Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Laura has always seemed to me to be on the outer edges of film noir. Its happy ending (or is it just a dream?), charm and humor, and relative lack of darkness run counter to qualities that we associate with noir. The mixture of noir and non-noir can be observed in the first scene. Like noir, we have the voiceover narration, and we are introduced to a tough detective, as evidenced by Waldo's recounting his history and even Mark's smirk when he looks at Waldo's naked body. Yet the opulence of the room, the warmth of Raksin's Laura theme, and Waldo's wit are not typical noir characteristics. A traditional mystery is even suggested, as the scene repeatedly gives away the ultimate clue to the murder--the ticking of the clock, the sounding of the hour, and Waldo's description of the clock and its companion in Laura's apartment. For me, the opening (including the credits) suggest a sophisticated murder mystery more than noir. Compare this opening to those of Double Indemnity, The Killers, or D.O.A

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I thought it was an odd way Waldo Lydecker was introduced. Being in a tub writing a column while the detective waits outside Lydecker watching through the crack in the door. Like all noir themes I've noticed a shady mystery at the beginnings not unlike this opening scene. Whats going on? I know it's hot that day but why was dude in tub? Who was this Laura character and how brutal was she killed? The scene held my attention enough for me to continue watching.


Dunno how important this contribution to film noir style this opening scene was. That's why I'm taking the course to find out.


 


I wish I could articulate like my thoughts like the other posts so I'll just agree by liking them.


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Lydecker certainly seems to contribute to the unreliable narrator trope. He starts off alright, talking about how he'll never forget this and how horrible it was. But from the moment he says his name he reveals a smugness and a re-framing of events to fit his narrative, calling himself "the only one who really knew [Laura]", making the detective wait on him, the entire rack of monogrammed towels, calling himself "the most widely misquoted man in America", calling his inaccurate depiction of a past murder "superior" to the facts themselves, plus the fact that he's clearly going to make his audience sit through his version of the events if they want any information. He also said his name like he expects the audience to recognize it and called it splendid that the detective would recognize him (as if there was no chance detective would be briefed on who he was to interview and Lydecker was just that well known).

 

 

Did any one else notice that while the film opens in a room full of antiques and foreign objects we are not told about their pasts or stories unless it directly embellishes the one Lydecker is telling?

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Dana Andrews is one of my favorite actors of this period. I wish I could have seen him in many more roles. I have not seen this movie yet but it seems that the detective he is playing in this movie is not the typical bumbling policeman in many other movies of this period. He seems to be very astute and holds his cards very close to the chest while giving nothing away as to what he is thinking.

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I thought it was an odd way Waldo Lydecker was introduced. Being in a tub writing a column while the detective waits outside Lydecker watching through the crack in the door. Like all noir themes I've noticed a shady mystery at the beginnings not unlike this opening scene. Whats going on? I know it's hot that day but why was dude in tub? Who was this Laura character and how brutal was she killed? The scene held my attention enough for me to continue watching.

Dunno how important this contribution to film noir style this opening scene was. That's why I'm taking the course to find out.

 

I wish I could articulate like my thoughts like the other posts so I'll just agree by liking them.

 

I like your point about Lydecker watching the detective. Like, who is this dude that the thinks it's his job to watch detectives?

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Fascinating juxtapositions. A pan of the character’s living space is a marvelous way to avoid exposition while telling us about that character. As our minds play over the room and its lavish contents we learn of Lydecker. Then the rumpled detective appears, obviously out of place here; almost a Jacques Tati contrast.

 

More buried character exposition as Lydecker sits naked in his tub conversing with a man he doesn’t know, not even his name. Is this bravado or perhaps an attempt at intimidation? What a marvelous way to unbalance the scene to move it forward. 

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As to the introduction of the Waldo character, the scene reminds me of two stories I've heard. The first story is about the way Admiral Hyman Rickover used to conduct interviews of candidates for acceptance into the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program. According to a friend and shipmate of mine who was interviewed by Rickover, the Admiral had a chair in front of his office desk for the candidates, and he had dramatically shortened the two front legs of that chair, automatically forciing the interviewee into an awkward, uncomfortable and even obsequious position for the course of the interview. The second story, which may be apocryphal, concerns LBJ, who it was said used to conduct in-person conversations with his Presidential aides while he was sitting on his toilet. Both stories, and the Waldo introduction, obviously indicate disdain.

