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Soft Boiled Noir


Laura / Drew Morton

Pajiba Blockbusters | August 5, 2009 | Comments (23)


When Pajiba ran my piece on His Kind of Woman (1951), a number of readers requested that I run retrospective reviews of classic films noirs. Among the handful of suggested titles was Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), a film not only received with praise upon its release (when it was nominated for five Academy Awards) but a film that remains canonized more than half a century after its debut. I was reluctant to review the film because I have never been a huge admirer of it. Yet, I hadn’t seen the film since taking a film noir seminar nearly six years ago, so I thought a re-appraisal might prove enlightening. The result? My negative opinion of the film was only re-enforced by a second viewing.

Before getting to the reasons why I’m not an admirer of the film, allow me a moment to summarize the plot for unfamiliar readers. The film revolves around the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a beautiful and successful advertising executive. Assigned to the case is New York City police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) who needs to navigate the alibis of a peanut gallery of suspects which includes Laura’s fiancĂ© Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and newspaper columnist and Laura’s mentor Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) amongst others. The investigation becomes complicated when Mark starts to become obsessed with Laura, represented by a haunting portrait hanging over a fireplace in her apartment, now a crime scene. During one drunken evening, Mark discovers Laura is still alive when she returns to her apartment and explains that she was simply on vacation in the countryside. Her re-appearance raises more questions than answers however, as there is still a female corpse with a blown-off face in the morgue. Now, Mark has another suspect to add to his list: Laura herself.

A brief disclaimer: For those of you who have yet to see the film, I encourage you to read this review after viewing it. Unlike some of the other film reviews I’ve written, my criticisms of Laura involve characterization, plot twists, and performance that cannot be discussed vaguely. If you’ve seen the film or if you don’t mind spoilers, feel free to keep reading.

My main objections to Laura involve the character of Waldo Lydecker. First off, his identity as the killer is telegraphed from the beginning of the film. Waldo is a power-hungry journalist (based off Walter Winchell) who not only relishes his control of information but is venomous towards other men who show Laura the slightest bit of affection. I began to become suspect of Waldo during the first-act when I realized that his testimony indicated two things. First, Waldo is a man who manipulates information in his favor (as is the case when he publicly critiques one of Laura’s friends in his column with the objective of splitting them up). Secondly, he is the primary source for the bulk of the testimony against Shelby. If Waldo has manipulated the facts against Laura’s admirers before, why wouldn’t he do so against a fellow murder suspect? Sure, Preminger along with screenwriters Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt (working off a novel by Vera Caspary) try to mislead the audience by making it appear as if Waldo serves as the film’s narrator (his voice over guides the opening shots). Yet, this technique only works until we realize that the film is visually omniscient, showing us scenes in which Waldo is not present. Once we come upon this realization, the authority of his voice over upon the narrative is undercut and he again becomes the prime suspect.

My second objection to Waldo is made with regard to his motivations. Waldo is a man who is supposed to be romantically infatuated with Laura, driven to a jealous rage that pushes him to murder one woman, frame Shelby, and ultimately to make a second attempt to murder Laura. Yet, Clifton Webb’s performance doesn’t convey the slightest hint of infatuation for Laura. Instead, we read Waldo as a homosexual due to a number of factors. Take, for instance, the film’s first scene: Waldo is bathing while Mark is interrogating him. Waldo pushes his bathing tray away, no doubt exposing his genitalia, rises from the bath, and asks Mark to throw him his robe. Who would greet, let alone meet for the first time, a police officer in the nude? Is he trying to proposition Mark? I’m not sure. The more important question to ask is why does Preminger portray Waldo as being gay? After all, it is counter-productive to Waldo’s motivations. Moreover, if this scene doesn’t seal the interpretation of Waldo as not being the slightest bit interested in Laura, the film’s overall portrayal of Waldo as a dandy and actor Clifton Webb’s off-screen persona leave us with no doubt.

