Sunday, July 12, 2009

Laura (1944)

Once you're dead, every inch of you will be searched. Not just your body, but all your belongings. The things you have hidden in your house or apartment; the things you prize, and the things you're ashamed of. Stuff you believe safe, that no one else in the world will ever see. Your most private possessions. Journal pages. Secrets. And every concrete detail to who you were as a human being before you died.

Whether it's pilfered through by your next of kin, or by the police, depends on whether or not you get murdered.

According to Lt. Mark McPherson, "Murder victims have no claim to privacy."

But what if the detective, in charge of finding your killer, makes a second home of your apartment? Enjoys pilfering through your belongings. What if he falls in love with you! Simply from staring at your portrait? And one stormy night, while sleeping with too much scotch in his veins, he imagines you resurrected and walking through the living room.

Mark McPherson -- played by Dana Andrews -- is a young detective who's never met the woman of his dreams. And now that's he's found her, she's already dead!

But Laura Hunt is more than just the murder victim in McPherson's latest investigation; and more than just a pretty face in a painting: she's also in the memories, and on the lips and pen of famous New York columnist, Waldo Lydecker -- played by the equally effeminate, well-dressed, and clever, Clifton Webb.

Waldo: and his precious, razor-sharp tongue and wit. Currently writing Laura's story in the bathtub, as the film opens, with Lt. Mark McPherson pawing at delicate antiques. Unaware that he is being studied by Waldo, who purposely left the bathroom door ajar...

Now despite his love for the deceased Laura Hunt, I believe Waldo -- like Webb -- is essentially asexual. Too refined to let loose sexually with ANY gender; physically though, I think Waldo craved men; but emotionally and mentally, he wanted Laura.

And every time she fell in love with another man, Waldo would dismiss him as unworthy of Laura; since Laura was Waldo's Pygmalion-esque creation, and obviously the world is unworthy of glorious HIM.

So yes, Waldo thinks himself superior to everyone, regardless of gender. But observe how fond he is of Mark in the opening scene. Of how comfortable he is, in washing himself, dressing himself, even rising from the tub, in front of Mark.

Upon realizing who Mark McPherson is -- a few years prior, McPherson gained a hero's reputation by taking down a gangster, and receiving a leg full of lead in the process -- Waldo says, "I always liked that detective with the silver shinbone."

Ha. I'll bet he did.

Though I assure you, McPherson isn't interested.

The handsome and subtle detective, like Dana Andrews himself, is very masculine.

So desperate not to lose his temper, Mark plays with a handheld baseball game throughout the film. "It keeps me calm," he says.

But upon seeing it for the first time, Waldo begins with his 'usual pattern' of emasculating any and all men who surround him; the unworthy -- If Waldo can't be a real man, no one can! -- but is amused by Mark for being something of a realist; a purist detective who cares only about getting at the truth.

Mark, on the other hand, is rarely amused, and never impressed by the likes of Waldo and Laura: high-society New Yorkers with fancy apartments, luxurious belongings, and seemingly-platonic relationships. [Yawn]

Speaking of platonic, Mark agrees to have dinner with Waldo. This is when the flash-backs begin. And where we finally meet Laura, as played by the gorgeous Gene Tierney.

Investigating her murder, but also delving into this rich world that McPherson is unfamiliar with, this world he believes is false, and snobbish, Mark becomes fascinated. Perhaps not by the shimmering edifice of the world itself, but of how it's former resident, Laura Hunt, could have been suckered into it! She sounds like a nice girl, and here's Waldo Lydecker, talking about how he added a layer of gloss to her, and made her as well-known as his own walking-stick.

A possession.

A lump in the coal that slightly revealed itself -- that day in the Algonquin hotel, where Laura approached the famous Lydecker, in hopes of his endorsement of an advertising campaign she created herself -- and he saw this naive, fresh-faced young beauty, also with brains and talent. But Waldo mainly saw Laura's potential. He plucked the untouched diamond from the earth. He dusted it off (or so he thought) and made a bracelet of her! Polished her. Gave her a sense of culture and breeding.

In reality, Laura's upbringing and beliefs were more akin to Mark's. But Waldo knew Laura was capable of rising up to HIS lofty level. He could never find another human-being he felt was as good as him, or deserving enough, to be near him. At least Laura was close enough...he used her career as a starting point, as an excuse! Waldo then molded Laura into his ideal woman.

And Laura allowed it, because it would skyrocket her beloved career. But in going along with Waldo's 'renovations' of her -- improving her looks, her wardrobe, her social status -- Laura began to feel less human. More like one of the cold, glass ornaments in Waldo's collection.

