Otto Preminger’s ‘Laura,’ the film noir classic, and the analogies among love, police-work and film

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Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944) ()
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Ben Parker

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“Film noir” is an awkward genre. On one hand, its stylistic features are easily codified—a morally ambiguous hero caught in a bind, a femme fatale, labyrinthine flashbacks, and high-contrast black-and-white photography—prompting any number of homages and parodies, from Breathless to Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. On the other hand, film noir is also something of a parasite, an atmosphere that invades otherwise innocent films and bends them to its generic will. Otto Preminger's Laura (1944) is one of the most beloved film noirs, not least because of its self-consciousness about the genre: is it a noir or a noir-ification of a gothic melodrama?  

The troubling premise of the film is that homicide detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is seduced by the portrait and aura of murder victim Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). As he investigates and interviews the scoundrels, charlatans, and egomaniacs of New York society with whom Laura surrounded herself, McPherson the blue-collar outsider is lured in by their universal testimony as to Laura’s decency, charm, and intelligence. Caught up in this unseemly passion, he begins to see his investigation as a battle for the dead woman's soul. It's a short step from this chaste fascination to jealousy:  McPherson starts to believe that in solving her murder he can also save Laura from the taint of her lovers, the penniless Southern cad Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and the narcissistic columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). McPherson, in a way, is carrying on a more than usually fraught courtship, with a dead woman.   

Such necrophilia might be implausible, tasteless, or forced if Gene Tierney weren’t so utterly compelling. Initially shown only in flashbacks, Laura first appears in a sequence recalling nothing so much as Dorothy collapsing on her bed in The Wizard of Oz: the camera zooms in on McPherson as he nods off before Laura’s portrait, undoubtedly dreaming of her, then pulls back to reveal this object of fascination herself entering the apartment. Is this happening or is McPherson only dreaming it? The confusion is not helped by Gene Tierney’s otherworldly beauty, nor by ensuing events: even with a fifty-year-old film I won't spoil the twists, but everything plays out exactly as though it were the detective’s fantasy.  

In fact, Laura's insights into desire have less to do with its being a film noir, and everything to do with it being a film. It is a cliché (and the premise of Citizen Kane) to see film as itself an investigation prying behind a captivating image, and holding out the allure of a magic word that will tie everything together. As with Citizen Kane, a central question in Laura is, “How did this dead person want to be loved?” The difference in the two films and their structures of desire is of course mirrored in their use of focus: Kane’s harsh deep focus, versus Laura’s hazy shadow-world.   

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As such Kane is kept in an unflattering permanent foreground, every wrinkle and flaw visible; while Laura floats out toward us to the velvety swelling of violins. It’s hard not to get caught up in the same enchantment as the detective while he gazes at Laura's portrait over the fireplace. Falling in love, the movies tell us, is only having someone framed for you, reflected for you, staged with the proper lighting. Love is like a trompe l'oeil where the viewer is required to stand on a certain X marked on the floor to achieve the full effect of the image. If there is one lesson of film, it is not that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but that beauty is in the camera lens.  

  Over and over, Laura repeats this procedure of mediated desire: not only her portrait, not only the mystery of her body, not only the flashbacks narrated by her other admirers, but the police procedure itself and its generic conventions. The sickest implication of Laura is that the perfect pre-courtship is conceived as a police investigation: interviewing her friends, checking out her apartment (not unlike the old MTV dating show Room Raiders, sans black light to check out how filthy her sheets might be), examining her dossier, looking at the dental records of her (presumed) splattered corpse.   

The point appears to be that being drawn into regarding someone's life as "evidence," as concealing a secret, as a set of clues and red herrings and feints, is already to have fallen in love with that person. The real mess of our lives, the shabby positivity of our disorganized and fractured commitments which we just leave around, is anathema to the idealized glow of romance. But a certain gaze that tries to get behind all of that, to try to understand the Mona Lisa's smile, as it were, is the vantage point of the lover. Being ensnared by love is just coming to occupy that perfectly curated angle. And this is part of what makes Laura so alluring; McPherson and, by extension, the movie viewer, is permitted this perfect angle.    

In this, Laura resembles Hitchcock's masterwork, Vertigo, where the conspiracy hinges upon Jimmy Stewart's Scottie falling in love with Kim Novak’s Madeline. This is ensured, however, just by hiring Scottie to observe Madeline, so that he will try to explain and save her, his investigation gradually shading into obsession. Further, Laura Hunt is to some degree like Kim Novak in the second half of Vertigo when she becomes Judy Barton, and is the subject of a leering makeover by an older lover, as Stewart tries to imbue the vulgar, mundane brunette version with all the superficial accoutrements that somehow added up to her seductive essence as the blonde Madeline he was trailing and whom he believes to be dead.  

  In Laura, it's Waldo Lydecker making a sophisticate out of the cub reporter Laura, seeing himself as the Pygmalion to her Galatea. Lydecker narrates the film’s opening scene and its flashbacks, introducing us to Laura, but the story of their relationship unfolds via the increasing transparency of his manipulations. A spry egomaniac who types his radio addresses in an antique bathtub, Waldo is a menacing, venomous wit who can’t bear to have any light but his own shine on the object of his affection. As such he’s the perfect rival and reflection of McPherson.   

One of the hidden thrills of Laura is watching Vincent Price wonderfully cast against type as the destitute Kentucky aristocrat Shelby Carpenter. Carpenter is ubiquitous in that way that the unemployed often are, and his immediately guilty look is confirmed by all of McPherson’s early discoveries. He is a himbo avant la lettre, idiotically drawing suspicion upon himself and whose alibis (usually meetings with other women) only further damage his character. This is a role obviously designed for a William Holden type, and Price never quite gets a handle on his alleged Kentucky accent. Nonetheless, fans of Price will appreciate early indications of his later success in the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films: no one plays a confused wreck of a former aristocrat like Price. Stooping, sobbing, snarling, and groping for excuses, always apparently on the verge of giving himself away, the intimidating 6'4" actor resembles no one so much as a hysterical woman.   

Noir fans will also appreciate the small role of Ann Treadwell, the flipside of bare, ugly cynicism to Waldo Lydecker's preening snobbery, played by Judith Anderson, who immortalized Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca. Treadwell is somewhat like Fred Armisen's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II on Saturday Night Live this past season: a brutal, manipulative lady-thug barely domesticated by a milieu of porcelain and eveningwear.   

The movie's final masterstroke lies in the oblique battle waged by Waldo against McPherson, which begins while Waldo is (again) in the bathtub, then continues over a candlelit dinner, each picking apart the other's habits and pretensions. They are a sniping, petty couple—with Waldo much closer to playing the agitated lover here than in his avuncular posture towards Laura—and each of them is pursuing an unattractive, jealous obsession for the same perverse object, and a dead one at that. Yet in so doing they themselves are the most convincing couple in the film (Laura and McPherson being so clearly a case of Stockholm Syndrome).   

Nothing is truer to life than the almost demonic pull binding these men to each other even as they warily search for their opponent's weaknesses: Laura is after all, for McPherson, almost entirely the product of Waldo's focused, loving descriptions—an irreal presence they are both circling. (And what is she for us but the product of that same irreality?) When McPherson reads Laura's letters, he is right to tell Waldo, "Your letters were the best ones!"  

Laura is playing at Film Forum through Thursday, January 5.