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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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In the opening scence of Laura we get the impression of the importance of material things to Lydecker. I think he is comforted by surrounding because they make him feel important and he can also use them to intimidate others.

The beauty of the relationship between him and McPherson is that no matter how unimpressed the dectective is Lydecker in unphased by his reaction. He is so arrogant that he just continues going as though he is a king on a throne. The whole scene in the tub is a beautiful example.

In typical Film Noir style the narration at the beginning lets us know that Lydecker believes he is the most important person in Laura's life.  It makes us wonder if he is friend or foe when he reveals that she is dead.

One of the things that I have noticed about Film Noir is the clever use of sound. It can be in volume or repitition. In this particular scene it is the use of the clock. 

It has been many years since I watched Laura. I think it is going to be fun watching it through new eyes that have a new perspective.

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Like many of you have pointed out, the dynamic between Lydecker and McPherson seems to be one incorporating differences in class, in status, in intellect, and more. Lydecker has lots of 'objects' (and they made me think of "Citizen Kane" too - all those works of art in one giant warehouse); Waldo's enjoyment of those objects stems not from their beauty, but from the fact that no one else has them, or they're rare or expensive.  McPherson's main 'object' is that little baseball game, about as simple as you can get, possibly won at a carnival or picked up for 50 cents somewhere, but it soothes him, helps him concentrate, actually serves a purpose.

 

Some people have pointed out too that Waldo is eccentric. Well, yes (and probably prunish, from sitting in the bath all day); but I think he's also the epitome of narcissism, so enamored of himself, so certain of his superiority, that he would conduct the interview while in the tub. I look at Waldo in the tub and see an older, skinny, unattractive naked man; I'm sure Waldo, sitting in the tub, thinks of himself as urbane, sophisticated, the man every man wants to be and every woman wants.  And I think McPherson knows that within two seconds of seeing Waldo, and is smirking to himself inside before he shows the smirk outwardly.

 

An interesting aside: I just watched "Laura" again last week in anticipation of this week's movies, on dvd.  I was surprised to find that the extras on the dvd that I have included the A&E Biography shows (remember those) for Gene Tierney and for Vincent Price.  The one on Gene Tierney was so interesting - and so sad.

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"I shall never forget the weekend that Laura died". This is one of my favorite openings of a film because in one sentence, before we even see Lydecker, we are told a lot about him. His tone of voice indicates a man who is almost Shakspearian. His voice also indicates that he has worked hard to cultivate the mask that he puts forth to the other characters for much of the film. As MacPherson looks over his collection, I realized something that I hadn't before; Lydecker views Laura as nothing more than another trinket to be put on display as a glory to himself. I don't know if it's just taken me a long time to piece together something that was already mentioned in the film, or if it's something we as an audience have to pick up on our own?

 

Nino Frank's comment about Laura being a "charming character study of furnishings and faces" is especially true here; before we meet MacPherson, Lydecker, or even Laura herself, we are treated to looks at Lydecker's collection; his picture of Laura and his trinkets. If Lydecker is a collector of things and has the personality I think he does, then I would also argue that the entire cast of characters are a part of Lydecker's world either for his own glory (like Laura) or for his own amusment (like MacPherson, or possibly Shelby...though I'm unsure about the latter).

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I found it interesting that the way Waldo's house is furnished is both indicative of his social standing in life and a contrast to how he actually looks.  I was expecting someone less skinny and shriveled, someone grander, but Waldo seemed small compared to his house and his furnishings.  He also seemed small compared to McPherson.

 

Another interesting point is that McPherson almost immediately caught my interest and sympathy, while Waldo seemed pompous and arrogant and distant.  This might be because I am quite fond of Dana Andrews, but I thought the contrast between McPherson and Waldo was deliberate.  Even the way they talk was markedly different.  McPherson was slower, more deliberate and calmer, but Waldo was fast-talking, grandiose, and dramatic.

 

It was particularly interesting to me that Waldo was introduced in voice-over and then in a bathtub, but was never particularly vulnerable.  Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity starts the movie in voice-over, and he's portrayed as very exposed and vulnerable in the scenes with the dictaphone, but Waldo, despite his unconventional position, doesn't seem at all bothered or reduced by his position in the bathtub.

