Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Lyddecker’s apartment is “lavish,” spotless, and devoid of humanity; more akin to a museum than a home. It is filled with “priceless” clay and glass items, hanging decorations, statues, antique grandfather clock (identical to the only other one which would have significance later on), lamps, ornate furniture, etc. Even his bathroom is huge, the size of a master bedroom, fully equipped with furnishings.

 

Many film noir contend with the seedy underbelly of a particular city. Laura does the opposite in exploring the deeper, personal aspects that lay underneath the polite, civil veneer that make up the upperclass social circle of Laura Hunt. Mark McPherson is the one “face” that’s essentially from the outside looking in. In investigating the murder, he gradually starts unmasking the characters as they are. McPherson even, at one point, goes from being the outsider to being swept away with the case, himself.  

 

Back to the introduction, it is interesting that despite being in a (for other people) normally “compromising” position of being naked in the tub, Lydecker doesn’t show alarm, modesty, or even surprise. In fact, he had been watching McPherson survey his house through the “half open door” and is very well-prepared when he invites the detective in, to keep him from messing with one of his precious artifacts. The audience is treated to a premeditated, calculated introduction of Waldo Lydecker, to the point where he even had statement ready to read in the bathtub. When McPherson asks why he had his statement typed out, Lydecker insists he is “the most widely misquoted man in America” and would find it “intolerable” to be misquoted by the police.   

 

Another interesting aspect of the introduction is, visuals aside, McPherson and Lydecker are fascinating characters, revealing so much with so little, including what they do or don’t have in common. Both men are very snarky. With Lydecker, it is expected since he is a newspaper columnist, but McPherson is just as equipped at holding his own against Lydecker. McPherson is already familiar with who he is and is amused by him. When Lydecker finds out the detective’s identity and reputation, he is equally intrigued.

 

Eventually, Mark does get down to business when he confronts Lydecker with a description of a past murder victim, which while false for that particular person, matches the description of Laura Hunt’s murder. Considering the film’s ultimate conclusion, the introduction does an excellent job steering away suspicion form a particular suspect. It also effectively draws the audience in to follow the two men who have and will have such prominent influences with the central subject: Laura. 

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I believe that Frank's references to the film being " a character study of furnishings and faces," is in the overt lavish style of the room's decor. As the camera pans around the room we see exquisite paintings, sculptures,crystal and a wall ladened with masks of ancient gods/ goddesses. As the camera opens to the two characters (Lydecker and McPherson) dialogue,we are better able to see into their personalities by the way they talk to each other and in their facial expressions.From Lydecker's narrative we assume that he is a wealthy, pompous,well bread,elitist. When we see him,all of our assumptions about him are confirmed by his mannerisms and in the superior way he speaks to McPherson. However, McPherson's verbal responses and facial expressions, particularly, do not fall short in reflecting great disdain for the rich and famous, either. I believe opening the scene with these two characters was to establish a basis for the ensuing conflict (where differences are made between the social status of the haves/ have-nots) where desire,temptation and passion for the taste of opulence would build and collide to the ultimate tragic demise of Laura.

Lydecker's introduction was a unique way of showing the audience an in depth view into the soul of the character who would ,perhaps, be the catalyst that brings everything to a head--- and quite possibly may have caused the death of Laura. Or, at the very least may have contributed to it in some way. Lydecker's flare for the theatrical certainly let's us know how much he was emotionally invested in her (in his reference to her having the same clock and in his grief strickened tone of voice). Could it be that he mistook their friendship to mean much more?

 

The opening was a twist in getting the audience involved into the lives of these characters. In seeing the lavishly styled decor as the character goes on and on in the narrative about what has transpired we get a different take of the point of view perspective, we don't just look through his eyes; this time we see his soul. We see what motivates him, his drive, ambitions...what makes him tick.

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Laura is the movie that started it all for me -- It was the first classic movie I ever saw, and I fell hopelessly in love with classic hollywood, Dana Andrews, film noir, and black and white movies all in one fell swoop. It was love at first sight and I never looked back! 

 

But, in all seriousness... This has to be one of the most unusual opening scenes. The voiceover pulls us in with a sense of magic and poetry, all fluff and a writer's vocabulary. Then the camera pans over the most exquisite and lavish hall that you first think you're looking at a museum, until you're invited into the gentleman's equally lavish bathroom along with the surprised detective and you proceed to watch them circle each other with well-written dialogue until a mutual respect fills the air. And all the while your eyes are treated with more furnishings to look at than one knows what to do with, especially since all one truly needs is their attention on the magnificent acting going on center screen. I think this is what Nino Frank meant when he said Laura was a "charming character study of furnishings and faces". There's beauty in every frame, be it the art on the walls or the actors themselves. This movie is eye candy, if you ask me. But like I said, I fell for Dana Andrews years ago -- I may not be the most objective party here to make that observation! 

 

Laura is one of those movies that no matter how many times I've seen it, if it's playing on TCM I'll watch it. It never gets old, and it never loses its appeal. It is a brilliant example of noir, and of classic hollywood at a turning point in film history. Andrews plays a brooding, misunderstood but vulnerable and eventually lovable character, while the rest of the cast is perfectly matched in their roles as the quintessential and necessary noir lot of characters. Each actor is like a puzzle piece and when they play their roles on screen in this movie they fit right into their place in the puzzle. Barely a misstep the whole movie through... but now I'm just gushing, and no longer analyzing.

 

I think I need to watch it again and report back... it's been a few months since I saw it last. I must be a bit rusty, eh?   