But then she met Shelby Carpenter -- in whom Laura found her chance to be WOMAN again, for a cold glass ornament can't have sex with a big handsome man! -- as played by Vincent Price.

Waldo brags to Mark how he was always capable of destroying Laura's affections for undeserving men, but with Carpenter, Waldo failed to dissuade her. And at the time of her death, Shelby and Laura were engaged.

But Waldo assures Mark that Laura was having second thoughts. She made more money than Shelby. Her career was above his, and she was strong and independent. Perhaps due to his Southern heart and mindset, Shelby soon felt insecure, and less of a man. He had to PROVE he was a man! The same way Laura proved she was a woman...by going out and screwing around; Shelby cheated on Laura, not only with an attractive young model, named Diane Redfern, but also with Ann Treadwell, Laura's own aunt!


Scandalous: yes.

But I don't think Laura truly enters Film Noir territory until Waldo relinquishes the film's narration, allowing Mark to become the official view-point character.

After that, everything gets a little darker...

The painting of Laura watches over Mark as he drowns his sorrows. In the bedroom, he inspects her closet, smells her perfume, and fondles the contents of her dresser drawer -- delicates? Sure, but where's Waldo to tell him not to! -- besides, they're not breakable.

Neither was Laura.

Alone in her apartment. Only a few feet away from the spot where she was murdered! The rain pours, and the clock chimes, and after one last glimpse of Laura's portrait, Mark drinks himself to sleep.

It's debatable whether or not the remainder of the film is actually real or Mark's dream.

When Laura Hunt enters her own apartment, she automatically becomes a suspect for killing Diane Redfern, the girl that was actually shot last Friday night; she was also the model Shelby Carpenter had sex with!

Gee, why would Laura want to kill her?

Mark doesn't care; Mark's thrilled! Not because Laura might be guilty of murder, and therefore sent to prison, or worse! But because his dream woman is a reality now -- flesh and blood, and all that goes with it! -- and by walking into her apartment. By returning to the scene of her own death? No! To the scene of the crime. By stepping down from her own painting; by finally leaving the pedestal built for her by Waldo Lydecker, Laura also finds Mark. A man not here to worship her, but protect her. A man with a capital M. Wanting to make love to her, for she is giving, and optimistic, warm and friendly; not fodder for a platonic relationship! Like with Waldo...her sardonic and possibly sadistic Henry Higgins, to whom Laura always felt indebted.

To Mark, Laura owes nothing.

And Mark doesn't feel insecure, like Shelby and Waldo. Mark is one hundred percent man, with nothing to prove! No reason to make Laura into living proof that he deserves an attractive woman. He wants to take her out of that glass cabinet, and remind her that she's human! A real woman: not a trophy, or a status-symbol, or an old diamond bracelet never worn.

Laura likes finding Mark in her apartment.

"As if he were waiting for me," she says.

So once the crime of 'Who killed Diane Redfern while mistaking her for Laura Hunt' is resolved, Mark and Laura can live happily ever after!

Or maybe not.

Perhaps Laura IS a dream, a ghost, a vision from too much Scotch! The beautiful idea of Heaven while McPherson has succumbed to alcohol poisoning -- someone cue the Twilight Zone theme!

And of course there's always the major problem of whoever tried to murder Laura Hunt, RETURNING to murder Laura Hunt! Now that she's returned from the grave.

But at least this will give Mark McPherson the chance to save his dream woman: and that's more than he could ever do for her portrait, or her ghost.

If you don't know who the killer is, I'm not gonna outright spoil it -- I've already ruined the 'twist', the least I can do is salvage the ending -- but even knowing the killer's identity, the finale is shocking to see.

And surely the ghost of Diane Redfern will enjoy the ironic sight of her own killer dying in the same spot, in the same apartment...

I'm guessing Mark sent someone else to pilfer through Diane's apartment? It must not have included a giant portrait, and a bottle of scotch...

Ha. But who needs it? Mark has Laura, and the music swells, and I could watch it a million times over!

Laura. A unique, romantic mystery. Perhaps not a strict film noir, but a classic: unforgettable.

Written by Ginger Ingenue
Her website is must read.

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5 comments:

  1. Ah, one of my favorite noirs. Thanks, Steve-O.


    The Oil of His Dreams

    Obsessed by her portrait, he stares
    He's caught in love's post-mortem snares
    Because they've interred her
    his love for her's murder
    She's only a dream, but who cares?!

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  2. fantastic post!!! I love Ginger's writing!

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  3. OOh, I never even thought about Laura's return being all Mark's dream. That is what the song lyric says, you know.

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  4. Fantastic review of a great film; & you're right, "Asleep in NY" is a must read!

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  5. What a great write-up, I love it!!! and I REALLY need to see that film again!

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