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 somewhat logically—particularly given the dozens of abandoned clues and dead-ends that are never resolved—which can never entirely 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 insisting she answer the door, to her death—later seemingly attempts to cover up the use of Laura’s rifle and simultaneously implicates 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 get him off the “hook,” so to speak.

     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 pyschiatric
              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, the dreaming/dreamy man who takes him over the edge.

      For we all know something else about Lydecker that, given the the social restrictions of the day, the Hays Code, and the long centuries of bigotry that make Lydecker, if nothing else, a detestable figure: he is one of early cinema's most obvious homosexuals. Although there is no direct mention of Clifton Webb's bitchy, sissy gossip columnist as actually being a man who sleeps with other men, even before the film's shoot began, there was plenty of Hollywood hearsay about the character's queerness. 

       As Vito Russo observes, even the script describing the scene showing Lydecker's apartment reads:
"the camera pans the room. It is exquisite. Too exquisite for a man." The narrational voice of the dreamer Dana Andrews ponders, "You like your men less than one hundred percent, don't you, Mr. Lydecker?" 

      And as Russo himself gossips, "It is widely acknowledged that director Otto Preminger had to fight to get Clifton Webb for the role because the sudio brass hand labeled him a homosexual."     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 betterment.  

      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 now stands on the verge of madness—the same position, after all, in which Vertigo’s cop, Scottie discovers himself in the later Hitchcock masterwork.

Los Angeles, September 29, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Philip Leacock | Escapade

daedalus apologizes to his son
by Douglas Messerli

Gilbert Holland (Donald Ogden Stewart) (screenplay, based on a play by Roger MacDougall), Philip Leacock (director) Escapade / 1955, USA 1957

Donald Ogden Stewart, as Djuna Barnes disgruntledly perceived as early as her interview with the playwright and later film writer in 1930 (see My Year 2000), seemed to have been born to succeed. Already by that time he had been immortalized in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as the character Bill Gorton, was a member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, and had authored several plays and novels. Soon after, Stewart would go on to write the film scripts for Tarnished Lady, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Life with Father, and other popular films.

     After his interview with Barnes, Stewart also became increasingly involved with politics, in 1936 serving as one of the founding members of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. He joined several left-wing organizations, including the American Communist Party, in part because of their support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

     Accordingly by the late 1940s, when he made the George Cukor film, Edward, My Son in England, he strategically chose to escape from Hollywood, particularly since the House on Un-American Activities was already involved in its witch hunts, for which he refused to testify. With his second wife, Ella Winter, the widow of activist Lincoln Steffans, Stewart permanently moved to England, over the next decades writing, under various names, for British and American films and contributing English dialogue for Roberto Rossellini’s Europa51.

    Based on the play by Roger MacDougall, Stewart wrote the screenplay for the 1955 film, Escapade, under the pen name of Gilbert Holland. Later, Stewart wrote other memorable films such as Summertime and An Affair to Remember. In 1974 he published his autobiography, By a Stroke of Luck!, the introduction to which was written by his friend Katherine Hepburn who described him as one of the great wits of the 1920s, 30s. and 40s. Stewart lived a long life, dying in 1980 at the age of 85.


Philip Leacock’s 1955 film, Escapade, with a script by American Donald Ogden Stewart, is an exceptional apologia of the older generation to the young.

    From the very beginning in this comedy-drama, it is clear that the adults are all having problems. John Hampden (John Mills), a notable pacifist writer, is meeting with argumentative fellow-pacifists, each expressing himself in loud outbursts of frustration and anger. Before John’s wife Stella (Yvonne Mitchell) can even serve up sandwiches, the group has vociferously disbanded, unable to even come to a resolution for reading the formal minutes of their last unsuccessful meeting. “They are all idiots,” Hampden summarizes.

     Their young son Johnny (Peter Asher), recovering at home from the measles, is busily attempting to read comics in bed, his gentle grandmother (Marie Lohr), John’s mother, comforting him and closing the window so that he might not hear the argumentation occurring below. Soon after, however, he is even more disturbed by an argument that breaks out between his mother and father, occasioned by Stella’s attempt to convey to her husband just how self-centered he has become—particularly since he has grown so involved with his cause, seemingly sending off his sons to boarding school to find more time for political activities. As she later suggests, he is a father to them only in the biological sense. Johnny fears that, instead of being sent back to school, he and his other two brothers will be brought home, losing the active community of the school-boy chums.

     With slight proto-feminist stirrings, moreover, the film suggests that Hampden not only ignores, but is completely insensitive to his wife. While arguing for the cause of Asian women, he has no ability, evidently, to see that he is treating his own wife in a manner that may be even worse that the stereotypes his speech is about to disdain. Even Stella’s attempt to tell him that she needs to leave for a while, in a desire to sort out her discontent, is met with absolute incomprehension and disbelief.

