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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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The opening scene of Laura is almost as innocuous as many of the murder mysteries made in the 1930's.  A scene is set with furnishings.  A detective waits to question someone.  But in this case Mr. Lydecker is clearly in charge and directing the story.  In the mysteries from the 1930's, Hildegard Withers, the beginning of the Thin Man series, the Torchy Blaine films, there are many opening shots that show the setting before the people.  What makes this film noir is that while the furnishings and setting are being established we have the narration of Mr. Lydecker directing us to what he wants us to observe. 

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Lydecker is as preserved and on display as one of his artifacts in the opening scene of Laura. The detective begins what Frank calls the "study of furnishings and faces" right there in Lydecker's apartment, moving from masks on the wall and artifacts in a glass cabinet to the just as seemingly untouchable writer in the tub, his own kind of display case. The fact that the detective is the first person we see yet Lydecker is the first person we hear is indicative of the blurred perspective in the film. We think we are seeing the story unfold through Lydecker's perspective, only to realize later that we were always watching Lydecker along with the detective (afterall, we're on to the elitist writer's intentions toward Laura long before we see the detective's feelings).

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Laura opens with one long and languid camera pan until a cut to the bathroom followed by a quick pan to the narrator. The POV isn't really Lydecker's (his eyes couldn't possibly pan that widely through a half-closed door) but the imagination of a writer.

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Preminger introduces us to the film, Laura, by way of the camera gliding through Lydecker's home, which is that of the finger things. Lydecker's comforts are luxurious, spacious, and vast. His V.O. even tells of Detective McPherson's attention settling upon a specific type of clock. This poses the question: Is Detective McPherson admiring Lydecker's belongings, or is he merely investigating?

 

Lydecker's introduction is very interesting as well. He watches Detective McPherson through a partially open bathroom door while in the bathtub. Instead of removing himself from said tub, he proceeds to tell the detective to come into the bathroom. Detective McPherson complies and beings talking with Lydecker.

 

Lydecker continues on in the tub, seemingly out of some type of weird comfort, as I'm sure he doesn't know McPherson all too well. He then stands asking McPherson for his robe. This is odd behavior, but what's even more peculiar is the preparedness of Lydecker. He has written down and memorized his and Laura's whereabouts on the night of her murder, which includes exact times, and intricate details of his actions. He recites everything to Detective McPherson verbatim, as though it was rehearsed.

 

The film's opening begins with a V.O. (Lydecker telling of Laura and her murder), which is a prime example of film noir. Next, comes a detective investigating her murder- prime example number two. This detective (McPherson) might have just found who's responsible for Laura's death. And his meeting with Lydecker is very telling and established all within the first few minutes of the film.

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What I find striking in this opening scene is that we're in a lavish apartment carefully decorated with King Louis furnishings and curios, certainly a departure from the typical noir locations of alleys, diners, bars, skid row, etc.  No the person that lives here is no down and outer.  He's successful, educated, cultured, if not a bit eccentric.  Our intuition is confirmed when we're invited in the bathroom to meet him.  He's vainly sitting naked in the tub with a custom shelf on which to place his typewriter, which describes a man consumed with story-telling and fantasy.  His complete lack of reserve is disarming, yet the supremely confident air of his character takes you aback.   The oddness of it all makes you ask "what's up with this guy?" 

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The opening of "Laura" suggests that this film will be told from Lydecker's perspective, just as "Double Indemnity" had been told from Neff's perspective earlier in 1944. While this turned out not to be the case, it is fitting because Lydecker arguably proves to be the most significant player in the film, apart from Laura herself, and not for the better. His opening sentiments about his grief over Laura's death implies that he is a more compassionate figure, when this couldn't be further from the truth. Not to spoil the film for anyone who's not yet seen it, but after we've seen the whole film we see that the entire opening monologue is nothing more than a fabrication, and a testament to his arrogance and possessiveness. His comment that he was the only one who really knew Laura is a perfect example of this. As the film progresses, we see that to him Laura was no more than one of those "priceless" items in the cabinet of his "lavish" apartment. 

 

It's easy to see why this film, along with "Double Indemnity" released earlier that same year, caught Frank's eye as being part of a new movement of American filmmaking. These two films show the murky psychology of the characters that would later come to be accepted as being a staple of Noir culture. They also have the voice over narrations, flashback sequences, and dark and contrasted cinematography that would also be deemed definitive traits of a Film Noir, ready formed and ready to be picked out and acknowledged by critics and moviegoers.

