среда, 30 сентября 2009 г.

Dissecting “Laura” (1944) — goofs in Otto Preminger’s masterpiece. Or are they?


For a long time have I been mulling over the idea of starting a movie blog of my own, and only now that I have a wide band Internet connection I can put this long-contemplated project into practice. I had about three ideas about the blog title, and it was not without some misgivings that I chose the one that stays above: I knew there is a blog called “Laura’s musings on Hollywood” or something like that, and I did not want to appear plagiarizing. But, after all, my name is Laura, so what the heck. (Well, technically, it is Lora, but for the Russian ear it is about the same.)
It seemed logical to me to devote the first post here to the movie I took my title from. Some people might think it too contrived and a clumsy word play on the name of the title character, but, unfortunately, one of my drawbacks is total lack of ingenuity, and indeed I envy people who can invent such creative blog titles as “Out of the Past” or “The Movie Projector” or “Hollywood Dreamland.” Anyway, here I am as I am. After all, I do pursue my everlasting quest (all right, hunt) for excellence. In movies, in particular. All right, here goes.

“Laura” (1944), dir. Otto Preminger. Starring: Dana Andrews (Det. Lt. Mark McPherson), Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Ann Treadwell).
Now I strongly recommend you to watch the movie before you read any further, otherwise **WATCH OUT FOR SPOILERS!**

I had wanted to watch “Laura” for some four years before I finally laid my hands on it last May. When browsing the web you come across many spoilers, quite unwittingly, and, to my regret, I was spoiled about the story twist. (I was lucky, however, not to be about the identity of the murderer.) Nevertheless, I enjoyed the picture very much, and watched it afterwards three or four times. However, the more I watched the more questions popped up in my head. Here I will try to point out some serious plot holes -- at least what I perceive as such.

Was the second half of the movie a dream sequence?

There is a most intriguing shot that was debated by film lovers many times: McPherson sits in an armchair before the fireplace, takes a glass in his left hand and falls asleep. We never see or hear the glass fall but when the camera pans back the glass is no longer in his hand! My take: it is not important whether McPherson started dreaming right then and never came out of his dream (at least not before the end of the movie), because I would argue that the entire movie is a dream, and not McPherson’s but Waldo’s. The plot contains so many goofs that it is quite impossible to pass them over or explain otherwise (I wish somebody would try). Now, to the goofs.

Can a story be narrated by a character who dies at the end of the movie?

“Laura” starts with an incongruous voiceover narration by Waldo Lydecker, as if it were his flashback. We know, however, that he dies in the end. Is it then a d’outre-tombe reminiscence? I don’t know, and I don’t care. Anyway, this is just a minor quibble, compared to more serious matters covered below. And besides, the same narrative device was used in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950), where we know from the beginning the protagonist to be dead, and also, more recently, in “Casino” (1995). It appears the original idea was to give voiceovers of some other characters too, but then it was dropped, and the only one that stayed was Waldo’s. If the entire movie is a dream, for instance Waldo’s, then this voiceover is quite plausible.

