Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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What a surprisingly delightful/bizarre opening scene of Laura. You think you're getting your typical film opening and then the shot goes to Waldo Lydecker (played brilliantly by Clifton Webb) in the bathtub. His easygoing transition into reading his alibi statement, as he is casually soaking, is so strange and yet you want to keep watching to see what this character is going to do. I can't wait to see the rest of the film.

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Something about the opening scene, the techniques used, seems to expand time. It feels ten minutes has elapsed when actually it is less than two. 

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I really like the opening because it reminds me of what I do whenever I wait in a stranger's house: I look around. The detective jumps around, moving from piece to piece. There isn't any in depth study of any one particular piece until he grabs at the piece of crystal (I think) in the case. Once he starts to disturb what's around him, getting his hands on one of Waldo's pieces, that's when Waldo breaks the observation and engages. He says at the end of the clip that he doesn't bother getting into details - but when the detective bothers with looking at the details, that's when Waldo breaks the silence. That's very clever.

 

And I've yet to meet someone who's desk is really just a tub. There's a lavishness about it that I find a bit off putting. Or maybe I'm just jealous and wish I was sitting in a tub right now. Also, the scanning of the room and the many monogramed towels is a very nice touch. It makes me think that this guy is a tad into himself, his view, and his story. I've always loved how film noir, to me at least, always seems to focus on people who try to own, control, and manage their stories and projections of themselves into the wider world. The conflict seems to stem from when they lose control of those stories, usually through violence, etc. That's the setup I feel is coming from this initial scene.  

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The masks on the wall hint to the obsession with faces, and what face we present to the world vs. how we are on the inside (I won't spoil the ending for those who haven't seen it, but that theme is certainly relevant throughout the film).

 

Lydecker's immediately introduced as an obsessive weirdo. His narration about Laura indicates an obsessive mind.  But the strangest part is him receiving a detective while nude in his bathtub.  I realize it's a different era, but I can't possibly imagine any scenario in which I would ever receive a cop conducting a homicide investigation while bathing.

 

As for contribution to noir style, I think it's ending (again, don't want to spoil it) is unique. It's a twist ending that makes reasonable sense.

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Have never seen "Laura"..and ver appreciative of the opportunity to view it now with everyone's helpful obsevations. The opening shot told me everything I needed to know about Lydecker- that he is wealthy, well travelled, educated, articulate, likely famous in at least local circles- and egotistical and self assured enough to be naked in front of a complete stranger..I can't imagine a similar situation occurring in modern times.. it is not clear what his connection to Laura's death is at this point..he knows more than is disclosed in these opening scenes- just enough is hinted at to keep the viewer suspicious. Noir elements include a very "staged" tableau, complicated social situations, symbolic items (the clock) menacing elements (the indonesion masks) and the detective himself.

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Three cheers for Ottom Preminger.  As I was growing up, I always admired him as a director.  WEhat imagery!  Clifon Webb comes across as just a bit smarmy.  Dana Andrews is the classic noir detective.  A true delight of a movie!  I am pulled in immmediately.!  

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I have to say that I totally agree with this. There was something almost uncomfortable about the opulence of the whole thing for me. It was hard to take it all in.

 

Something about the opening scene, the techniques used, seems to expand time. It feels ten minutes has elapsed when actually it is less than two.

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The first thing you see in Laura is a statue of a Chinese Guanyin, a female Buddha which represents compassion.  While you're thinking about that, the camera pans right, past a glass case filled with antique glass vessels,, then across the living room of an exquisite New York apartment (the voice over tells you it's New York), to the detective.  Now the camera reverses, pausing as the detective looks at a wall of masks, back to the glass case (where he makes the mistake of touching and examining one of the vessels (an antique perfume jar) and then we see the man giving us the voice over, Waldo Lydecker,  who is shown naked, submerged (therefore partially hidden in identity and in his role in the murder) in his bathtub (another vessel).  Along with this is the ornate standing clock, which links Waldo and Laura, and is yet another vessel which contains a deadly surprise.

 

Masks and vessels.  People are receptacles or vessels for the hopes and desires of others (this Laura surely is, but others are as well).  They don masks which come away occasionally, as in any good detective film - but here the masks are displayed as part of the film's visual style.  

 

Whatever else this film is (and it is surely noir, with its angles and shadows, and the characters who inhabit them, living in shadow, pursuing their various angles, so to speak) it is a "charming character study in furnishings and faces."  

