Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Laura (1944)

These essays are intended for people that have already seen the films being discussed. This entry will DEFINITELY spoil parts of the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet.

Oneiric? Check. Anytime you start a film with first-person narration you flirt with the dream-like since dreams and memory tread the same muddy water. The fact that the person doing the narrating is the killer adds the concept of seeing the crime from the criminal's perspective, but he ends up not being the main character. So these can't be his memories, as he isn't present all the time. So might they be the extrapolations of what he knows?

Strange? Maybe not in the Kafka-esque sense. Except for that one instance about halfway through the film.

Erotic? Check. Our hero (Dana Andrews) has a romantic obsession with a dead woman, especially the portrait hung over her mantel, which is in as many shots as director Otto Preminger makes possible in the first half of the film. He fetishises her possessions, getting to know her indirectly, while yearning for the unattainable. Our killer fetishises the woman herself, dressing her up, changing her hair, a Pygmalion of the mid-century.

Ambivalent? Not as much as a film with an anti-hero might make me feel.

Cruel? The dead woman had her face shot off with both barrels of a shotgun. Check.

And so we have something closer to the signpost definition that Borde and Chaumeton offered, but still somewhat removed from other noir. Dana Andrews, though he wonderfully underplays his part as the detective, is certainly the part of the traditional romantic hero, with a bit of psychosis. Laura is the romantic ideal that he must achieve, but she remains unattainable, first through death, then through interference from her self-appointed protector, then through suspicion and finally, again, through death (almost).

Gone is the overt criminal element, replaced by friends of questionable motive. There is the wandering fiance, the back-stabbing aunt, the over-loyal maid, and of course the killer. There is little violence, other than what is referred to, and never would have been shown anyway.

What there is, that was absent in THE MALTESE FALCON, is a distinct, controlled style. There are a few worthy noir-shadowed shots, but most of the visual information is communicated through clever mise-en-scene, an airy, floating camera, and zooms that close the frame when the characters need to be brought together. There is also some use of the deep-focus pioneered in CITIZEN KANE (1941) that FALCON was not able to take advantage of.

So what do these first two films have in common? Crime, certainly. And an ambiguity of character. But this is common is crime fiction, especially when there is a mystery involved, and there are characters that are trying to evade exposure. Perhaps a more cohesive through-line will present itself as we go on.

Next time: Murder, My Sweet

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