the backbone of the idiom. Laura is a gorgeous movie, too, with lavish upscale sets and star in the making Gene Tierney. Preminger has littered the film with significant props, some just for styling, some as clues to the mystery. The way the film is shot makes a point of highlighting them. LaShelle won the Oscar for his work on Laura, possibly because he had an eye for beauty. The other major element of the film--which wasn't nominated for an Oscar--is David Raksin's score. "Laura's Theme" became a jazz standard, and the soundtrack has remained in print long after its contemporaries. Preminger was reluctant to use Raksin--he wanted Duke Ellington, who would score Anatomy of a Murder years later--but he was so taken with Raksin's work that he worked with him repeatedly after Laura. All of this contributes to the doomed romanticism of the story.

It's the doomed romanticism that makes Laura film noir. The conceit of a detective falling in love with the portrait of a dead woman is noir all over with a dusting of necrophilia. The narration of the story from the first-person point of view of a maniac is the kind of thing noir novelists like Horace McCoy and Jim Thompson would return to again and again. Laura Hunt herself is not technically a noir femme fatale, so much as she's a disruptive force of nature. She reminds me a bit of Lulu in Pandora's Box, a woman who attracts damaged men (and women) in spite of herself. McPherson has her number in the end when he tells her "For a charming intelligent woman you certainly have surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes." McPherson doesn't include himself in that description. Maybe he should.

Laura doesn't really have the downward spiral of a noir hero if you accept that Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the stars of the film. Don't get me wrong: they probably are the stars that Fox intended. But Waldo Lydecker is the central character in Laura however they want to frame it and Lydecker is definitely trapped in that downward spiral. That he was nominated as a supporting actor is arguably category fraud on the part of the Oscars, but maybe not. Andrews IS in more scenes than any of the other actors. But, as I say, he's the straight man to the flamboyant characters around him. Maybe I'm not appreciating him as much as I should. While Waldo gets the lions share of the venomous dialogue, it's McPherson who gets the film's best lines. He has to get them in sideways, sure, but he does get them in.

As a personal note, Laura is an old favorite. I first saw it at a college film society showing when I was 19 and it's stayed with me ever since. It remains among my favorite films of the 1940s. As I once wrote about it long ago, it lingers like a whiff of perfume in an empty room, or the echo of a gunshot.

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