What does this film do for the noir genre?  Perhaps it lends an air of humanity and elegance which is attempted again in Where the Sidewalk Ends (again with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney) and the less well known The Dark Corner (with Clifton Webb in a similar role as well as Lucille Ball).  I noticed here for the first time that Mark McPherson, the detective, is immediately identified as heroic but physically flawed (the shinbone full of lead), which noir films that followed this one were perhaps unconsciously imitating (think of The Asphalt Jungle, for example).  

 

 

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One of the most intriguing moments in the opening scene in "Laura" is the smirk on MacPheason's face when Lydecker gets out of the tub (off screen) and asks MacPherson to throw him his robe. Is Macpherson smirking at Lydecker's audaciousness or his "short comings"? I have a feeling that Preminger beat the censors.

 

The one thing I didn't like about the scene is the use of Lydecker's voice over (which is a staple of many films noir). It gives the impression that he's the narrator of the tale, but after the opening, his voice over doesn't recur in the rest of the film.

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I see Lydecker as violating personal boundaries by meeting MacPherson in the nude in the bath. He's trying to put MacPherson back on his heels and in his place. When he gets out of the tub and asks MacPherson for a towel, he's putting MacPherson into a subservient position. Lydecker is communicating to MacPherson that he considers him beneath him, so far beneath him that he feels comfortable being nude around him like would around a servant. (Lydecker has servants, since someone must have let MacPherson in.) Strangely enough, the bath scene is a dominance play IMHO.

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Waldo Lydecker's massive ego is tipped off from the beginning of this film. "I shall never forget..." He felt like he was the only person in the world after learning of Laura's death. Only he really knew Laura. He tells McPherson that he is the most misquoted man in America. Ordinarily we would likely be turned off by such a self-centered character, but Waldo is also very funny and his engaging narrative, which drops out after the opening is compelling--and snarky. A great opening.

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Okay, now we have entered the realm of one of my most favorite movies ever, "Laura". 

 

There are actually two versions; one with the scenes cut when Waldo describes in flashback how he groomed Laura, having her meet influential people in the industry, etc.  The other version, shows the entire film.

 

I love this movie...the opening scene shows the stark difference between self-absorbed, conceited Waldo, who believes himself entitled to anything and everything life has to offer without explanation of his lifestyle or opinions, and Mark, the "plain, no frills" plain-clothes detective, who in my opinion has quickly sized up Waldo as an ****.

 

Waldo is fastidious in his manner, dress, movements, speech...everything is crisp and direct.

 

Mark is laid back, not too particular about his appearance, only wanting the facts.

 

I find it interesting that quickly he realizes that his little toy becomes an annoyance to Waldo and Mark immediately starts using it to break down Waldo's wall of self-control. 

 

Vincent Price (I know he's not in the opening scene) is so wonderful in this movie, so out-of-character from the monster, insane villains he later portrays.  Watching him play the milquetoast is priceless, no pun intended.

 

I love this movie on so many levels.  The first time I watched it, I was really shocked when Laura came back from the dead. 

 

I love voyeuring into the socialite world with money, fine furs, expensive clothes, lavish lifestyles and watching these folks in action.  It's like being a guest at the party and sitting in the corner behind a potted palm!

 

I have always told everyone who would listen of all the wonderful puzzle pieces to this story.

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I agree with #7 kevroy7 .  The opening scene does seem to last much longer than the amount of time that elapses.  Having watched this film dozens of times in the past, I'm probably seeing things that may or may not be there, based on the input on this thread.  However, I do think that clocks are clever time symbols.  In this particular case, the age difference between Waldo and Mark is patently clear.  Waldo is an antique; Mark the hard-boiled modern man.  Waldo immediately affects an air of superiority - claiming he is the "only one who really knew Laura", and ordering Mark around.  The fact that Mark is amused rather than resentful, shows an air of self-confidence equal to Waldo's arrogance.  The opulence of Waldo's apartment is also a study in contrast, given we are about to enter the investigation of a brutal crime.  The masks are very symbolic.  As with most who are facing a police interview, Waldo's mask is already in place, but he still can't hide the obvious sense of superiority he feels to everyone.

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The journey begins with ominous tones, immediately drawing you in for the introduction. The tone and speed of the voice feels as though it extends these four minutes of explanation into something much longer and drawn out.