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Love the opening as it sets things up so well.  Over the top of the well known theme song, "Laura," we get the wonderful stage-setting narration by Clifton Webb and the visual tour of his collection as Dana Andrews journeys through the "priceless" objets d'art.  Andrews has the classic film noir detectives outfit on -- double breasted suit with handkerchief in the pocket and 40s felt fedora.  The combination of all these things perfectly sets the mood for what is to come as we know Laura is very special and also very dead.

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The opening is inventive, novel and intimate brining us into the film's story from the start. We want to wander through the room and open the cabinets. Waldo is omni-present; though we do not see him immediately we are in his world which is opulent, gilded and privileged. He is not seen but he sees, and his inner and outer voice commands and is a force--even as we realize he is in his bath in need of a washcloth! He is both in a reverie over Laura and still has the power of recollection and detail as sharp as a knife point. The scene ends with a desire to know more about this man and the story he began to tell about Laura.

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I found it interesting that the way Waldo's house is furnished is both indicative of his social standing in life and a contrast to how he actually looks.  I was expecting someone less skinny and shriveled, someone grander, but Waldo seemed small compared to his house and his furnishings.  He also seemed small compared to McPherson.

 

Another interesting point is that McPherson almost immediately caught my interest and sympathy, while Waldo seemed pompous and arrogant and distant.  This might be because I am quite fond of Dana Andrews, but I thought the contrast between McPherson and Waldo was deliberate.  Even the way they talk was markedly different.  McPherson was slower, more deliberate and calmer, but Waldo was fast-talking, grandiose, and dramatic.

 

It was particularly interesting to me that Waldo was introduced in voice-over and then in a bathtub, but was never particularly vulnerable.  Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity starts the movie in voice-over, and he's portrayed as very exposed and vulnerable in the scenes with the dictaphone, but Waldo, despite his unconventional position, doesn't seem at all bothered or reduced by his position in the bathtub.

Shakespearegirl, your observation about how Lydecker looks, in comparison to his apartment, is crucial to understanding his psyche.  He is small, skinny, ratty looking.  We all know how children and men who are slight and homely are treated by many in society.  Right or wrong, that is the way most of the world is.  But he has two gifts: a tremendous intellect and the ability to communicate, which he uses as his tools and weapons to compete in the world.   His first, sarcastic remarks to the detective Mark McPherson show his precision with words and how he uses them as a fencer uses a foi.  These two gifts are fortunate, for being a writer and a radio personality, he can hide his slight build and his ratty face in the world of print and radio, as he doesn't need looks, because no one needs to see him, just hear his voice.  He can use his tremendous intelligence and voice to gain all the respect that he cannot get if he had to reach an audience in person.  

      It is obvious that he is a lonely man; his apartment alone tells us this, as it is large, but lacking in living things and human beings.  It is a luxurious, self-imposed prison.  Again, Shakespearegirl makes a very astute observation in commenting on how his apartment is furnished, and how he furnishes himself (his clothing is immaculate, of the highest quality and style).  He fills the empty or naked space (almost like a tiny Charles Foster Kane) with things he can buy with his wealth, things that give him a perceived social status.  They are his version of a nouveau riche clod buying a Mercedes-Benz, a $5,000 suit, and a Rolex not because he appreciates them, but because he believes it will make people think he is sophisticated.  One difference, though, Waldo Lydecker is sophisticated.  But his sophistication does not fill up the void of a man who essentially suffers from a tremendous inferiority complex and who needs to compensate by buying expensive (albeit tasteful) stuff and by wielding his weapons of intelligence and speech to fight for his place in the world.

     Then Laura enters his life.  It is probably the first time that a beautiful young woman has ever approached him and treated him like a human being.  Of course, his reaction is to be a rude, snobbish boor.  She is not intimidated, as most people would undoubtedly would be.  She is honest in her reaction to his egocentricism and rudeness.  She tells him the truth.  She tells him, essentially, that he is selfish, lonely and a poor man.  She tells him she is sorry for him.  She does not hate him, does not react with scorn, she turns the other cheek and instead pities him.  In a way, that pity is probably the most kindness (as strange as it may sound, but pity is compassion, and thus a positive emotion) that anyone has ever shown to him.  