Waldo aside, Laura contains two other flaws I’d like to address. First off, and this is a flaw of the plot, two of the murder suspects, Shelby and Waldo, follow Mark along as he interrogates other characters. This allowance results in the two needling one another and occasionally other witnesses and suspects, obviously compromising the whole endeavor. Why would a police officer ever allow two suspects to become so intimately involved in the investigation? It’s improbable. Secondly, and this is an issue of performance, Dana Andrews’ Mark is ineffective at conveying a romantic longing for Laura. We’re sold the idea via on-the-nose dialogue that feels as if Preminger was stuck resorting to his last and least graceful filmmaking technique. It’s painfully obvious.

This final criticism wouldn’t be quite so painful if Preminger was an incompetent director. There’s a lot of superb framing and cinematography (the one Academy Award the film did win) contained in Laura. While Andrews’ performance undercuts his feelings for Laura, Preminger’s staging of Mark against the portrait makes it abundantly clear. Why would you need Waldo telling Mark how he feels when we can tell it visually, even if Andrews’ performance is weak? Secondly, the conceit that Laura emerges as a living, breathing character (rather than a ghostly apparition within a flashback) in the second act always caught me as being an excellent move. I would describe it as the polar opposite of the shock that the death of Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) gives the audience. Unlike Hitchcock however, Preminger and the screenwriters give us just enough of Laura in flashback to make us complicit with her death only to toy with us by bringing her back to life.

My final mark against Laura is more subjective than the others. Quite simply, the film never struck me as a film noir. While I doubt Preminger set out to make a noir, as the majority of noirs were retroactively given that genre designation by critics, not by filmmakers producing them at the time, its often classified as one (see James Naremore’s superb study More than Night for more on that subject). Yet, the musical score, the lack of signature noir aesthetics, and overall story is much more of a melodrama. Well, to be frank, I don’t like my noir melodramatic. Unlike my coffee, I prefer my noir strong and, like its namesake, black; these are two characteristics that are not apparent in Laura.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.









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Comments

While there may be a few flaws, I will always love this movie. Partly because Gene Tierney is one of the, like, three most beautiful women who ever lived.

Posted by: Todd at August 5, 2009 5:37 PM

Instead, we read Waldo as a homosexual due to a number of factors.

In a film made in 1944 was it that blatantly obvious? I've never seen it but I can't imagine that. Seeing other films of the time homosexuality was so taboo they would rarely hint at it.

I liked the review though. I myself am not a fan of noir. I've tried to get into it several times but it seems to me the pacing is typically painfully slow. Even though you've said it isn't noir, I still don't want to see this film now. As well the "detective" films always got a groan out of me. Never been a big supporter of "serious" cop movies.

Posted by: Deistbrawler at August 5, 2009 5:44 PM

The only commonality between Waldo Lydecker and Walter Winchell is that they were columnists with a radio show. Lydecker is an aesthete, almost a Wildean dandy. Winchell was a coarse, often bellicose man who dissolved into an anti-communist demagogue after WWII.

Lydecker does strike the viewer as gay because his interess and mannerisms fit the popular stereotype of what constitutes a gay man, and also because Clifton Webb was gay. For that matter, most viewers of Laura assume Vincent Price is gay, too. I suppose these perceptions are inevitable given the film's casting, but we'd miss two of the most memorable characters in films.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler at August 5, 2009 5:57 PM

You know, I've had this movie on DVD for probably several years, and have still never watched it. I know that opening scene, so I must have at least started it, but I have not watched the whole thing. I wonder if it's due in part to the fact that every time I see or hear his name, a little voice in my head starts singing, "Daner Andrews was there in silver underwear..."? I do love Vincent Price, though.

I really enjoy your voice, Drew Barrymorton.

Posted by: Anna von Beaverplatz at August 5, 2009 6:05 PM

Deist,

It's undeniable that Waldo is gay, the opening scene makes that point clear as day. To your other point, while homosexuality was often implied, some noirs (Maltese Falcon and Lorre's character) were a bit more explicit than others (the two gay henchmen in The Big Combo).

Peter,

I think there are more common traits between Waldo and Winchell than that. Not only were they both radio personalities, but radio personalities specializing in gossip, gossip was used to discredit and target others.

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 5, 2009 6:06 PM

^Sorry, I meant "gossip used to discredit and target others" not "gossip was used."

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 5, 2009 6:08 PM

Waldo is a man who is supposed to be romantically infatuated with Laura, driven to a jealous rage that pushes him to murder one woman, frame Shelby, and ultimately to make a second attempt to murder Laura.