 

The man speaking seems to be quite a collector of rare and beautiful things. He is meticulous and probably has precision to the placement (and treatment) of each object in the room. A whole "look and admire, but don't touch" attitude.

 

The way the inspector is described, the change in the narrative's voice...it makes it sounds as though he is viewed as a lesser respected human. Honestly, Mr. Lydecker doesn't even feel it necessary to change his routine, as he remains in the tub to take the visit. Then proceeds to treat the inspector as a manservant.

 

I am interested In knowing more about the clock, the inspector doesn't appear to spend more time looking at it...yet the dialogue suggests that Mr. Lydecker sees something more in that casual glance. The dialogue and interaction has intrigued me to delve further into this movie...now on my "must watch" list.

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I think the opening scene wonderfully captures Lydecker and McPherson's characters.

 

Lydecker is revealed through the opulence and culture displayed throughout his home, the poetry and empathy for Laura shown in his obituary for her, and the conversely cold and casual way he discusses her death in person. He recites his whereabouts on the night of Laura's death like he's reading a grocery list. The way he explains why he wrote down his alibi as well, to prevent detectives from misquoting him, clearly establishes how far above McPherson in intellect and class.

 

It's also interesting how he seems to know McPherson is mishandling one of his artifacts even though there's a mostly closed door between them. It lends Lydecker a kind of preternatural awareness of his surroundings, at least within his little kingdom.

 

And yet despite all these markers of arrogance and stature, he is comically presented nude and reclining in a bathtub. This undercuts his presence a great deal, making him appear less menacing and mysterious than he otherwise would. I get the sense that this is a man with nothing to hide.

 

Meanwhile, McPherson strikes me as someone who is very self-restrained, hiding an intelligence that he is slow to reveal. He examines Lydecker's wealth as casually as most people would browse as a shop, and he doesn't flinch at seeing Lydecker in the nude. However, he shows that he knows Lydecker's alibi as well as Lydecker does by finishing his sentence, and when Lydecker recognizes McPherson we hear an account of bravery and strength that the character himself seems to willfully conceal.

 

And the observation of the similarity between Laura's death and Lydecker's mistaken account of another killing, in a book review of all things, is very sharp indeed.

 

The result is a clear contrast between a man of self-described intelligence and another man who keeps his intelligence concealed, and seems much more cunning as a result.

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When looking and listening to the description of Laura and untimely death I hear a bit of coldness, maybe even jealousy from Lydecker. How can a man who claims to care for her as did he come off so cold. Wouldn't you think that he would maybe have some sympathy for such a young & beautiful woman who was cut down in the prime of her life and in a brutal manner of death. Yes Lydecker's job is to inform the reader about the horrible murder of Laura and he has to be professional but his manner is coming off cold as if maybe Laura deserved what she got? You would think if you were talking to a detective about someone you knew who was murdered you might want to have a little more emotion behind what you are saying and not come off as cold hearted.

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When looking and listening to the description of Laura and untimely death I hear a bit of coldness, maybe even jealousy from Lydecker. How can a man who claims to care for her as did he come off so cold. Wouldn't you think that he would maybe have some sympathy for such a young & beautiful woman who was cut down in the prime of her life and in a brutal manner of death. Yes Lydecker's job is to inform the reader about the horrible murder of Laura and he has to be professional but his manner is coming off cold as if maybe Laura deserved what she got? You would think if you were talking to a detective about someone you knew who was murdered you might want to have a little more emotion behind what you are saying and not come off as cold hearted.

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SPOILER ALERT…for those who have not yet seen the whole film.

 

I'm always interested to see how the murderer in films is portrayed so as not to have us suspect him/her. In this case, Waldo's narration makes him the last person we suspect. He is too close, too intimate. The 'bad guy' is always out there, distant and removed from us. When he says, "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died," we assume it's because of his love for her. But in retrospect, how could he forget the weekend he committed murder? Clever.

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The panning camera movement allows the viewer to "discover" the setting and forces them to focus attention on the details -- perhaps similar to the way the detective first experienced the room when he entered.  It is a lot to take in.  Seveal people here have mentioned the significance of clocks and masks -- so I will not repeat that here.

