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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #5: Soaking in Noir (The Opening Scene of Laura)

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What was certainly striking about Waldo Lydecker is the quick transition from hearing him narrate the scene, to appearing on screen in the bathtub! Certainly an eccentric character to welcome a detective into his home that way.

 

The museum-like setting with expensive trinkets could assume a materialistic and possessive person - could he also feel the same way about Laura? The beautiful younger woman may be just that, another trophy for him, rather than someone he loved or cared for.

 

The high-class setting of this opening scene is a contrast compared to the dark alleyways and cheap motels of other noirs. It shows that dark seedy characters can appear in any walk of life, that darkness can hit you at any level or social status.

 

I like your idea of museum connection.  Certainly an interesting theory

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1. What examples do you see that fit with Nino Frank's contention that Laura is a "charming character study of furnishings and faces?"


 


Some examples of a character study of furnishings and faces in Laura come from Lydecker, and some from McPherson. Lydecker's narration reveals him to be a self-important, verbose snob, wedded to trappings of taste, but his "lavish" (his word) abode shows ostentation among his ecelectic collection, which includes masked faces.


 


Or are they death masks? He wears a mask himself which McPherson sees through, as when McPherson reads him a column written 2 years ago that Lydecker wrote about which had a similar M.O. that killed Laura: a shotgun, point-blank. This indicates the research done by the detective, something the 2 previous detectives overlooked. Lydecker refers to him admiringly because McPherson carries gun wounds in his leg as a reminder of his past courage.


 


Although McPherson himself has no taste (he's intrigued by double-blown glass, dose not close the glass door after opening the case of "treasures" nor does he actually stop to admire the grandfather clock; he merely checks his own watch against the time on the piece.


 


The idea is to demonstrate that one man lacks "taste in furnishings" while the other has bought every taste he could, to give an impression of good taste and character. They are opposites in both furnishings and character.


 


 


2. What do you think about how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker in this scene?


 


Preminger knows his audience will at first be taken in by W.L. as the narrator, the wealthy wit, the extravagant collector who is seemingly comfortable in his own skin while still puffing up his ego with self-congratulatory recognition of Mark McPherson's history.The director depicts W.L. sitting above others (his bath has a step), exalted by his power of the written word to influence, yet he assures us that W.L. is essentially harmless, as we glimpse his lightweight anatomy. Had Preminger excluded that angle, we'd have not seen the bony chest.


 


 


3. In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


Many noir films begin outside, much as we viewers are "outsiders," and then "enter" a noir world, the way we watch ourselves go inside the mind and matter of the main character.


 


Laura, on the other hand, opens within the world of the narrator, not only withIN, but he is IN a tub, naked, so the viewer sees him truly from the inside-out, not the outside-in. Despite this, we wonder about his vulnerability.

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This is sort of a combination response to #s 1 and 2...

 

From the very opening shot, the viewer is treated to a pan shot of Lydecker's living room/study that is full of collectibles, antiques, and above all, masks. I do not think that the visual motif of a mask was any accident. We are led to conclude immediately that this Lydecker, whose voiceover narration is calm, self-assured, and somewhat snarky, is hiding something. Pan over to our first glimpse of him as he soaks in a tub and welcomes a stranger into the bathroom, and he proceeds to offer a seemingly prepared alibi. What is this "mask" he is apparently putting on for McPherson's benefit? At the risk of sounding strange, I do think it is ironic that the screenplay has Lydecker in a bathtub of all places - he is obviously revealed to McPherson as he rises from the water and physically vulnerable in the sense that nothing is "hidden." But because Lydecker is also rather brazen in his attitude and demeanor, the question is: who really has the upper hand here - Lydecker or McPherson? 

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- The collectables are diverse and not all necessarily complement the
  elegant furnishings in the room.  The detective is decidedly non-
  elegant and incongruent in the elegant room.  The narrator’s voice  
  did not quite match the person we finally see.

- Lydecker being in the bathtub, and then asking a stranger for a
  wash-cloth, then a robe is unexpected and makes the character
  strange and somewhat interesting.

- The detective’s dialogue was spot on for the situation, but I
  thought Lydecker reading his notes on the previous questioning was
  an irritating device for presenting exposition.

 

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To answer the "Daily Dose" question of examples of Laura being a "charming character study of furnishings and faces", in less than five minutes we have a clear idea of who is Lydecker and who is McPherson, or at least who the director wants us to think they are. Lydecker is pompous and self-absorbed while McPherson is a straight-talker, no beating around the bush.