I never interpreted Lydecker's interest in Laura as sexual (since he does come off rather foppish), but more of a weird obsession, something to keep.

Dana Andrews’ Mark is ineffective at conveying a romantic longing for Laura.

I agree with you here. While I do really enjoy this movie (I love some old movie melodrama), I wish their was more fire in this relationship. And I think, like you said, since we're told and not shown that passion, it fails to make an impact.

Posted by: kelsy at August 5, 2009 6:11 PM

I've seen Laura and I, too, was greatly underwhelmed. Everyone seemed miscast, and the plot didn't play out realistically.

Lydecker is portrayed as flaming gay, you can't miss it. I was surprised that a movie of this era would portray a character like that, but they did. Him naked, in the bathtub, typing while being interviewd by the police (Dana Andrews) is just gross.

Dana Andrews is boring and ineffective as the police detective. He's quiet and plays with his handheld "game" alot. You know, the old "try and get the all the little metal balls in the holes" handheld wooden game. If this movie was made today, the guy would be playing games on his iPod while doing this murder investigation.

Vincent Price is way too laid back for a gigolo.

Even Gene Tierney isn't believeable as an advertising exec. As a successful model, maybe. But do you think she could have held her own in a Mad Men like office twenty years before Mad Men's era?

All in all, not a very good film.

Posted by: BWeaves at August 5, 2009 6:15 PM

Kelsy: I agree with your view of Lydecker. He doesn't want Laura as a girlfriend. He wants to collect A-list friends, like Slughorn in Harry Potter 6.

Posted by: BWeaves at August 5, 2009 6:20 PM

This movie was a staple of my childhood and I will always love it. I was probably only like 7 or 8 when I saw for the first time. Since I was so young when I saw it, a lot of the issues that you bring up weren't even noticed.

Having seen it once I was older, I too didn't really think that Dana Andrews did a great job. I never really thought that he conveyed that he was in love with her very well. It seemed like he was in love with her just because the script told him to be, not because the character had read all her journals, thought she was beautiful, etc. That makes sense, but he did a shitty job of showing it.

What always stands out more for me though, is that Laura is all over that like white on rice. Umm you come home to find that everyone thinks you're dead, you're possibly engaged (but maybe not) and by the next day you're making out with the detective? It always seemed to me that she should be a bit more focused on everything else that was going on.

On a more shallow note - Vincent Price banging the aunt and the niece? And how no one gave it a second thought? Kind of squicks me out.

Posted by: Jeni at August 5, 2009 6:34 PM

I'll agree with you that this isn't really noir, but I have to disagree with your over-all review. I adore this movie, including all of its flaws, which I think give it a different tone that distinguishes it from most WWII-era mysteries.

Yet, this technique only works until we realize that the film is visually omniscient, showing us scenes in which Waldo is not present. Once we come upon this realization, the authority of his voice over upon the narrative is undercut and he again becomes the prime suspect.

I love that though, and any time a mystery pulls a "trust no one, especially the narrator" move, I am floored. I think it makes it more interesting.

As for the gay subtext for Waldo--it was 1944. While that may have been the intention of the writer and actor, I seriously doubt the majority of the audience noticed.

Posted by: Claire at August 5, 2009 6:39 PM

Claire,

I think Laura's audience knew what Waldo represented. While I haven't found an abundance of primary evidence, both film scholar James Naremore and critic Roger Ebert have noted that it seems fairly explicit. While the production code required implication rather than depiction, audiences knew how to read subtext, just as they do today.

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 5, 2009 6:58 PM

^Found a great piece by Leonard Neff entitled "Becoming Clifton Webb" in Cinema Journal (47.3, 2008).

"...indeed moviegoers, particularly those who had read reviews of Laura or feature stories about Webb, noticed that something was awry. Webb learned as much when he saw the picture in a small industrial town in Connecticut. 'The reaction from the audience,' he wrote, 'was one of squeals and laughs in the wrong place'" (9).

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 5, 2009 7:12 PM

This film may not be classic noir, in that the hero and heroine live happily (we assume)ever after. It definitely has a romantic tinge that many noir films do not, but gosh darn it, I like this movie!