More serious goofs, in no particular order

* Improbable partnership. Why would McPherson take Waldo, himself a suspect, along with him on a visit to other possible suspects? Why would he take Shelby to Laura’s apartment? (Shelby said he would like to help McPherson find the key to Laura’s country house. Are we supposed to believe the police are unable to find some key in an apartment without any extra help from amateur sleuths? Besides, McPherson knew all the items discovered in the apartment by the police, and the key was not there. Or was he cunningly hoping Shelby would put it there and incriminate himself?) Is it normal at all to bring outsiders to the crime scene?
* Drinking wine with Waldo and at his expense. Another minor quibble, but I just can’t see McPherson doing such a thing, especially because he suspected Waldo and did not like him very much from the start.
* Waldo’s wrong timing. Why would Waldo go to Laura’s place to kill her if he knew she was going away on that particular night? She phoned him and said that herself. He did not believe her or what? And why would he want to kill Laura in the first place? She told him she wanted to think things over, meaning the marriage with Shelby, and Waldo, man of the world, would surely know that when a woman wants to marry someone she doesn’t think, she goes and gets married, but when she hesitates, it’s a sign she doesn’t want to marry that guy and just gropes for excuses to postpone the final answer and break-up. Anyway, nothing was yet certain about that marriage, so why the rush? He says, “I was sure she had too much pride to forgive him, but--” And we are supposed to believe that this “but” after that “I’m sure” is a sufficient reason for a crime of passion!
* Shot not heard by anyone. Why did nobody hear the shot, which was “an awful explosion,” according to Shelby? Laura lived in an apartment, not a detached residence. There were at least three floors in her house, and on every floor there were other apartments, I believe. So how could it be that none of the neighbors heard anything and came running to see what it was? Why did not McPherson interview any of the neighbors? How could Waldo be sure that nobody would rush to Laura’s apartment? He had the nerve of waiting till Shelby was gone and then hid the gun in the clock! (Apparently, Shelby did not bother to lock the apartment after leaving.)
* Gun hidden in the clock. And why hide the gun in the clock in the first place? Since Waldo brought it with him, why not take it back home or dispose of it on the way back? By the way, when was he going to retrieve the gun? And why didn’t the police find it? I thought it was customary for police to do a thorough investigation of the crime scene. But what happens to the gun at the end of the movie is absolutely hilarious and outrageous. McPherson finds the hidden gun and then just leaves it there, the most important evidence, just like that!!! (Remember, he took Diane Redfern’s picture and dress right away.) Of course, Waldo steals his way back to the apartment after McPherson is gone, and -- lo and behold! -- he’s got the cartridges in his pocket! As if the house was not watched by detectives and he could hope to escape after killing Laura for a second time.
* Strange weapon. By the way, why use a buckshot gun, and not a pistol? Waldo did not look an avid hunter or something, what did he keep a buckshot gun for? And, obviously, he must have kept it in a closet somewhere, because otherwise Laura would have remembered seeing it in his apartment.
* Laura’s (Shelby’s) gun. Why would Shelby go to Laura’s country house to hide the gun kept there, if, according to McPherson (he said it to Laura), the police were there on Saturday and certainly would have noticed the gun? By the way, why did not they take the gun then: surely they would want to do a ballistic test or compare the bullets, and they did those tests anyway after McPherson had taken the gun from Shelby in the country house. Maybe the police did not go into the house? That would be strange, because why then would they bother to come there at all?
* Bessie’s scream and Ann’s being there. According to Ann, she heard Bessie scream when the latter saw the dead body. Bessie said she had found the body in the apartment. So how did Ann happen to come to Laura’s place right at this minute? Not that they were close pals, and anyway, morning is a queer time even for a friendly visit. Ann said she had to identify the body. Where: right there or in the mortuary? And besides, it never gets clear how the police found out that it was not Laura who had been “bumped off upstairs,” as a detective in the underground parking lot tells McPherson.
* McPherson commits a break-in. Why would McPherson go to Waldo’s place (and let himself in (with a master-key?)!!!, i.e. did the very thing Det. Lt. Doyle wouldn’t do in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” ten years later) after he took Laura home from the police station? He wanted to find something (without a search warrant)? The gun? He certainly did not think that Waldo was stupid and still kept the gun? Anyway, he suddenly changed his mind when he broke into the secret compartment of the famous twin clock and found it empty. “Very logically” he assumed the gun is hidden in the other twin clock.
* McPherson commits blunders one after another. He was sure Waldo was a murderer when he came back from his apartment. And yet he let him go away! Why not arrest him and then look for the supposedly hidden gun? Second, when he was leaving he checked the lock on the front door and completely disregarded the kitchen entrance, which was right there! And when he went outside and the officer who was supposed to follow Waldo told him Waldo had not come out yet, it turned out the house had one more entrance/exit, and that one apparently was not watched by the police! Oh, come on, that’s too much. Nobody is that stupid.

Why do I think the whole movie is a dream?