 

 

 

 

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It is a study in furnishings and faces as the affluent room is panned and we get a feel for the person who lives here. He lives a cold and structured life with his varied collections. I also like that one never assumes in a film that the bad guy is the narrator. We are taught to trust the narrators in movies and in life. What a great technique to use the bad guy to lead us down the dark path.

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"Soaking in noir" -- very catchy. The introduction taking us directly into the center of this noir, begins with the viewer immediately having several questions, following Lydecker's voice over, which is a key in the great noir examples.

 

First the detective in introduced, leading the viewer to further questions. The "masks" as mentioned, Lydecker's clock versus McPherson's watch all demonstrate class distinction; the gumshoe and the Hearst-like collecting Lydecker. The clock, the music conspire together, creating a noir sensibility.

 

Between Lydecker's obvious skill with writing, and the everyday work of McPherson, Lydecker relys on "reading" to the detective, and the detective, not allowing himself to be bullied, continues Lydecker's narration, showing he is not distracted by either the success, nor the word tactics of Lydecker

 

Asking McPherson to fetch his washcloth, and his robe, are clear power plays, and the nakedness of Lydecker is a bit of a joke, as Lydecker seemed to be stating "I have nothing to hide," despite his wealth, the clothed man has an advantage over the unclothed Lydecker.

 

The detective is nonplussed by the wealth and the wit; he will not stop (alluded to, when Lydecker shares how McPherson ran in to take on a gang, where 3 other officers had been killed)

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The opening scene of Laura indeed suggests a "charming character study of furnishings and faces."  

 

The camera slowly pans across Waldo's cluttered, almost claustrophobic apartment.   

The furnishings commence with a view of a Hindu goddess statue, curios in a glass cabinet, the clock (with its twin in Laura's apartment we are told).   Det. McPherson wanders the room, then stops and ponders a wall of masks.  He stops at the exact location, such that his head lines up with Laura's face in the painting.  He walks over to the clock, intrigued.  He ends up at the curio cabinet.  So intrigued, he reaches in and grasps a priceless item!

 

The viewer is then invited into Waldo's bath to "soak in the noir".  Meet Waldo: the "perverse writer":   

-  "It's lavish, but I call it home."   

- "My version is superior.  I never bother with the details."

- "Hand me a washcloth.... Hand me my robe."  

- "Just yesterday morning, her body was found... I had just begun to write her story."

And that YUMMY marble bathtub with typewriter. 

 

I have not watched Laura.   This introduction makes me feel:  I do not trust Waldo.   Yet, I would like to follow him around.  Why?  I guess because he is charming and amusing! 

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The idea about the study of furnishings and faces definitely made me notice far more the way that the furnishings (the apartment setting) is frequently allowed to take the foreground, obscuring or totally hiding the characters (such as when Andrews passes behind the column, or when he stands behind the glass case (I feel like in another movie that shot would have been from his side of the glass).

 

I like the introduction of Lydecker. The lavish apartment combined with some of the style of the furnishings (like the monogrammed towels or the overly ornate use of marble) made me worry the first time I saw the movie that his character would be some horrible gay stereotype. There are elements (such as him asking for the washcloth or stepping out of the tub in full view of Andrews) that could have easily played into a kind of "evil gay" homophobia. Instead we get a character who is quirky in an interesting way, and I like the admiration and interest he shows Andrews' character when he realizes who he is. I like the matching look of surprise on Andrews' face when Lydecker is so easily able to recall the events of the shootout and his role in it. That exchange is a nice echo of the earlier moment when Andrews quotes from memory Lydecker's statement about Laura's death.

 

Lydecker is a fun character because he is a wordsmith who openly admits to bending the truth in the interest of a good story ("Oh, I think my version was better"). It makes for a great contrast with the more blunt verbal style of Andrews' detective. I love characters who admit up front to being deceptive--it keeps you on your toes.

 

There's also something to be said for the voice-over getting right to the point: Laura (the titular character) has been murdered. Not only that, but has suffered a "horrible death." Even though Lydecker selfishly filters her tragedy through his own suffering ("I felt like the only person in New York", etc), it creates an immediate intrigue about how and why she died.

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As far as being a "study of faces", we get to study the detective's face as does the narrator, because he "makes him wait" and can see him through the half open door.