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One difference is there is a conversation between the characters throughout. so this scene is not as desolate in texture. there is a lonely road and darkness but it is secondary to what is happening with the cars.

 

Second, the other scenes did not have a car chase or even a sequence involving other cars that was this intense or seemingly perilous.

 

The twist is that they were ordinary people corrupted as it were by having a bag of money thrust upon them.

 

The idea of a normal couple resonates with the idea that Postwar America was full of working ordinary folks trying to get by. America emerged form the war as a nation of good and decent people, so moviegoers wanted to see good people who were not shades of grey. Also the movie and to appeal to a broader audience.

 

The style of using darkness, shadow and moving cameras is intrinsically noir. The theme of desolation and isolation are also important as well.

 

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Laura is literally one of my favorite films of all time thanks to my mom sitting me down to watch it when I was 12. Interestingly, my old brother did not see it until we were both in our 30s. He is a huge fan of Noir (Fritz Lang is his favorite director) so it surprised me that it took him so long to watch Laura. And when he did - he said it was good, but it wasn't noir!

 

I was annoyed, but I didn't know how to properly back up my defense of Otto Preminger's brilliant, subtle murder mystery. Then, I listened to the Noir podcast about Laura and watched the Daily Dose of Darkness. What I loved the most was that the podcast stated straight out that Laura is an Noir that was meant not to look like a Noir. It was dressed up as a typical Hollywood love story or drama with lush sets and charming characters. Then, enter this gruff and quiet detective and suddenly you notice the strategically placed shadows, the blurred faces, and the darkness underlining every aspect of a film trying to catch its audience off-guard.

 

What do you all think? Did Preminger do this to trick the censors or to sneak a noir under the noses of a new audience? Or do you think he did it simply as a way to dress up the story and better present the characters?

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How fortunate you got to see Laura for the first time when you were just 12 years old!  I was an adult when I first saw it, but it has since become one of my favorite noirs.  I liked how you referenced the Clute and Edwards podcast on Laura.  In it, Mr. Edwards says so poignantly that Laura has both "shimmering beauties" and "hideous and ugly truths" which to me is one of the reasons I really like it; not all noir pictures have "shimmering beauties" against which to contrast their darkness.  

 

Preminger was interested in the "gimmick" of this film--I regrettably don't have the source at the moment but that is what he said about why he was attracted to the film.  He liked the non-traditional plot twist at the center of the film, which I won't state here for those who haven't seen it yet.

 

Another point you might make with your brother is that as we learned in one of our previous units, noir isn't just about visual style.  It also has to do with narrative structure and components such as flashbacks and voice-overs.  Laura has both of these.  I also think the segments with Waldo, especially after Laura has started cancelling her dates with him, and he starts taking in personally, are the most noir-ish in the film visually, more so than those with Detective MacPherson, or Shelby, or the other characters.  Consider the scene where Waldo throws his cigarette in the fireplace, and when he goes out for a walk in the snow and spies Laura with someone in her apartment.  These scenes have remarkable play of light and shadow.  

 

Plus, Joseph LaShelle won the Oscar for cinematography for this film.  Yes, the film is classically staged and even static in some respects, a drawing room who-dun-it.  But as Clute and Edwards point out it is an important transitional film because it's translating light from Hollywood's Golden Age (just check out those Tierney closeups) toward a more skeptical and even sinister time reflected in later films such as Sunset Blvd. and Out of the Past.  LaShelle's cinematography leans more toward the classical than does say Musuraca's in Out of the Past.  But Laura has a Black Pony in her cabinet, so she's not all cream cheese and sunshine.

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I've always loved the opening line to "Laura." What a way to introduce a movie! I love how the opening camera shots sweep across the room and show you all sorts of interesting facts about the setting. I could definitely see what Nino Frank meant by this being a "charming character study of furnishing and faces." Just by looking at the surroundings, you can tell that Waldo Lydecker is going to be an interesting character for McPherson to interact with. You can tell that he is a very observant detective by the way he examines the objects in the room. I love how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker. The interview in the bathtub with the typewriter is so memorable. It tells you that Waldo is a very eccentric character who is probably uninhibited and will be interesting to watch in the film. 

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Although I was sidelined during most of the week, I got back to my rewatch of most of the DD's in the course. Looking back at the scene, I found it interesting how Lydecker's room is full of "faces". The face in the statue, the many faces hanging on the wall... Since I haven't seen the film yet, it makes me wonder if Lydecker is indeed a man of "many faces". Certainly the man narrating the story doesn't seem like the same man we meet in the bathtub, which is something that I think several here commented on.

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1. In this sequence, describe how Hitchcock uses sound design to put you into the subjective "mind of Alice"? Be specific.  

 

​It is interesting how often times you do not actually see the person talking. You hear them nearby or she walks into a room and hears them speak. You also have her react when she hears things, like when she is holding the knife and gets jarred. 

2. Describe the different ways that the sound design of this scene operates in counterpoint to the visual track. For example, how does Hitchcock set up the shot where the knife flies out of Alice's hand so that it registers a shock in his audience? Pay attention to both what is happening visually and aurally. Be specific. 

He treats the film like a silent film in execution but allows little bits for dialogue and spoken word so that it can be used. You see her being staged in movement and body language as someone in a silent film, but then you hear sound. It is a bit of a shock sometimes when you actually hear spoken parts. This is because Hitchcock has done a great job of moving back and forth between the mediums.

3. Why do you think this particular use of subjective sound is not used frequently in cinema? 

​I think it was a necessity in the transition from silent film to talkies and would not be really needed for other films. In films today it would slow things down.

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