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Laura is by far one of my favorite noirs of all time.  Everything about this movie is pure perfection from the amazingly diverse cast: Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, Judith Anderson and Vincent Price, to the most sweeping musical score by David Raksin-which of course "Laura" the tune with lyrics by Johnny Mercer becoming one of the greatest jazz standards of all time, and one I perform regularly as a pianist.

 

What I find so great about this movie is all the "psychological" subtext that got past the censors and the complete opposite extremes in emotions, sexuality, manners and out look of Waldo and Detective McPhearson.    

 

I am surprised however that so many on the board could not see from the start that Waldo was the murderer (really?).   To me it was obvious.  Waldo is self -absorbed in his pretentious and precious museum of antiques and things..  his banter and "one upsmanship"  makes for hysterical wit.  To me it is obvious his dilemma is that he is homosexual yet trying to maintain the cover of perfection and elegance>he is not in love with Laura Hunt ..   Laura represents the ideal "project" for Waldo..  He talks a great deal..  about how HE taught her what to wear, how to dress, how to behave.   LAURA is the gay man's great project.    Waldo has great contempt for Dana's character McPhearson..  the sexy "man's man" ..  same with his comment about Vincent's character... who falls for Laura..  and Waldo makes the comment later in the film..  "Laura could never fall for a "pretty boy" in distress..  to me there is always an underling homosexual repression with Waldo.    The stepping over boundaries is odd and disturbing esp for a movie of the 40s..  Afterall  WALDO is actually in the bath when he first meets McPhearson.  The nudity not shown but McPhearson handing Waldo his robe etc.  to me set ups the whole dilemma.  

 

Ok-so since nobody brought it up yet.. I think this is the main interest of LAURA the gay subtext of Waldo.  This was new and interesting not really shown like this before in any movie previous.  It sets up a theme in noir too of the "femme fatale"  The beautiful photo of Laura hanging over her fireplace.. represents the "ideal" girl of a man's dream for McPhearson.. as Waldo says "interesting that a detective would fall in love with a corpse"  and Waldo's obsession as an object like "his precious things" to worship.  The theme of obsession, unrequited love etc runs through many noirs.  

 

"Laura is the face in the misty night...  footsteps that you hear down the hall"..   Johnny Mercer did such a beautiful job of creating this sense of mystery. allusiveness and mystery.    The movie and the characters hold ones attention.  Absolutely brilliant movie.  

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Laura is probably my favorite noir and it is a near perfect film. And yes, amazing how much sexual subtext there is that got through the censors. 

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This is, of course, a great opening.  Clifton Webb was perfect for Walter Lydecker, since he played a number of pompous, self-absorbed characters.  FGE4132 put it succinctly that his narration shows an obsessive mind when it comes to Laura.  He is so egotistical that he receives McPherson while taking a bath, almost saying "I have nothing to hide."  I couldn't decide which character was more "hard-boiled, Lydecker or McPherson.  Both used voices with little to no emotion, in the film noir style.  The year was 1944; most of the world was embroiled in a bitter war and perhaps the tone reflects the tone of the country - numb from the war dragging on.  I often wondered if the ending was changed to satisfy hollywood moviegoers during a difficult time in society.  I never read the book, so I'm just speculating here.  Hollywood was/is notorious for changing the novel's outcome for better reviews.

 

I liked McPherson's smirk when Lydecker supposedly gets up out of the tub.  

 

The lighting was not as dark as other films in the noir tradition, although in 1944 this wasn't termed Film Noir.  The contribution to Flim Noir continues when Lydecker asks McPherson, "Are you the one with the leg full of lead?"  Classic.

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Laura is one of my favorites. I could practically quote it by heart by now. Waldo is a sarcastic, somewhat bitter, but also vulnerable man whose blood runs hot and cold quickly. While he tries to set himself up as a sympathetic character, his egoism shines through just enough to make you feel like he is a manipulator who probably enjoys his craft. He feels as though he's very much in control of the initial situation, toying with Detective McPherson, though McPherson pretty much does whatever he wants anyway. His bravery is established with the retelling of his bust that ended with a silver shin bone. Throughout the film, his playing with a child's game to help him think (and seemingly annoy Waldo, who prefers his own games) marks him as an independent thinker with a backstory of his own that doesn't involve this cast of characters.