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impressions, Lydecker a classic controlling eccentric, as opposed to Dana Andrews' character a no nonsense Detective. This is a high society noir obviously from the get go.

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It's an interesting opening. The confident and well-off man spies on the detective while in the bathtub and makes careful observations. The detective comments on Lydecker's attention to detail and his impressive memory. But the scene ends with Lydecker saying, "I never bother with details, you know." Four minutes into the film, we are introduced to an unreliable narrator who seems to be narcissistic and extremely proud of himself. Like someone else said here, it differs from the stereotypical film noir of being dark in alleyways by being overly-lavish, but maybe the darkness is hiding under what the protagonist is saying. 

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The opening comment in the narration about the long hot summer when Laura died, and the sun in the sky "like a magnifing glass" reminds one of the simile in Crain's  Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage:  "the sun was pasted in the sky like a red wafer."  The use of such extravent language in the narration and in dialogue, along with the lavish settings in the opening scene suggest that this film will not be a run-of-the-mill film noir. Even Lydeker's mention of the silver (not simply metal) plate replacing the detective's  shin bone is "high class". For the seasoned noir viewer these contrasts would have been obvious and compelling. I love this film.

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I think we need to go beyond just the physical furnishings and faces (masks) that appear within Lydecker's apartment. Of course, though, they do need to be mentioned first. Lydecker's apartment is obviously lavish, he says so himself, and I immediately think that something is not right. Maybe it's because of my own personal skepticism that a lot people with money are hardly modest and put on airs. Lydecker's apartment almost seems too lavish, especially for a writer (which, unless he's written an outstanding bestseller, doesn't make much sense unless he came into some money). The masks on the wall could symbolize this as well. How much do we know about this Lydecker? Looking at his apartment and listening to his rather dramatic voice over, I get a sense that we should not trust this individual, and that maybe I should side with McPherson on the death of Laura.

 

Now to the non-physical furnishings. The biggest clue, I believe, is the fact that Lydecker is a writer. I love books and reading, so I'm not against writers, but the process of writing is a bit tricky because an author can put on a variety of hats, or masks, if you will. Whether their writing is fiction or non-fiction, we are presented with the author's version of events, which inherently contains bias. Lydecker is already fishy for me due to the furnishings in his home, but he's even more so now that I know there's a good chance he's changed up some events in his favor. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that I find all writers untrustworthy, I just have to carefully interact with their writing because I know they can, and probably are, putting on a persona. (And, on a side note, Bergman's Persona is a magnificent film that illustrates the kinds of masks people can put on to try and protect themselves, among other things.)

 

I've already touched a bit upon Lydecker's introduction--the voice over, though great on the page, immediately puts me on edge--but first seeing him in the tub is a little odd, especially for 1944. I don't really know what to make of it. I mean, who does that when greeting a guest? It just makes me even more skeptical of Lydecker, and more trusting of McPherson. Plus, the fact that he writes down precisely what he says, as McPherson points out, is alarming.

 

I have seen Laura before, but it's been a while, so it was nice to revisit the opening scene again. Since I can't remember most of the film, I'm left wondering: is Laura the victim, the femme fatale, both, or neither? I'll have to see if I can watch the rest of the film this week to find out, I guess.

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I was immediately hooked by the opening of Laura because the first thing we hear about is a murder, but we have no idea what happened. I was so intrigued that I had to watch the whole film.  Like The Letter, I think this opening is the best part of the film.

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I was immediately hooked by the opening of Laura because the first thing we hear about is a murder, but we have no idea what happened. I was so intrigued that I had to watch the whole film.  Like The Letter, I think this opening is the best part of the film.

 

That makes me a little sad. Laura is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I love every moment of it.

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That characteristic of film noir I see mentioned so many times throughout these posts stands prominently here within Preminger's opening of Laura.  That characteristic is DREAD.  It is the sense of unease which wells up within the viewer as he realizes that this detective, most naturally and usually heralded in films as the hero in charge of seeking out the good and bringing the bad to justice, is being watched, analyzed, and usurped of his power by what is clearly the villain of the tale.