I believe all the above (and other, smaller) inconsistencies can be explained if (and only if) we assume the entire movie was a dream seen (or fanciful story invented) by Waldo after he talked with Laura over the phone on Friday night. A dream, a vision, a fantasy -- whatever. Remember he said he was writing Laura’s story when McPherson came? What kind of a story could that be? “Once upon a time there was an impudent girl of some parts. She harassed me one day in a restaurant, I took a fancy to her (stupid old ass!) and, Svengali-like, helped her advance in the world. She had some dates but I, acting out of pure selfishness, made her drop them. The other day she was murdered by some ruthless barbarian. The end.” Very entertaining, I’m sure. No, he was writing this very story we are watching. Far more exciting -- so exciting (witty, stylish and beautifully photographed) that it found its way into IMDb-Top 250.
He imagined he had gone to her place with a buckshot gun (purpose: not just to kill her but to mutilate her beauty -- remember he asks McPherson with concern why the police had “to photograph her in that horrible condition”?). He imagined a young, handsome (“in a cheap sort of the way”) and muscular lieutenant McPherson who would come to investigate the murder and would be able on a perfectly legitimate basis to go through Laura’s things in the lingerie drawers and in the wardrobe, to sit on her bed (yeah, I always found strange that McPherson would do that), to read her letters and private diary. All this is happening in Waldo’s imagination. (Still better -- Waldo did not exactly imagine McPherson, he remembered him from the time he wrote a piece on him and his silver shin-bone in his column. Obviously, he liked him, a hero, handsome and all -- otherwise he would not have chosen him for his alter ego. And at the same time he disliked him, because he could not be all those things himself in real life. Hence his irony about coming to Laura’s apartment as a suitor with drugstore candy, about wanting Laura’s picture, about imagining Laura as wife, about the possibility of ending up in a psych ward, etc. It was bitter irony aimed at himself. We are all dual personalities, I believe, and alternately get pleased or dissatisfied or even disgusted with ourselves.) And he imagined that then Laura would come back and fall in love with him. And not only that. This imaginary hero would also put Shelby in his place, physically speaking -- apparently, Waldo’s longtime dream (certainly, he was able to beat Shelby intellectually, but obviously it was not enough for him). Remember, Shelby was a very big guy (Vincent Price at 6’ 4”) as compared to McPherson (Dana Andrews at 5’ 10”), and still he just takes a slug from him to the solar plexus! (To say nothing of the fact that it was an unwarranted action on the part of a police officer, and committed in the presence of numerous witnesses, too. For such things Dana’s other character, Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon, in another great Preminger’s noir, “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950), would have serious trouble with his boss and later would get in an awful jam. Strangely enough, that was also a character named Mark.) And it all being a dream explains cozy and buddy-buddy wine drinking: why wouldn’t Waldo drink wine with himself? And it also explains why McPherson allowed Waldo to come along with him while he was interviewing potential suspects. And it would explain the impossible movements of the improbable gun hidden in the twin clock. And many other things, like unnecessary tapping of Laura’s phone line, taking Laura to the police station and getting rough and almost brutal on her, McPherson’s saying police dropped in her country house and did not find anybody (Laura said she had gone there by a car -- were the police blind or what if they did not notice the car and the obvious presence of someone in the house: freshly cooked food, unpacked things? Laura said she had gone for a long walk. But why couldn’t the police wait for that someone to show up?), etc.
Very often in this movie police act very stupidly. A different light on their actions could be shed if we believe their actions to be invented by Waldo. So, there was no Lt. McPherson at all -- it is all Waldo, all along. I wouldn’t blame Waldo for an exercise of imagination, albeit a gruesome one. After all, Waldo was a sentimental and romantic old guy. Proofs abound in the movie. Romantic but not happy in his love life. “A gal in Washington Heights once got a fox fur coat out of me.” That’s not McPherson speaking, of course, but Waldo.
There is one very suggestive shot close to the beginning of the movie: Waldo is reflected in the mirror putting on a tie, and McPherson is reflected in the same mirror playing with his puzzle in the background. I don’t know if Mr. Preminger was trying to drop a hint here, but I would say it supports my theory of McPherson being a figment of Waldo’s imagination -- what we see in the mirror is not two persons but one: in the foreground we see his outward self, in the background -- what he was dying to be.
NOW WATCH OUT FOR SPOILERS for Fritz Lang’s “The Woman in the Window” (1944). This film was released at about the same time with “Laura.” It is another great movie where everything that passes passes in a dream. Only in TWITW we learn that it was a dream, while in “Laura” we don’t.

What happens in reality?

Laura comes back from the country and decides to remain single for a while longer. Diane Redfern stays alive. Shelby goes on to marrying Ann. Waldo writes a novel based on his dreams. McPherson works in the Homicide Squad unaware of the existence of any of the above.

Was McPherson obsessed? Or: Dana Andrews the Inscrutable

I must say, I did not concur with the universally-given interpretation of the events in the movie. I read everywhere that Dana Andrews’ character becomes obsessed with the deceased Laura. I just did not feel that. My take is that he becomes obsessed with solving her murder. He feels there is a clue somewhere (specifically, in Laura’s relations with people around her). Probably, instinctively he knows that something is amiss in the picture, but cannot quite put his finger on it. And he was right: everybody he met told him lies. Waldo lied, Shelby lied, Ann lied (about her relationship with Shelby, for instance; and she said she “adored” Laura, while we know that she was not at all happy about Laura’s possible marriage to Shelby), Bessie did not lie but tried to conceal the evidence (hid the bottle and washed clean the glasses). All right, maybe McPherson is a little bit overzealous, and he wants Laura’s picture, and he hangs around her apartment, but what the heck, guys: we, old Hollywood fans, all dote on some movie actor (or a whole bunch of them), we collect their pictures, watch them on the screen for our pleasure, get infatuated with them “in some warped way” of our own (quoting Waldo), and they also are, you know, um, like, dead. Does that make us all belong in a psychiatric ward? If my theory about the whole movie being Waldo’s dream (and McPherson being Waldo’s idealistic dream) holds, then it was Waldo who was obsessed with Laura -- and that it was really so nobody would argue, I guess.
On a separate note, could any other actor play the inscrutable better than Dana Andrews? Richard Widmark could play shady characters about which we as viewers are never sure what they will turn out to be in the end -- good or bad, but we never wonder (or care) about Widmark’s character’s thoughts, just actions, while watching Dana we just die to know what his characters think (and never get to know). His another big asset as an actor was he could look as though all the world’s troubles, sorrows, griefs and woes lay heavily on his shoulders. Such was the expression on his face and look in his eyes. Or, as the wonderful Ms. Lynch at “Another Old Movie Blog” very appropriately put the other day, “There is a genuine quality of misery about Dana Andrews in <...> some <...> roles he played, that conveys some vague but deep, private hell.” However, displaying all that, he never let us inside the mind of his characters. Tortured soul -- yes, but I could never, ever guess what he thinks. Never. (That includes “Laura,” too.) This quality makes him extremely interesting and highly watchable. However, the enigmatic Dana Andrews deserves a separate post of his own, so I will just stop here.

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