 

The film is very much a study of characters and furnishings - the main focal point is on the portrait of Laura herself, on the fine things in Waldo's apartment and in Laura's apartment, the depth of back stories each character receives. You can fill in some of the blanks, and there's a bit of caricature here and there, but for the most part, you feel like these people have opinions and lives off camera as well. Some of the objects have secrets of their own.

 

I believe this film contributes to the noir style with a mysterious air, an element of suspense, an unsolved murder, a haughty and self-important, eloquent, semi-famous man one of the first people interviewed about the crime, and narration that asks the audience to sympathize with someone other than the traditional outright hero. "One of those...detectives," Waldo says, and you hear the contempt.

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Lydecker certainly seems to contribute to the unreliable narrator trope. He starts off alright, talking about how he'll never forget this and how horrible it was. But from the moment he says his name he reveals a smugness and a re-framing of events to fit his narrative, calling himself "the only one who really knew [Laura]", making the detective wait on him, the entire rack of monogrammed towels, calling himself "the most widely misquoted man in America", calling his inaccurate depiction of a past murder "superior" to the facts themselves, plus the fact that he's clearly going to make his audience sit through his version of the events if they want any information. He also said his name like he expects the audience to recognize it and called it splendid that the detective would recognize him (as if there was no chance detective would be briefed on who he was to interview and Lydecker was just that well known).

 

 

Did any one else notice that while the film opens in a room full of antiques and foreign objects we are not told about their pasts or stories unless it directly embellishes the one Lydecker is telling?

I think the unreliable narrator trope really adds to the replay value of this film.  Laura is one of my favorites simply because you get so much character development, especially with Lydecker, through their retelling of events concerning other people.

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This opening scene establishes two characters who clearly are going to become opponents in the investigation of Laura's murder.

 

Lydeck iscold, arrogant, with a superior attitude. like the masks on his wall, his behavior hides his true self. in contrast, MacPherson is more knowledgeable then he readily lets on and clearly has a history that demonstrates His own inner bravery.

 

When McaPherson says that Lydeck has a nice place here and Lydeck immediately corrects him by characterizing the place as lavish, we see the first indication of the verbal jesting and probable head-on collision that is to come.

 

Tension between two of the main characters of the film has already been firmly established.

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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).  

I don't know art so how are lowbrows supposed to get this opening scene? I agree now that it's explained to me.

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What examples do you see that fit with Nino Frank's contention thatLaura is a "charming character study of furnishings and faces?"  The furnishings are evident.  Everything in the apartment is exquisite, and has a place.  The fact that Waldo states that his clock is only one of two, the other belonging to Laura, shows that he places a value on things.  


 


-- What do you think about how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker in this scene?  Waldo is introduced in a tub, which should've made the detective much more uncomfortable, Human nudity, or even implied nudity, tends to make what is seen as complex and forbidden.  It's interesting that the detective is able to look Waldo in the eye, as if to tell Waldo that nothing he does or says will be dismissed easily.


 


-- In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?  Murder, wonderful dialogue, but more importantly, that game of cat and mouse being played out.


 


Now, to go listen to Spike Jones' version of the song, and see how it's parodied.


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The post about the masks was very informative. we also find out how despite his wealth Waldo prefers to make up the details to sensationalize them. While the Detective McPherson is just a man doing his job and trying to find out the real truth with no motivation for personal gain.

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I absolutely love this movie. The introduction of Waldo is amazing! The screen shots of his apartment while he is talking gives the spectator an insight of Waldo as a character. You see lavish and intricate items that gives examples of his personality. We get that notion right away that Waldo is not just an ordinary person. It gives the spectator something to look forward to. I think Waldo's speech along contributes to the noir film style. It's dreary and you can hear it in his voice his reflecting upon what has happen.

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Laura is by far one of my favorite noirs of all time.  Everything about this movie is pure perfection from the amazingly diverse cast: Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, Judith Anderson and Vincent Price, to the most sweeping musical score by David Raksin-which of course "Laura" the tune with lyrics by Johnny Mercer becoming one of the greatest jazz standards of all time, and one I perform regularly as a pianist.