Meanwhile…back at school, the headmaster, Dr. Skillingworth (Alastair Sim) is fearful that something’s up. He has been discovering, in part through the bad-boy spying of his own son, messages between the boys, half in Latin and in other codes that suggest they are planning something. As soon as Johnny and his friends arrive back at the institution they are called into his office to shed some light on the illicit messages. While interviewing them, he witnesses Johnny’s brother, Max (Andrew Ray), attacking his own son, nicknamed Skilly (Colin Freear) for being a snitch. The school faculty holds a quick meeting, fearful of the secretive communications—in a way that parallels Johnny’s own boyhood imagination in which he fears that the headmaster is being spied upon through secret microphones—between their charges. Leacock, in short, quickly turns the institution into a metaphoric cold-war world, where fear subsumes any rational behavior.

     Back at the homestead, Stella is sorting out phonograph records into his and her piles, signifying that her temporary respite from marriage may be a much more significant separation than she has first suggested. A verbal row ensues, with the avowed pacifist again displaying his violent propensities, and Stella, although attempting to be reasonable, erupting into something closer to a volcano than a cold “star.” So loud are their shouts that they fail to hear the doorbell ring when, in a most surprising twist of plot, the headmaster appears at their door to report that Max has, once more, attacked his son. Once again, John is filled with adamant protestations and threatening gestures, while Stella returns to the role of disturbed mother. Why has her docile son suddenly become so violent? she and her husband can only inquire. No sooner has John suggested that the problem might lie with the educational methods of Skillingworth, than he receives a call: Max has apparently used a homemade weapon to “shoot” another professor. He is locked away in his room when the phone suddenly goes dead!

     Given the series of events outlined so far, we might almost expect this film to turn into a kind of comic, bad-boy film such as Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct or, even more disturbingly, a horror film in the manner of Wolf Rilla’s later Village of the Damned. But Peacock and Stewart quickly surprise us, by switching the roles, as it soon becomes apparent that the scheming children are involved in an enterprise meant for good, while the adults show themselves as caring less about their charges than about the dangers of publicity for the school (in Dr. Skillngworth’s case) and their own reputation (in the example of the Hampdens). Only Stella seems to be solidly on the side of her sons; yet even she willingly joins her husband in their examination of their son’s Icarus’ room and private notebooks. And when a nosey newspaper reporter, Deeson (Colin Gordon) show us, the representatives of local authority—parents, educators and media spokesmen—all join together, attempting to trick the younger generation into revealing secrets they now understandably, given the insidious methods of the adults, want to protect.

     Despite their fellow students’ evasions, however, the trio of incompetent sleuths soon discover that the Hampdens’ sons have stolen an airplane and two of the boys, Max and Johnny, have suddenly turned up in Luxembourg—Icarus, as his name might imply, rushing on toward the rising sun of Vienna.

     The shock of these maneuvers finally force all the involved adults to begin to rethink their own behaviors, and before long, the Hampdens—reunited if only by the search for their missing boys—admit some of their failings; for the first time in the film, John even suggests that he no longer has the answers. Skillingworth, previously playing only the nemesis of Hayden, offers up his admiration not only for the pacifist writer, but openly expresses his appreciation of the intelligence and ingenuity of Hayden’s sons. Even the reporter, admitting his own children have been killed in a wartime event, suddenly becomes an ally instead of an enemy of those around him.

    Quite obviously such a sudden turn-around of the film’s incompetent adults is absolutely unbelievable, but as creaky as it is, it contributes to our final sense of righteous pleasure we get out of the decisions of the young to take over the weak and failing negotiations the elders have made for a better world. Icarus, it is soon revealed, is heading to Vienna with a manifesto of sorts, carrying a document, signed by the students of his school and numerous others, that none of them will ever kill students of their age—as if suddenly answering the plea of the alien visitor of Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still of just a few years earlier, in which the space visitor failed to convince the world’s populace to stop their warring.

     We have no way of knowing to whom this young Icarus presents his utopian plans or how it might be received by European leaders. And we—as adults always are—can be only cynical about the ultimate success of his voyage. But Icarus’ young compatriots, nonetheless, have no serious doubts, lighting up the sky throughout England with bonfires symbolizing their hope and faith that the future will bring about the changes their generation desires.

    We never even catch a glimpse of this new Icarus, who instead of falling into the sea, seems to have, at the very least, lit a spark of new possibility among his compatriots. The film ends as he is about to return home, with his literary craftsman father, Daedalus implicitly apologizing for his inattention and doubts about his own son’s capabilities.

    Nonetheless, we know that Leacock’s and Stewart’s post World War II film is simply a feel-good film, a kind of pipe-dream fantasy that somehow the future generation will solve the problems the current generation has been unable to resolve. We can only fear—an emotion already instilled through the character’s consistent presumption that Icarus has not survived the voyage and through the fact that he has never literally appeared in human form before us—that the figure stands more as an ideal than a human being who has accomplished the impossible. And, although the bonfires that suddenly flare up across the screen, lit in at near-by schools in support of the boy’s applaudable values, may certainly warm the hearts (and bodies) of those who stand nearby, we can only doubt, sadly, that his acts have warmed the hearts of the general human species.

     Tragically, history has proven us right

     In failing to realize his legendary Icarus as an everyday human kid, finally, Stewart has simply continued the tradition of naming names, instead of exploring the human beliefs that have motivated his character’s acts.

Los Angeles, January 4, 2015