Tuesday, June 29, 2010

LAURA v. Laura

LAURA is a film noir that stands out for several reasons. It is surreptitiously told in flashback and post-mortem from the point of view of the killer, Waldo Lydecker, though the majority of the film, and the narrative thrust, is carried by Lt. Mark McPherson's investigation. Despite this, much of the psychological complexity comes from McPherson, and his obsession with the presumably deceased Laura. Otto Preminger's style does not focus on low-key lighting and off-kilter angles. Instead, he moves his camera, smooth and dream-like, to change the composition of the shot, and uses his ubiquitous three-shot to clarify relationships.

Also, it doesn't fit neatly into the violent and gritty world that most associate with noir. The characters in this story are mostly upper-crust Manhattanites. This murder is an intrusion on their staid existence, a shock to a system which thrives on the urbane and the sophisticate. Not only does this not sound noir, it doesn't even sound hard-boiled.

It is no surprise, then, to find that the novel the film is based on defies most categories as well. True, it is a crime story, and the mystery surrounding the murder still exists, but the film actually does great service to the tone and complexity of the novel. It is presented in five sections. The first, and longest, much like the film, is the beginning of the story, from Lydecker's first-person point of view. The second section picks up the investigation from McPherson's first-person perspective, as Laura makes her reappearance. The third section is a short transcription of an interview between McPherson and the ostensible suspect, Shelby Carpenter. The fourth section is Laura's, and the final short section wraps up the story from McPherson's point of view.

Even for someone who knows the story, it is hard not to root for Lydecker, the self-proclaimed champion of the victim, seeing a third of the book through his eyes. But it is truly the story of three people, forced into a perverse love triangle, and each individual personality is given its due time. What in the film seems to be a clever ploy, plays as if it were the only possible solution in the novel. Of course, the technique is different. Where the author Vera Caspary has pages of passages to explore the self-aware workings of each individual, Preminger achieves much the same effect by placing his camera so that Laura's portrait is looking over McPherson's shoulder. But the psychology and obsession are there, in vivid detail.

Yet for all its eccentricities, LAURA comfortably sits inside the definition of film noir, as a film told from the criminal's perspective, utilizing realistic violence (most shots fired kill someone) and formalism (subtle, bewitching style by Preminger) to tell a story that features oneiricism (flashback) and eroticism (true love with a dead woman). And Laura fits within the understanding of noir literature, in that it deals with the downfall and ultimate end of a man driven to crime by obsession, and in this case, the fundamental obsession with a woman.

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