 

What I find so great about this movie is all the "psychological" subtext that got past the censors and the complete opposite extremes in emotions, sexuality, manners and out look of Waldo and Detective McPhearson.    

 

I am surprised however that so many on the board could not see from the start that Waldo was the murderer (really?).   To me it was obvious.  Waldo is self -absorbed in his pretentious and precious museum of antiques and things..  his banter and "one upsmanship"  makes for hysterical wit.  To me it is obvious his dilemma is that he is homosexual yet trying to maintain the cover of perfection and elegance>he is not in love with Laura Hunt ..   Laura represents the ideal "project" for Waldo..  He talks a great deal..  about how HE taught her what to wear, how to dress, how to behave.   LAURA is the gay man's great project.    Waldo has great contempt for Dana's character McPhearson..  the sexy "man's man" ..  same with his comment about Vincent's character... who falls for Laura..  and Waldo makes the comment later in the film..  "Laura could never fall for a "pretty boy" in distress..  to me there is always an underling homosexual repression with Waldo.    The stepping over boundaries is odd and disturbing esp for a movie of the 40s..  Afterall  WALDO is actually in the bath when he first meets McPhearson.  The nudity not shown but McPhearson handing Waldo his robe etc.  to me set ups the whole dilemma.  

 

Ok-so since nobody brought it up yet.. I think this is the main interest of LAURA the gay subtext of Waldo.  This was new and interesting not really shown like this before in any movie previous.  It sets up a theme in noir too of the "femme fatale"  The beautiful photo of Laura hanging over her fireplace.. represents the "ideal" girl of a man's dream for McPhearson.. as Waldo says "interesting that a detective would fall in love with a corpse"  and Waldo's obsession as an object like "his precious things" to worship.  The theme of obsession, unrequited love etc runs through many noirs.  

 

"Laura is the face in the misty night...  footsteps that you hear down the hall"..   Johnny Mercer did such a beautiful job of creating this sense of mystery. allusiveness and mystery.    The movie and the characters hold ones attention.  Absolutely brilliant movie.  

LOL, I'm interested in your opinion of whether Lydecker might have been gay.  I thought about it for a second and it immediately occurred to me that he was too self absorbed to be gay or straight for that matter......who was Lydecker really in love with? Quite obviously himself.....I believe he "groomed" Laura's character in an attempt to create someone who was actually worthy of his attentions.  This person would have to worship him no doubt....but we digress.....an interesting statement.  This viewpoint has never occurrred to me.....also, I have to say that it was certainly not obvious to me that Lydecker could have been the killer when the movie began although he was certainly under suspicion.  Why?  to me, he seemed very removed from the situation as he was narrative voice, perhaps this is film trickery by Preminger.  He certainly did have a flair for the dramatic!!!  any thoughts???

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That old saw: "you never get a second chance to make a good first impression" comes to mind with the opening clip of "Laura". We immediately know that Lydecker is vain to the extreme; he thinks he is smarter, more cultured and superior to everyone. McPherson comes across as self assured (he isn't impressed with Lydecker; he leaves his hat on inside) but also a "man of action", which is confirmed by Lydecker's recognition that McPherson was a hero. At this point Lydecker doesn't see McPherson as an adversary, but he will. I too noticed the smirk; a sign of the opinion McPherson has for Lydecker?

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The music in Laura makes the fim.

 

Composers are underrated.

 

Laura--David Rakson

Rebecca--Franz Waxman

The Maltese Falcon--Adolf Deutsch

 

Subtract the musc from each of these and the films are far less engaging.

 

As Bernard Hermann said about his score for the film Fahrenheit 451, the music takes some dry lines of dialogue and creates the sub-text of repressed emotions beneath them.  That is what these great composers have done, covered some areas that would have been outside the frame, highlighted and connected some emotional dots.

 

Next time concentrate upon the musical score.  It can be fun to watch a film once for this and once for that.

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Daily Dose #5 - Laura (1944

 

dir: Otto Preminger

writers: Vera Caspary (novel)

screenplay:  Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth (as Betty) Reinhardt, Ring Lardner Jr. (uncredited)

cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

 

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

   Literally, the lavish furniture, raised bath tub architecture, and apparently priceless artifacts which introduce a world of wealth.  I consider this film’s furnishings gauche, other styles to me, are lavish.