I was shocked the first time I saw this movie that the narrator was naked in the bathtub.  There weren't even any bubbles to hide things.  It was still shocking the second time. It does put you out of balance.  If this person was to be left alone by Laura's death, it is strange that he spent the time documenting his every move at the time, instead of grieving.

I am new at studying film noir, but I noticed the repetition of the theme of showing a ticking clock at the beginning of the movie.  In this film the clock is so very important. 

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What struck me was the difference in Lydecker's voice over narration, which seems oddly poetic but dark, and his almost 'bright', but similarly intellectual, emotionally detached tone when 'met' as a character.  That detached, emotionless stance (very matter-of-fact) when confronting, matter of factly, something dark & sinister seems to me to be a hallmark of noir.

 

As others have noted, the camera exploring setting props & furnishings works very effectively to establish more about the voice we are hearing before we see & meet the man. Carefully choreographed with objects appearing on cue with voiceover  - the female goddess statue centre frame when Laura is mentioned,  glass items in the cabinet as the words "magnifying glass" - reference to New York and we imagine it's just outside the open doors but not quite seen. Then "I was alone" and into view comes a chair, empty at a table looking poignantly cosy.

 

In hindsight, quickly, we read this as Lydecker's space, but until the detective is mentioned and comes into view this isn't confirmed, and indeed until the clock is identified as one of only two, you don't know if Laura lived in the same house. And the co-ordination of word & image continues with "I could watch him" heard as the detective looks at the watching mask arrayed on the wall, not to mention the portrait in the background.

 

Certainly I'd love to be able to watch the film in it's entirity after this opening!

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One of my favourite films noir. Incredible way to start a film:  "I shall never forget the weekend that Laura died". That really catches your attention from the beginning.

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~ What examples do you see that fit with Nino Frank's contention that Laura is a "charming character study of furnishings and faces"?

The camera pans around the lavish apartment in deep focus slow enough that we get a really good look at the decor; it is not ignored, out of focus in the background, merely there to set the scene. Lydecker informs us twice how priceless these items are, this and his style of choice are key to informing us about his character. We also get a good look at the 2 men in the scene and can easily read thier expressions, and there are statues and masks adding to the faces.

 

Preminger introduces Waldo Lydecker to us 3 times: 1)voiceover 2)introduces himself as he is writing 3)we see him.

-As to his writing in the bath I believe he is just trying to stay cool; "it was the hottest Sunday in my recolection", he has no A.C. the patio door is open, and NY feels empty: alot of people would escape the heat by going out of town (as in The Seven Year Itch).

-Recieving a guest while in the bath seems weird and Lydecker is an odd guy, but if he sees policemen as mere servants not on the same level as himself it is socially acceptable. He obiously has a massive ego and seems to enjoy 'putting people in thier place' and showing off his intellect to prove he is superior.

 

The opening of Laura is important to noir style because its characters have such depth, the voiceover isn't done by the hero detective, the title character is already dead before the film begins, and the posh settings, all challenge the usual formula of noir.

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-- What examples do you see that fit with Nino Frank's contention that Laura is a "charming character study of furnishings and faces?"


 


I definitely see what Frank is saying in this opening scene. Lydecker's home is far less gritty than the settings of other Film Noirs we've seen. As for faces, the first half of the scene is spent with us studying McPherson's expressions as he walks around the room. Generally the detective is stoic and unflappable, but from what Lydecker tells us about McPherson, there's more to him than meets the eye.


 


-- What do you think about how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker in this scene?


 


I actually chuckled when we first saw Lydecker in the tub with a typewriter and binder set out in front of him and I think that was intentional. He seems a bit off the wall and with the discrepancies in his testimony, as pointed out by McPherson, we get the sense that he isn't all there and might just be the one who did it. I think that scepticism and distrust is very true to the film noir style.


 


-- In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


As I said, the opening scene establishes scepticism and distrust. We have the detective genre cropping up again and we've got the voiceover, which gives us more information than we'd get from just watching the scene on it's own. Again, there's an emphasis on a clock, like in M, which makes me think that time (e.g. the importance of it) might be a prevalant theme in Film Noir.


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The thing that makes Lydecker's introduction so funny is his deadpan delivery. He's in an absurd setting, but he behaves as if it's business as usual. It speaks volumes about his character with just the visual alone. It's unexpected, but at the same time it's quite easy for me to accept as a viewer because of the character's "normal" tone. 