 

The room itself is fastidiously arranged, almost like a museum.  The fact that some items are kept behind glass goes even further to show Lydecker's materialism.  The clock, masks,  and the glass "relic" get the most attention as the camera now "catches-up" to McPherson.  Lydecker's contempt for McPerson is clear -- "Another one of those detectives" that he had wait for him.  He also asserts his power through keeping the man under observation, unbeknownst to him.  His first words to him are a reprimand.  His further conversation objectifies McPerson as "that detective" who was shot by a fugitive. 

 

Lydecker clearly arranges his reality in terms of "things" and how they benefit him, or how he dominates them.  His monologue is further punctuated with first person references -- how this is affecting him.  But at the end of it, he comes out on top. He was the only person to understand Laura.

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You can really see Frank's idea that this is a study furnishings and faces in the opening scene. As the camera pans Waldos house we see a rich, meticulous, and somewhat pretentious layout. Despite its beauty it seems very cold a with an owner that is self absorbed . Even Waldo tells us that his house is lavish. This is in contrast of Mark's somewhat crumpled looking suit. Kind of a go with the flow this is the first thing I grabbed to put on suit.

 

Both of these reflect the actual character of both Waldo and Mark. The expressions on their faces also convey these attitudes. Walter with his self absorbed " I don't really care what you think I'm going to complete my bath" Then Mark with his go with the flow I don't really care if I I'm talking to a nude guy thought of "My gosh who would invite someone in while they're taking a bath. But it's almost funny so I'm just going to throw him the washcloth." All very subtle but very effective.

 

I like this movie and all the actors are great but I specially like Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. They do a great job with your Smarmy characters

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The opening scene and the almost emotionless but cultured voice of Waldo Lydecker that traverses the flow the camera, that captures the images of magnificent collectables, of a rich and , I think as I watch, decadent home, perhaps not even a home, more a museum or art gallery, it all prepares the viewer for almost anything but Waldo in his impressive bathtub.

 

Others have noted; egotistical, fastidious Waldo plays well against Mark. You know a fine and classic duel is going to unfold.

 

Most noirs seem to me to live in the dark. Even with the glorious light in Waldo's chamber, his home, his light only shines a self-centred darkness. Nevertheless, its all intoxicating. As for moving noir forward, thje opening could lead anywhere. It does find a noirish piton to hang on to but it always seems to me to be too rich, too detailed for noir.

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

—What examples do you see that fit with Nino Frank's contention that Laura is a “charming character study of furnishings and faces,” and what do you think about how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker in this scene?
It’s hard to tell much about faces in this short clip, unless Nino Frank is talking about the masks on the walls. Could everyone in the movie be wearing a mask? The viewer certainly gets a wonderful slow pan of Lydecker’s opulent apartment and thus his lifestyle. The furnishings, including the masks, tell us a lot about Lydecker: He’s pampered, and he’s used to getting his own way. He’s a bit imperious with Detective McPherson. This particular clip is all about Lydecker. The movie may be named after Laura, but the clip gives me the impression that Lydecker is the star of the story. (By the way, I think the statue of the horse on the shelf under the masks is a prop that is used in a couple of Jack Lemmon movies!)

 

—In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?
One of the first things Lydecker says in this clip is “A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass.” My guess is that someone is going to get burned, but who? Not only is the opening clip a character study, it’s a study in confusion from the moment it starts. The movie is named after Laura, but it’s Lydecker who is narrating through voiceover. He’s the one who introduces us to Detective McPherson, and his apartment and lavish lifestyle are showcased from the beginning. He seems to know a lot about Laura, but is that because he is a friend, as he claims? Lydecker is a writer, but he tells the detective that he never bothers with details. Right away I don't like him and I am wondering how much he can be trusted. And isn’t that why Detective McPherson is there, too? Preminger packs an awful lot in just a few minutes.

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"Laura" is an excellent example of the noir genre and provides a good number of excellent twists and turns that keeps the viewer guessing throughout the film and of course for those already having viewed this film (I have a number of times) an excellent and unexpected shock right in the middle.  It's not difficult to see Preminger's touch on this film.  


 


The opening scene indeed does provide a distinct change from the crime films of the 30's as Frank suggests.  We immediately sense an ominous side to this movie, but not in the violent and obvious way that earlier crime and gangster films portray.  We are slowly drawn into the room, beautiful, perfect, but the narration makes it clear that there has been a murder and that it will have a huge effect on him and likely everyone Laura knew.  We know immediately that Laura was someone special and we look forward to getting to know her, but will we?  She's already dead.....


