Monday, September 29, 2014

Otto Preminger | Laura

out of the past
by Douglas Messerli

Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt (screenplay, based on the novel by Vera Caspary), Otto Preminger (director) Laura / 1944

Despite its near universal acclaim—the film has received almost a 100% rating on the internet’s Rotten Tomatoes and was chosen for inclusion in The National Film Registry—I’ve always felt that Otto Preminger’s 1944 movie Laura was a kind of creaky, if slick melodrama with an almost sickly romantic theme song, repeated over and over again until any discriminating audience member develops a headache. Each time I watch this film, I am forced to hum its sweeping/weeping strains for days on end, and for that very reason alone I have tried to steer my viewing habits away from it for years, encountering it only by accident again the other day, after watching a Turner Classics Movie repeat of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

     Speaking of Hitchcock, for a far better version of Laura, its lead equally mesmerized by a dead woman who after haunting him comes back to life, you might watch Vertigo. Much like Laura, Judy Barton/Madeline Elster is stunningly made over by the men in her life, which ends in not only a loss of identity but in her death, both symbolically and actual—the only major difference being that Laura survives her “death.” Or does she?      Perhaps Laura is a film that, like the fine bottles of wine that Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) impeccably drinks, improves with age. For what I dismissed for most of my life, I admired this time round, at the advanced age of 67. As a youngster, I might hazard a guess, I might not have even recognized just how “creepy”—as the enthusiastic but seldom well-spoken Drew Barrymore characterized some of the film’s major figures in a chat with “The Essenstials” host Robert Osbourne—the Kentucky-born gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and his wealthy would-be mistress, Ann Treadwell (the marvelous Judith Anderson) truly are. As Treadwell makes clear to Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), Shelby, like herself, is no good—surely not the right person for the sweetly glamorous advertising executive.     Treadwell needn’t really worry, for by that time Laura has already perceived that Shelby, the man who “before her death” she had planned to marry, is not Mr. Right. Besides, from the very moment she encounters the handsome, tough-talking cop, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) she is attracted to him and he is equally determined to win her away from the bad lot with whom she has involved herself (as McPherson tells her: “I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”) One might even say that, somewhat like Scottie Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, his own neurotic, voyeuristic and necrophiliac-inspired love, has called her into being again.

     The film certainly suggests that possibility as, virtually camping out in Laura’s empty apartment and, after having read her personal diaries and letters—let alone endured the ambient theme music every time his eye (or the camera) catches a glimpse of the kitschy painted-over photograph of the high-toned dame—he falls into a kind of cheap scotch-induced sleep. At that very moment the door opens and a suddenly resurrected Laura enters her apartment!

     All right, there is still great amount of action to be played out after that. And Laura explains her absence: she has been at her country house, thinking things out. The dead woman, the plot reveals, was not Laura, but a fellow employee, Diane Redfern. Finally, McPherson hasn’t yet solved the murder!

    But let us imagine that in his poor confused mind, he solves the crime not in real time, but in dream time. That he has called up a seemingly real-life dame in order to get to the bottom of things, and that the rest of the film is simply a dreamscape which resolves what logically—particularly given the dozens of abandoned clues and dead-ends that are never resolved—cannot be sorted out. The film even clues us into that possibility when, as Laura Hunt enters the door, suddenly back from the dead, McPherson rises and rubs his eyes as if to reassure himself that he isn’t dreaming. But, obviously, the visual clue reasserts that very possibility, as does Lydecker’s own final radio broadcast, suggesting that love “reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.”     Surely that would explain why the man who seems the most likely to have committed the crime, Shelby Carpenter—who not only illicitly meets with Redfern in Laura’s apartment, but sends her off, by by insisting she answer the door, to her death—later seemingly attempts to cover up the use of Laura’s rifle and simultaneously implicating Laura herself. Likely perceiving that his relationship with the unattainable Laura is finished, he has the most reason to want to kill her—yet, suddenly, McPherson and the plot suddenly leave him off the “hook.”

     Although Ann Treadwell  has motive, she appears to be too wrapped up in herself to have plotted out such a murder—although, as she herself admits, she has certainly imagined it!

     No, the man who most irritates McPherson is the nasty, spiteful, effeminate, class-conscious snob, Waldo Lydecker, who abuses the young policeman every chance he gets, even to the point of diagnosing McPherson’s “disease,” suggesting that he should seek out a psychiatrist’s help:

               You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll finish up in a psychiatric
               ward. I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.


     Beginning with the insertion of his naked body in the very scene (demeaning McPherson even more by demanding that the cop hand him his towel and robe, as if he were a personal dresser), Lydecker has pushed his way into the cop’s life as if he, the journalist, were stalking the cop, rather than the other way around. Given Lydecker’s recognition of McPherson’s slim, attractive body (qualities for which he accuses Laura for having been smitten), it almost appears that Lydecker, himself, rather than Laura, is on the “hunt,” that despite Lydecker’s obsession with his Pygmalion-like creation Laura, it is McPherson who takes him over the edge.     The game of BB baseball that McPherson plays throughout is the only way he can steady his nerves around so many—just as Barrymore characterized them—creeps! And Lydecker, the biggest creep of them all, fits nicely into McPherson’s private solution of his Laura-come-live-again fantasy. Just as Lydecker has previously turned Laura against all her previous suitors, so now does McPherson successfully turn Laura against Lydecker, as she finally cuts off her relationship with the often priggish slanderer (“I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom,” he quips).

     Since the savior-policeman has defeated time, like Orpheus freeing his Eurydice from death, it is utterly necessary for McPherson to destroy all remnants of present time that remain, including Lydecker’s two beloved matching grandfather clocks. He kicks in Lydecker’s home clock in search for the missing “weapon,” and, discovering the hidden entry to the pendulum machine’s lower parts of the second clock in Laura’s apartment, he ultimately uncovers the murder weapon, oddly returning it its hiding place so that he might, inexplicably, pick it up again in the morning. Like so many of his actions throughout the film, his explanation further represents his illogical behavior—the behavior of dream-time rather than sober daily police sleuthing. And in the final shootout with Lydecker that clock to is revealed as having been destroyed.    It is almost as if he expects Lydecker’s return, much like Lydecker himself, who anticipates the cop’s return, so that they might have the symbolic “appointment” for which they were destined from the very beginning. Predictably, the shootout ends neither in Laura’s nor in McPherson’s death, but with Lydecker being killed; it is, after all, McPherson’s dream fantasy, the movie closing with the beautiful Laura clinging to him for what apparently will be for the rest of his life.

    Whether or not she truly exists, hardly matters. Having fought for her, the “dumb” cop has won, and Laura is now his (for eternity if the reality is one of his own imagination), she now able to transform him—a change he seems utterly willing to embrace—into a more civilized and sophisticated human being. Indeed, underlying the entire film and the Vera Caspary novel upon which it was based, is a struggle for self-improvement, class mobility, and social improvement.  

      If my version of this otherwise unconvincing film seems too-far-fetched, it certainly seems more plausible than studio head Darryl F. Zanack’s revision of the film’s ending, in which the entire story was revealed to have been a product of Lydecker’s imagination. Even the savvy columnist Walter Winchell admittedly could not comprehend that scenario, insisting to Zanuck that he had to change it.

     For me, it’s just as difficult to believe that Preminger’s ending represents a kind a realist playing out of events. At least, if it’s McPherson’s imaginative recreation of reality, things work out better for everyone, even if Laura simply represents the fantastical illusion of a cop who’s gone over the edge—the same position, after all, in which Vertigo’s cop, Scottie discovers himself in the later masterful Hitchcock masterwork.

Los Angeles, September 29, 2014

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