Soft Boiled Noir
By Drew Morton | Film | August 5, 2009 |
By Drew Morton | Film | August 5, 2009 |
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 fiancé 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.