 

This villain, Lydecker, fully displays himself through his "furnishings and faces" and, in doing so, reveals eccentricity and danger within his character.  The characterization offered Lydecker in this opening scene reminded me of a much more modern film I have just rewatched for fun, Basic Instinct.  In that film, Sharon Stone's murderous character is rich beyond all expectation and is depicted as a colossally confident eccentric who thinks her status will keep her from any consequence for her actions.  In Laura, it is McPherson's questioning gaze that provides us with the hope that justice may be served, no matter the antagonist's status.

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The beginning is similar to Double Indemnity, the voice over, they way they meet each other. Also the way Lydekker wanted to own Laura

 

 

The opening of "Laura" suggests that this film will be told from Lydecker's perspective, just as "Double Indemnity" had been told from Neff's perspective earlier in 1944. While this turned out not to be the case, it is fitting because Lydecker arguably proves to be the most significant player in the film, apart from Laura herself, and not for the better. His opening sentiments about his grief over Laura's death implies that he is a more compassionate figure, when this couldn't be further from the truth. Not to spoil the film for anyone who's not yet seen it, but after we've seen the whole film we see that the entire opening monologue is nothing more than a fabrication, and a testament to his arrogance and possessiveness. His comment that he was the only one who really knew Laura is a perfect example of this. As the film progresses, we see that to him Laura was no more than one of those "priceless" items in the cabinet of his "lavish" apartment. 

 

It's easy to see why this film, along with "Double Indemnity" released earlier that same year, caught Frank's eye as being part of a new movement of American filmmaking. These two films show the murky psychology of the characters that would later come to be accepted as being a staple of Noir culture. They also have the voice over narrations, flashback sequences, and dark and contrasted cinematography that would also be deemed definitive traits of a Film Noir, ready formed and ready to be picked out and acknowledged by critics and moviegoers.

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I think we need to go beyond just the physical furnishings and faces (masks) that appear within Lydecker's apartment. Of course, though, they do need to be mentioned first. Lydecker's apartment is obviously lavish, he says so himself, and I immediately think that something is not right. Maybe it's because of my own personal skepticism that a lot people with money are hardly modest and put on airs. Lydecker's apartment almost seems too lavish, especially for a writer (which, unless he's written an outstanding bestseller, doesn't make much sense unless he came into some money). The masks on the wall could symbolize this as well. How much do we know about this Lydecker? Looking at his apartment and listening to his rather dramatic voice over, I get a sense that we should not trust this individual, and that maybe I should side with McPherson on the death of Laura.

 

Now to the non-physical furnishings. The biggest clue, I believe, is the fact that Lydecker is a writer. I love books and reading, so I'm not against writers, but the process of writing is a bit tricky because an author can put on a variety of hats, or masks, if you will. Whether their writing is fiction or non-fiction, we are presented with the author's version of events, which inherently contains bias. Lydecker is already fishy for me due to the furnishings in his home, but he's even more so now that I know there's a good chance he's changed up some events in his favor. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that I find all writers untrustworthy, I just have to carefully interact with their writing because I know they can, and probably are, putting on a persona. (And, on a side note, Bergman's Persona is a magnificent film that illustrates the kinds of masks people can put on to try and protect themselves, among other things.)

 

I've already touched a bit upon Lydecker's introduction--the voice over, though great on the page, immediately puts me on edge--but first seeing him in the tub is a little odd, especially for 1944. I don't really know what to make of it. I mean, who does that when greeting a guest? It just makes me even more skeptical of Lydecker, and more trusting of McPherson. Plus, the fact that he writes down precisely what he says, as McPherson points out, is alarming.

 

I have seen Laura before, but it's been a while, so it was nice to revisit the opening scene again. Since I can't remember most of the film, I'm left wondering: is Laura the victim, the femme fatale, both, or neither? I'll have to see if I can watch the rest of the film this week to find out, I guess.

I like your assessment and would add that the opening shot allows you to consider the objects around the apartment and watch McPherson do the same. I would suggest that this room is staged as is Lydecker's life in precisely the manner he wishes to be perceived. He is a collector. He fancies himself not only a collector of things like the items in the room but also of people like Laura. In life like his writing, he seeks to manipulate others perceptions to feed his need to feel superior.