 

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

   I immediately thought of paintings depicting the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat in July of 1793 by Charlotte Corday who stabbed Marat to death in his bath tub.  I wonder if there is similarity.  Not that the detective would kill him; maybe someone or something else would.

 

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

   I’m not sure but I suspect, as an amateur detective, that expensive surroundings come into play because of so many other film noir movies that start out in the darkest of places, say, an alley?  In the case of Laura, this film may start out in the darkness of someone’s heart.

 

4—As far as what Frank saw, I think he saw “everything”, physical and psychological: furnishings, clock, Frank’s own wrist watch, artifacts, a naked suspect, and the suspect’s towels neatly towel-racked, displaying “WL”, the letters of the ego of Walter Lydecker.  He also saw a suspect who claims proudly never to have forgotten anything, but gets tripped up about a significant item of two years age.

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I'll start by saying that I've seen Laura several times both on TCM and at Stanford Theatre (a movie palace from 1926 very similar to the Paramount in video lecture 1). Every time I see this film, I always find something new or happen upon another realization.

 

Right away the film establishes a character contrast between Waldo Lydecker and Detective McPherson.

 

Lydecker: the extravagant, well-traveled, well-educated man (as observed by his Mid-Atlantic accent) with attention to detail. He clearly is a man who likes to control others. He is a man who values objects and like his collection, Laura, too is a possession and an object that he values. He may claim to love her, but he's more in love with woman he created in his own image. His image is of utmost importance. Now as a linguist, I can't help but take note of his name Lydecker to imply liar.

 

McPherson: ordinary Joe, blunt yet flippant. He's a man who's seen it all hence his ease upon standing over a man in his tub. I just love how he tosses the towel at him. He is clearly unimpressed by Lydecker's wealth. He may seem a bit rude particularly the way he seats himself in Lydecker's bathroom.

 

As more characters are introduced, each seems to be some sort of archetypical character.

 

Noir traits are as follows: voice-over narration, panning (single take) - we follow McPherson from his arrival to his bathroom entrance, voyuerism - though Lydecker is in a different room, he can clearly see McPherson's every movement and interest. The hard-boiled detective in his pursuit of truth more than justice.

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While the contributions this scene makes to the film noir style are perhaps the most apparent in any opening scene we have yet studied (an intriguing, eccentric character, introduction of a mystery from the beginning, cynical attitudes of both main characters) I did not find myself liking either man so far; I agree that Waldo is most likely an unreliable narrator. However, after the first watch of this scene, I reconsidered my take on both characters. As this scene was narrated by and focused largely on Waldo and his take on the murder, I found McPherson to be lacking in any character by the end of the scene, until I recalled how Waldo identified him as a famous detective involved in a gangster shootout.

So much is revealed by allusion in the dialogue, as in many films noir. The audience gets their information from the conversations indirectly, by listening for what the characters avoid saying, or by what one character knows about the other. Through this style of dialogue, the film's plot begins tightly wound, and then unfolds throughout.

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While the contributions this scene makes to the film noir style are perhaps the most apparent in any opening scene we have yet studied (an intriguing, eccentric character, introduction of a mystery from the beginning, cynical attitudes of both main characters) I did not find myself liking either man so far; I agree that Waldo is most likely an unreliable narrator. However, after the first watch of this scene, I reconsidered my take on both characters. As this scene was narrated by and focused largely on Waldo and his take on the murder, I found McPherson to be lacking in any character by the end of the scene, until I recalled how Waldo identified him as a famous detective involved in a gangster shootout.

So much is revealed by allusion in the dialogue, as in many films noir. The audience gets their information from the conversations indirectly, by listening for what the characters avoid saying, or by what one character knows about the other. Through this style of dialogue, the film's plot begins tightly wound, and then unfolds throughout.

That is an excellent thought....we do indeed learn about our characters on noir films much from what they avoid saying.....

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When we first see the room, just after the clock we see lots of masks. A metaphor? Is Lydecker wearing a mask? But then we see Lydecker, and he's wearing just the opposite of a mask; he couldn't be more exposed. But is that just another mask? We don't know yet.

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