Clifton Webb's character, gay-shmay, it doesn't matter, because what he is is an obsessed, remorseless sociopath who craves possessions, and Laura is as much a possession to him as the clock he has stored in her apartment, and all the antiques in his apartment. His character is both creepy-the bath scene with Dana Andrews detective is disturbing today and this was the FORTIES, for Pete's sake-and hilarious- when he is asked whether he has any feelings and he comments "I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor's children devoured by wolves", it sums him up perfectly.

It's a fabulous character, and all the other characters are just as depraved (Laura's aunt, the original cougar, with her own sad obsession for the Vincent Price character, a pathetic but somehow charismatic man-boy)

Dana Andrews was hot, in a stoic way, but hoo baby, no wonder Laura goes for him in a big way! He's a MAN, baby :-)

There are chilling moments in the film that get me every time I watch it, usually once a year...when Bessie the maid walks in on her "dead" mistress and shrieks in terror, the final scenes where Clifton Webb's voice overlays the action on screen, building a quiet dread.

I digs the movie, that's all.

Posted by: lil_a at August 5, 2009 7:33 PM

Anna,

How can you enjoy my voice if you've never heard it? ;)

Kidding, thanks for reading!

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 5, 2009 8:11 PM

How do YOU know I haven't heard it?

Um, I mean, there's nothing outside your window, what are you talking about? Pssh.

I'm glad I read too, and I can't wait to pull out the DVD now (and actually watch it this time).

Posted by: Anna von Beaverplatz at August 5, 2009 9:21 PM

I wouldn't be an eager Beaverplatz about it. Go watch a good one, like The Killing, The Killers, Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, or Touch of Evil.

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 5, 2009 9:36 PM

Yeah, you know, I've still never seen Double Indemnity or Touch of Evil either. But, I don't have either of those on DVD already.

Eager Beaverplatz. Hee!

Posted by: Anna von Beaverplatz at August 5, 2009 10:31 PM

^You've never seen Double or Touch? Aren't you in film classes or something? Gawd! You should be spanked...or forced Clockwork Orange style to watch them, whichever you prefer.

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 5, 2009 10:35 PM

Ohhh! Definitely see Double Indemnity. Insurance will never seem so innocent again. Once Fred MacMurray started playing the flubber professor and the father in My Three Sons, it was hard to realize that he used to always play the heavy in movies.

Posted by: BWeaves at August 6, 2009 9:22 AM

Yes, I'm doing film studies also. I just (oh, god, yes, she's going to say it) never got into noir, so much... But I will! I swear! I love the modern interpretations, like Brick and Blade Runner and The Conversation. (I prefer spanking, by the way. Since you asked.)

BWeaves, I think maybe because I remember MacMurray from such amusing/Disney films as The Absent Minded Professor, The Shaggy Dog, and, yes, Flubber, I have trouble taking him seriously, you know? It's one of those things where I have to push that image out of my mind altogether.

Posted by: Anna von Beaverplatz at August 6, 2009 9:38 AM

Drew, I think part of the problem is that LAURA shouldn't be classified as a film noir.

As far as Preminger's work on the film, he took over the project from Rouben Mamoulian who prepared the film, so he was more of a director for hire than with his later films.

I love this film. It's not perfect but it sure is fun.

Posted by: Andrew at August 6, 2009 10:08 AM

Anna,

For shame! I'll work on that spanking.

MacMurry has some of the best dialogue ever in Double Indemnity and his relationship with Edward G. Robinson is really quite amusing. Also check out "The Big Combo." It's amazing.

Andrew,

The problem with noir, and I tried to hint at it in my review, is no director/screenwriter really set out to make one until the mid-50s. Noir was a category that was applied by the French retroactively to melodramas and thrillers with certain characteristics. Laura is often cited amongst them, the DVD is advertised as a "Fox Noir," nearly every categorization (IMDB, Wiki) lists it as a noir, noir scholars list it as one. If someone were to approach Laura via genre theory (which looks at iconography, theme, and pragmatics like industrial and critical categorization), it would come up noir, perhaps more of a a melodramatic one, but a noir nonetheless.

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 6, 2009 11:37 AM





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