 

The fact that he is naked is also a juxtaposition to his lavish surroundings, making him more than he seems. As I've said before in this course, Noir gives the viewer credit for making connections. 

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This fits into descriptions of Noir through the contrast of the viewer being able to carefully examine the room's furnishings before swing the characters. During this time there is the voice over by the narrator informing of his POV.

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I am glad you brought up the differences in job classifications and social placement. for years I have been doing mental math about Laura's entry and then subsequent success in the design field. I know things might have been different in the 40's, but first, she was a woman trying to enter the field. Maybe because of the year the movie was made, or when Vera Caspary wrote the book, ladies were able to jump into job opportunities because most of the men were in the military fighting the War. But then, from all that I can surmise, she seems to be about 17 (!!!) as she tries to make her first inroads, and then with the "right contacts," transforms into a successful top designer of imagery for advertising, quick as a bunny! Wait! When did she have time to learn keyline and paste up or was she just able to jump over these lower job tasks? Shall we take her to be the precursor of Peggy and Joan of Mad Men, but without the late nights and client rejections?

I just picked up a library copy of Laura -- an edition published in 1943. The author bio for Vera Caspary on the back cover is hoot:

". . . gone free to nearly every New York night club"; "A genius in selling things by mail . . . ."

And underneath that is a logo of a soldier with the following: "For Victory Buy United States War Bonds and Stamps."

I'm almost (almost) afraid the pages will tear in my hands, but I am really looking forward to reading it.

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Our introduction to Lydecker is his voice, but our visual introduction is not to him, but rather to his things.  These things are lavish, but they are also fragile; the first words Lydecker says to the detective are, "Careful there, that stuff is priceless."  When Lydecker tells the detective, "My version was obviously superior" and "I never bother with details you know," you receive clues that Lydecker is perhaps an unreliable narrator.  At 0:54, Detective McPherson seems to hold pose with the masks, all looking the same direction; we soon realize he is looking at the clock.  The camera follows McPherson's slow but deliberate steps.  We first meet him after a slow pan across the room.  In contrast, there is a very quick pan to our first visual encounter with Lydecker.

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Usually, in films noir, we are asked to identify with the detective, the one who is trying to figure things out, and we follow him around, as he investigates. But with 'Laura' the v/o of Waldo Lydecker, who is "the only one who *really* knows Laura* puts us at odds with our usual way into a film noir. We aren't the least bit like Waldo (unless you're watching the film in a fancy marble soaking tub), but we are asked to identify with him instead of the investigator, the one we feel more like.

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Lydecker is arguably the most important character in the film (aside from Laura herself) and the catalyst for the action. The film introduces us to him through his surroundings, and his voice over. Narration leading us into the character's world is a standard noir device, we expect the protagonist to be a Chadler style "hard boiled" detective, or cop, and we expect a dark, or high contrast, "street" type environment. In this case we see an elegant, expensively furnished apartment, letting us know that the narrator is well off, and a man of somewhat sophisticated and "refined" tastes. He contrasts with the next character to appear in the film, the police detective investigating the case. The detective, played by Dana Andrews, is more stereotypically noir-ish. Unimpressed by Lydecker's elegant surroundings, and not taken in by Lydecker's initial recounting of events, the detecting isn't even thrown off course by Lydecker receiving him in his bath. In this way, he resembles Philip Marlowe in the opening sequence of the Big Sleep, without the irony and humor of Marlowe.

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Laura is a charming character study of objects and faces, largely because objects and faces are what Preminger decided to focus on, at least in the film's first scene. Without showing us Lydecker himself, the visuals tell us everything we need to know about him. He is wealthy, well travelled, and has feminine tastes. There is a portrait of Laura over his fireplace, which tells us that she was important to him - but the portrait is nearly eclipsed by the other items in his collection which may mean that he considered Laura part of that collection.

 

-- What do you think about how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker in this scene?

 

I love the introduction of Lydecker. We meet him first through his voice, then through his posessions, and by the time we get around to meeting him in person we have already formed an oppinion. Waldo Lydecker is an efeet snob who believes he is more clever than everyone else in the world. He is an unreliable narrator who is more interested in ideas and emotions than in facts- and although the censors would never have allowed him to admit it, he is also a homosexual. This is made clear by his effeminate decorating style, the disregard he has for appearing nude before a male stranger, and the way that the detective reacts when asked to hand him the washcloth. He tosses it disdainfully, and does the same with the robe. 

