Monday, December 22, 2014

Laura—Is it Really Noir?

Gene Tierney is beautiful. That is the one thing about LAURA, Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir masterpiece that I can say with certainty. God is she beautiful. But beyond that, it is hard for me to say anything with certainty, or much of anything at all. I am not even sure if the movie is noir. I mean, noir is supposed to be grimy and gritty and dark, and the characters in thrall to their own obsessions, and everyone is supposed to come to a bad end. Though this one has death, in the end it also has the uniting of the detective, Mark MacPherson, with Tierney, who plays Laura Hunt. It is comedy that is supposed to end with marriage, not tragedy, not noir.

And although we see a few scenes where it is dark and raining or snowing, we are mostly surrounded with beauty. Beautiful things, beautiful people, even if those people may be ugly inside. And Laura is not portrayed as a beauty that harbors evil within her—she is as gorgeous inside as she is outside (although some critics have opined that she is a blank and beautiful slate upon which the three men who love her project the image of their ideal woman).
And at least part of the mystery is solved halfway through, when we find out that it was not Laura who had her face blown off, but the sometime girlfriend of her suitor Shelby Carpenter, Diane Redfern.

And the movie is in places high camp. To me, camp is when a stock character is taken, consciously or unconsciously, by the actor, to a ridiculous extreme. When it is done by mistake, it can be funny (think Ed Wood). And it can be funny when it is done on purpose (think Tim Curry in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW).  And surprisingly enough, a character can be both camp and an effective cog in the machinery of a movie at once.

I am referring to Clifton Webb’s role as Waldo Lydecker, of course. He’s brilliant as the effete, effeminate, waspish, viperous, vile and full of bile social critic who loves Laura and whom we meet, MacPherson and the viewer both (MacPherson so obviously a different kind of man than Lydecker in this scene), typing his column in a bathtub which would have made a Roman Emperor proud. And Vincent Price plays it for laughs and on the level all at once, too, as a 6’4" limp-wristed and charming Casper-Milquetoast-layabout-genteel southerner who lost the family fortune and who is involved in the only on-screen violence of the movie (save the last scene) when MacPherson punches him in the gut. He crumples like the big baby he is, and is nearly weeping when Ann Townsend (Laura’s aunt and rival, who is evil both inside and out, but at least shows an awareness of this when she says to Laura about Carpenter “I want him. I’m not a good person, and neither is he, but I don’t care”) comes and cuddles and coddles the little mammy’s boy, who is nevertheless, in the words of Lydecker, “a male beauty.”

There’s a little kinkiness to the movie, too. MacPherson takes to spending all this time at Laura’s apartment, going through her closets, drinking her booze, and reading her letters. If it was not the 40’s, we might have had him sniffing her panties, or even wearing them. He’s falling in love with his fantasy of who she was, and Lydecker knows it.

MacPherson is a tough guy in the classic mold, for all his sexually outré tendencies. He had his leg shot up taking down a gangster in “the Battle of Babylon” (so dubbed by Lydecker) and so possesses a “silver shin.” And the corrupt rich that he must investigate don’t impress him at all. He says of Price and Lydecker and all the other men Hunt has allowed to court her: “For a charming and intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”

Maybe the corruption of the upper classes is the problem. There is no one for Hunt among all that glitz and phoniness. She is too trusting, too good, even to the point of constantly giving Carpenter another chance, even as Lydecker proves to her he is cheating on her. MacPherson wouldn’t give the time of day to any of the “dopes” he meets as he travels through high society in this tale.

And there is another noir element missing—the detective doesn’t get beaten up. MacPherson has nobody to really fight (you couldn’t call what happens with the wimp Carpenter a fight), and is never in danger himself, never has to put himself on the line for Laura. Of course, he proved his mettle when he got his silver shin.

There is certainly romance in this movie. MacPherson falls asleep in Hunt’s chair, drinking her booze. She comes home from her weekend in the country, and he wakes from his dreams to find the girl of his dreams. There was never “meet cute” cuter than this one. Before the scene is over Hunt is calling MacPherson “Mark” and saying that sometimes when you meet someone you feel like you have known them all your life.

Laura’s romantic view of life is counterbalanced by Lydecker’s cynicism. It is funny to hear Lydecker espousing noir-ish cynicism in his fey way, and effective: “sentiment comes easily at $15 a word,” and “I’m not kind, I’m vicious, it’s the secret of my charm.” It is sex and romance he is most cynical about, telling Hunt “with you a lean strong body is the measure of a man.” He tells her she is being cheap and predicable in falling for MacPherson, who “is muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, but not capable of normal and warm human relationships.” But Hunt sees better then Lydecker does the human nature around her (she knew deep down that Carpenter couldn’t have done it, and Lydecker could, and she tells Lydecker it is he who is being “cheap and predictable.”)

Yes, Hunt is a pretty wonderful character. A determined career woman, she tells MacPherson that she only does what she chooses to do with her own free will, and gets the half-broke Carpenter a job. And when she corners Lydecker at lunch, trying to sell him on promoting a product, a pen, and he says, “I only write with a goose quill dipped in bile” and tells her that his lunch is more important than her career, she is proudly angry and also shows real pity for a man who could think that way.

In the last scene, Lydecker, who has killed Redfern instead of Hunt by mistake, decides to finish the job, to kill Hunt rather than let another man have her, and as his radio spot plays in Laura’s bedroom, a spot about love itself, and death (“they are not long, the weeping, the love and the hate…”) he confronts her with a shotgun. MacPherson has not gotten there in time to save her, but she manages to push the gun away and runs into MacPherson’s arms, and another cop kills Lydkecker. We realize that for all his faults, for all his rage and narcissism, Lydecker really did love her, the old noir ambiguity raising its head here, love and hate, good and evil, always mixed, nothing ever pure, except for when Andrews and Tierney are portrayed as perfect people possessing a perfect love.

So true love, and inner beauty, conquers all. Or does it? Could it be that the movie maker has something of the sense of Waldo’s cynicism about such things? Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are by far the most physically attractive characters in the movie, and the most attractive as human beings. But in a world where inner beauty really mattered most, would they have to have such attractive exteriors? Well, they would if you wanted the movie to make any money, I can’t help but think. Lydecker would have said the same, except he would have found a better way to say it.

© 2014 Mike Welch

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