 

The scene in the bathroom is about asserting his power. To show himself completely unconcerned about being seen in a bathtub where most people, especially in this time period, as a very vulnerable state is to demonstrate that he has no fear of McPherson and to some degree regards him as a servant. This is his motivation in asking him for the washcloth and the robe. Sadly from the smirk on McPherson's face, it is not working.

 

Lydecker is anticipating a chess game with McPherson and this was his idea of a bold first move.

 

The beauty of the opening of Laura is that at this point, the viewer does not know how the tale will play out and will either of these characters turn out to be what they seem. The intrigue of Noir! 

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The cop walks into a lavish apartment. Everything is in its proper place. Before we meet Lydecker we get a sense of what kind of a person he is.The furnishings are meticulous and expensive we know that he is successful and has good taste. Frank calls this character study of furnishings and faces. the one wall is full of different masks which is really the cops job ,to unmask the situation and get to the truth. Frank says this is a study of faces.  

The director lets us meet Lydecker in the tub soaking., which is unusual . We know that this is Going to be a weird and unusual story. Who invites a cop into the bathroom with while they are using it. That is some sort of bathroom isn't it? The cop comes in and starts the  interview like everything is normal. He even asks for a wash cloth then a robe. Something is just slightly off with these two. 

The flashback is one of the staples of Film Noir. Since Laura is already dead, we are going to piece the story together thru. flashbacks

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Who is more clever, who displays a better turn of phrase? Webb's character is clearly, from the opening scene to the last, a megalomaniac, a rather nasty fellow (and that's sooo good!). Andrew's detective gives him a run for his money, but Lydecker won't see it coming, so steeped is he in his ego as to be blinded by his own radiance.

 

This point-counterpoint dialogue of film noir is one of the attributes I love, and when paired with superb casting, it doesn't get much better.

 

I will readily admit that I am captivated by the art direction, the set dressing, and wardrobe as well; I've had a screenshot of Laura's striped jacket on my phone for years, in the hope of replicating it one day.

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I think we need to go beyond just the physical furnishings and faces (masks) that appear within Lydecker's apartment. Of course, though, they do need to be mentioned first. Lydecker's apartment is obviously lavish, he says so himself, and I immediately think that something is not right. Maybe it's because of my own personal skepticism that a lot people with money are hardly modest and put on airs. Lydecker's apartment almost seems too lavish, especially for a writer (which, unless he's written an outstanding bestseller, doesn't make much sense unless he came into some money). The masks on the wall could symbolize this as well. How much do we know about this Lydecker? Looking at his apartment and listening to his rather dramatic voice over, I get a sense that we should not trust this individual, and that maybe I should side with McPherson on the death of Laura.

 

Now to the non-physical furnishings. The biggest clue, I believe, is the fact that Lydecker is a writer. I love books and reading, so I'm not against writers, but the process of writing is a bit tricky because an author can put on a variety of hats, or masks, if you will. Whether their writing is fiction or non-fiction, we are presented with the author's version of events, which inherently contains bias. Lydecker is already fishy for me due to the furnishings in his home, but he's even more so now that I know there's a good chance he's changed up some events in his favor. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that I find all writers untrustworthy, I just have to carefully interact with their writing because I know they can, and probably are, putting on a persona. (And, on a side note, Bergman's Persona is a magnificent film that illustrates the kinds of masks people can put on to try and protect themselves, among other things.)

 

I've already touched a bit upon Lydecker's introduction--the voice over, though great on the page, immediately puts me on edge--but first seeing him in the tub is a little odd, especially for 1944. I don't really know what to make of it. I mean, who does that when greeting a guest? It just makes me even more skeptical of Lydecker, and more trusting of McPherson. Plus, the fact that he writes down precisely what he says, as McPherson points out, is alarming.

 

I have seen Laura before, but it's been a while, so it was nice to revisit the opening scene again. Since I can't remember most of the film, I'm left wondering: is Laura the victim, the femme fatale, both, or neither? I'll have to see if I can watch the rest of the film this week to find out, I guess.

Our Waldo Lydeker is a Walter Winchell type, or later J.J. Hunsucker (Burt Lancaster) in "Sweet Smell of Success" someone so powerful that they can destroy you in a few words in their column.  Here's Waldo in the tub, exposed, not ashamed, with his weapon of choice the type writer.  But look at Clifton Webb, so powerful and yet, the concave chest, the thin arms, and you begin to see something is not right with him.  Add the furnishings to that and you see the opulance the decadence of it all.  You are given the preview of the ending.