 

-- In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

I think it is important because of how well it sets the stage for the rest of the film, also the idea of having a narration over the opening scene rather than just jumping into the action seems like a hallmark of noir.

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1. What examples do you see that fit with Nino Frank's contention that Laura is a "charming character study of furnishings and faces?"

 

Some examples of a character study of furnishings and faces in Laura come from Lydecker, and some from McPherson. Lydecker's narration reveals him to be a self-important, verbose snob, wedded to trappings of taste, but his "lavish" (his word) abode shows ostentation among his ecelectic collection, which includes masked faces.

 

Or are they death masks? He wears a mask himself which McPherson sees through, as when McPherson reads him a column written 2 years ago that Lydecker wrote about which had a similar M.O. that killed Laura: a shotgun, point-blank. This indicates the research done by the detective, something the 2 previous detectives overlooked. Lydecker refers to him admiringly because McPherson carries gun wounds in his leg as a reminder of his past courage.

 

Although McPherson himself has no taste (he's intrigued by double-blown glass, dose not close the glass door after opening the case of "treasures" nor does he actually stop to admire the grandfather clock; he merely checks his own watch against the time on the piece.

 

The idea is to demonstrate that one man lacks "taste in furnishings" while the other has bought every taste he could, to give an impression of good taste and character. They are opposites in both furnishings and character.

 

 

2. What do you think about how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker in this scene?

 

Preminger knows his audience will at first be taken in by W.L. as the narrator, the wealthy wit, the extravagant collector who is seemingly comfortable in his own skin while still puffing up his ego with self-congratulatory recognition of Mark McPherson's history.The director depicts W.L. sitting above others (his bath has a step), exalted by his power of the written word to influence, yet he assures us that W.L. is essentially harmless, as we glimpse his lightweight anatomy. Had Preminger excluded that angle, we'd have not seen the bony chest.

 

 

3. In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

Many noir films begin outside, much as we viewers are "outsiders," and then "enter" a noir world, the way we watch ourselves go inside the mind and matter of the main character.

 

Laura, on the other hand, opens within the world of the narrator, not only withIN, but he is IN a tub, naked, so the viewer sees him truly from the inside-out, not the outside-in. Despite this, we wonder about his vulnerability.

 

Thank you for this well-observed post.  And...thank you for your work.

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The cahrming characters are there indeed! Instead of a number of players already known by its preominence in many other releases, Otto Preminger's 'Laura' presents us with an excentric bio right at the beginning of the plot. The writer not only receives the detective while taking bath, but also contradicts him wisely after being questioned about a murder. It is a clever way to put audiences in doubt about what happened so Laura was killed. There is not a clear good/bad guy distinction here, what this is what makes it more interesting than anything.


For me, the great contribution to noir style is exactly that: to question the audiences and to make the narratives more and more seductive and complex. The basic formula was getting improved!


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One advantage of starting a movie out with a first-person voice-over is that it allows a film to establish a character before they've actually done anything. The first character on screen in Laura is a detective who doesn't do much right away aside from look at a clock. But Waldo Lydecker is already drawing the audience's attention the through his narration, even though he doesn't appear for a few minutes.

 

The frame of the camera is very important in the opening scene. The characters can see to where the audience can't; Waldo is offscreen, but talking to us. The detective can see Waldo's naked body, but we can't. Even when Waldo tells the detective to take a seat, we expect him to sit in the comfortable chair we can see, but he walks to a wooden chair we couldn't. The whole movie turns out to be about things the characters know but that the audience (at first) doesn't.

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The camera moves languorously over  his extremely well appointed apartment as we hear Waldo Lydecker's voice say, "I'll never forget the weekend that Laura died". We see detective McPherson surveying the belongings, giving a slight sneer as he views a group of masks hanging on a wall. We hear Lydecker reprimand McPherson for touching an object and then command him to enter an adjoining room, which turns out to be a lavish bathroom and Lydecker is soaking in cool water to beat the heat. Preminger's decision to introduce us to Waldo in this way was very bold- most likely the first time that a male character played his opening scene in this manner. In giving us such wide shots to take in the surroundings, Preminger is telling us that this is a well educated, well travelled erudite individual. And we can ascertain from his dialogue that he is superior, condescending and quite persnickety. McPherson, on the other hand, seems distant and reserved- taking it all in and keeping his judgements to himself. Preminger also gives us a great bit of foreshadowing when Lydecker makes mention of the clock, and McPherson's attention to it.    

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