 


The opening has us going through a room with the narration happening at the same time.  What do we expect to see as we travel through the nicely decorated room?  We expect to see a corpse somewhere along the line, but instead we are treated to the detective who is inspecting the room.  In my mind, he has already formed his opinion based on instinct and, as we are soon to find out, past interaction with Lydecker through an article written by Lydecker about him.  Most interesting to me is how the detective quietly allows Lydecker to act as he will and he plays along.....a very wise detective for such a young man and I picked up on it immediately.....very Columbo-like without the Columbo-style silliness.  I have to wonder if Andrew's character had any influence on Columbo episodes.  I loved Peter Falk's character so much and was a faithful fan!


 


Lydecker's narration and the background music of course give us a quick indication that this film is not going to be a nice one and immediately catches the attention of the noir fan.  The mystery is set, and we are immediately asking ourselves, who is Laura, who did it, why, how, when and for me personally I immediately begin attempting to figure it out.....it is one of the great things about film I love.  I generally do not like films that I can figure out quickly and Laura definitely caught me off guard, of course making me want to view the film again and again....I have.


 


Lydecker is an atrocious man and it takes only a moment to figure that out as we see the first interaction between him and the detective.  But deeper than that we see an obsessive perfectionist who needs control.  All we have to do is look at the apartment, the furnishings, and the superior attitude (I think that might have been a little overdone dramatically, because it gives rise to suspicion that he is involved right away, but this is a Preminger......).  All around this man is perfection and an environment of which he is in complete control.  Psychologically it of course tells us that he is inherently insecure and a very needy (and abusive) personality.  For psychology-interested people, could he be a borderline personality disorder?  I think it's a distinct possibility.  I am always interested in the mindset and motivation of the characters in film.


 


We now have a scene well set for an excellent and engaging film noir.  The best ones always take us away from our hum drum and boring lives for just a little while and Laura certainly fills the bill on this one!!


 


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I see why critic Nina Frank describes Laura as a "charming character study about furnishings and faces".  In the opening scene, the camera pans across the "artifacts" in Lydecker's display cases showing them in great detail. The detective spends several minutes while waitingto speak to Lydecker inspecting the items handing on the wall,  the clock, and the items in the display case. Laura' opening scene fits into the film noir model in that the opening scene is truly unconventional. Rather than have the detective immediately seeking to interrogate Lydecker,  MacPherson browses his furnishings and thus by the Premminger gives the viewer insight into the Lydecker character before the detective actually questions him.

 

Premminger introduces the character of Lydecker in an equally unconventional way.  Normally in a film, if a person suspected of murder was to meet a detective who wanted to question him/her about the murder, the person would be dressed and prepared for the questioning.  Instead Premminger has Lydecker peering at the detective through a half-opened door for seveal minutes only speaking when one of his curious is in danger of being damged by the inquisitive detective.  Premminger toys with time and placement in the scene as well.  Lydecker is spyingat MacPherson through the half-opened door while he narrates then reprimands the detective and tells him to come in.  The sound of Lydeckers voice appears to be near the door. However,  when MacPherson enters Lydecker's  elaborate bathroom Lydecker now is quite a few feet from the doorway and in the tub. There is no sound of him running or rentering the tub.

 

The opening scene of Laura is an important contribution to film noir style because of the opening scene established mood without dialogue between characters.  Information is conveyed through camera work,  lighting, and mis-en-scene.

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The opening and introduction to Waldo Lydecker is very peculiar. In the narration, he seems to reveal more about himself than he intends with his presumptions ("I was the only person that really knew Laura") and his contemptuous view of the detective. His apartment is full of ornate furnishings, including the clock that will play an important role throughout the film. 

 

When we finally see him in person, he is in his tub with a tray and some reading materials. As he is being interviewed by the detective, he pulls out a sheet that describes where he was the night Laura was murdered. This immediately makes the character suspect, and even the detective wonders aloud if he uses it to keep his "story" straight. Even his defense of being the "most misquoted man in America" is suspect. 

I wonder now, after reading this, if Preminger was injecting some humor into this scene. Lydecker claims he is "the most misquoted man in America," but he also tells Detective McPherson that he doesn't bother with details! And yet he is surrounded by "details" in the form of all those expensive objects behind glass and those masks on the wall. More confusion that sets up the story ahead.

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