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The opulent set and eccentric wealthy character resonate with the "lifestyle of the rich and famous" as a device that appeals to the American dream/lust for riches. (This is why Ayn Rand loved the mass media culture - and Adorno hated it.) This device is a staple of the "Thin Man" movies, and others like Sunset Boulevard.

 

This setting is a wonderful contrast to the grittier elements, like murder, crime, violence and death. The light of this decadent setting makes the shadows ever darker and deeper in film noir stories.

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Laura is one of the best films noir I have yet seen.  It might be my favorite next to Out of the Past.  The thing that strikes me most about Laura is the beautiful set design.  I'm really interested in overly ornate surfaces.  This movie, more so than any so far in our Daily Dose, shows the importance of mise-en-scene to frame a narrative.  The film begins with the detective surrounded by world of priceless things.  The camera slowly pores over the surfaces of precious and fragile objects.  He peruses a wall of masks: a cue that people are not what they seem, especially not the person who owns the house he's investigating.  People are not just double, they are multiple! In one shot, he is literally framed in a glass house emphasizing the dangerous and vulnerable position he is walking into.  This movie establishes an alientating relationship with Dana Andrew's detective in that we are not listening to his narration (which is usually the case with detective stories).  This allows the audience to treat the detective as just one of the many things seen in this apartment: another opaque object.  We watch him look at the grandfather clock that will become important establishing, or at least participating in, that detective trope of "it was right under his nose the whole time!"  The tension in this scene is about the intersection of different kinds of looking. We have the non-diagetic, beyond life-and-death Lydecker narration that provides its own kind of looking, we have Lydecker the diagetic character spying on Andrews off-screen, we have the look of symbolism in the mise-en-scene, and we look at Dana Andrews' own looking around Lydecker's apartment.

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I believe that the opening scene can be considered an important contribution to film noir for many reasons in the way that the director lays it out using the mise-en-scene effect which is crucial, the score also contributes to add mystery and eeriness to the scene, the tone and dialogue used by the narrator,etc. All of these factors contribute to a part of film noir's style in which the opening scene sets the tone of the film. In many films noir (such as touch of evil, kiss me deadly, the maltese falcon, johnny eager, and more) the opening scene sets the tone of the film thereby letting the viewer know there is something very special, interesting and mysterious in store for them. 

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This movie, more so than any so far in our Daily Dose, shows the importance of mise-en-scene to frame a narrative.  The film begins with the detective surrounded by world of priceless things.  The camera slowly pores over the surfaces of precious and fragile objects.  

 

It is probably worth noting that the glass case filled with fragile glass objects are not just any objects. They are vases, bottles and perfume containers; all empty vessels.

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Starting right off, the detective probing around the room, has the viewer asking a number of questions. Where is Laura, what are all these expensive items and who owns them? Where is the owner?  Then as the detective invades the glass wall protecting the items, the owner's voice comes through to tell him to stop touching the items and enter his bathroom.  The next situation is one of unusual intimacy with a stranger, as the detective is greeted by a man in his bag, and asked to hand him a washcloth.  Eventually the man gets out of the bath in front of this stranger and asks for his robe.  Even in today's standards, this is unusually intimate, but in the early 40's this would have been extremely risqué.  The viewer is left wondering about the relationship if any between these two men, and how the title character of Laura fits in.

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Everything needed to convict the killer is seen in these few minutes. Of course a good detective will gather facts rather than leap to conclusions ...so on we go.

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Our Waldo Lydeker is a Walter Winchell type, or later J.J. Hunsucker (Burt Lancaster) in "Sweet Smell of Success" someone so powerful that they can destroy you in a few words in their column.  Here's Waldo in the tub, exposed, not ashamed, with his weapon of choice the type writer.  But look at Clifton Webb, so powerful and yet, the concave chest, the thin arms, and you begin to see something is not right with him.  Add the furnishings to that and you see the opulance the decadence of it all.  You are given the preview of the ending.

 

How did I forget about Sweet Smell of Success? J.J. Hunsucker seems much more lethal than Lydecker does in Laura. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) isn't to be scoffed at either. "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic," remains as one of my all-time favorite movie quotes.

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