     Undoubtedly, he has been around many beautiful women in his profession.  But no one seems to have ever shown him any concern.  Laura’s pity is manna for an emotionally starved man.

     So he is attracted to her, but only can attract her to him using his intelligence and ability to communicate.  Of course, his signing the contract is his in with her.  For the first time probably ever in his life, someone cares for him, shows concern for him.  Of course, her reaction to him is out of gratefulness for his giving her a break in her profession.

     But Laura is a young and beautiful woman.  Waldo is old and shrivelled, as Shakespeare girl puts it.  So while we can see a longing and desire for another type of love Waldo has probably never had (romantic love), she does not have those feelings for him.  She doesn’t lead him on, and frankly, she is attracted to young and handsome men, as is natural.  So while she likes Waldo and cares about him as a mentor and friend, nature pushes her to another path when it comes to love.  

     And this Waldo cannot bear.  He is not equipped, with all his wit, sophistication, wealth, tasteful, expensive things, social status and the like.  These things, his weapons and trophies, do not really attract her, and Waldo does not have the youth, good looks, muscular body and wavy hair to attract Laura, as we will soon learn.

     In any case, comparing how the apartment looks to how Waldo looks is insighful.  It gives us a lot of information about the man, as I hope I have noted.

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Interestingly enough, when we looked at the opening of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), it also starts with a voice-over (a child chanting a verse) in blackness.  So does Laura (1944).  It introduces “noir” (black, blackness, thus darkness) right away.  It’s an interesting strategy for starting a film.  It is almost as if the filmmaker is, like God, creating a world from nothing.  “All was darkness and the void” and then God said, “let there be light”: there is darkness, nothing, then a voice speaks, which brings about light and starts the story of mankind.  In the little world of these motion pictures, the same pattern is repeated: Dark frame, a voice-over which opens the story of Laura with a fade in to the light and what the light reveals: the created world of the film.  Perhaps this illustrates Vicente Huidobro’s contention that “El Poeta es un pequeño Dios” (the poet [or any artist] is a little God): both God and artists, authors or auteurs create universes and worlds.
     Except that in the world of film noir, it appears that what is illuminated with light is the fiction; in the darkness exist the truth, and that any light that comes into the darkness will fade back into the darkness.  The Poet, or any artist, is a little God, but not God.  The artist’s world, particularly in noir, is finite, flawed, fatal and will fail.
     In any case, the particular use of the dark opening shot in Laura is different in intention and detail compared to M, if not in its pattern of dark shot, voice, fade in to light.  So I’ll focus on Laura’s opening, starting after the opening credits, which is not in darkness, but focuses on a painting of a beautiful woman, albeit covered with credits.  

     After the credits, the story starts with us being in the dark and shows darkness.  One does not go go a motion picture to see darkness, but there it is.  What kind of story is this?  Then we hear a voice in the darkness, telling us about Laura, whom we assume was the young woman portrayed in the opening credits of film.
     Here is the trick, though: the narrator of the voice-over has to be dead.  We don’t know that yet at the beginning of the film; we have to think about this after we have seen the whole film.  The story takes place only because a dead man is narrating this.  Now, this is not an uncommon device in a film, not that it happens every day either.  We will see the same thing in Sunset Boulevard (1950).  It could be that this is the written text of the dead man speaking to us: the text is speaking, not the dead man.  But it is still his voice.  A voice of a dead man speaking from the darkness of death, of the tomb.
     Or, are we in the dark recesses of detective Mark McPherson’s mind?  Is he recalling the words that Waldo Lydecker told him about Laura when he was alive?  Are we hearing Waldo’s words via the unconscious  of detective McPherson?  This cannot be, though, because the story fades into darkness again as Waldo loses his life.  The story begins and ends with Waldo Lydecker.  This story is the creation of a dead man.  So what does that mean?
     Eddie Muller states that “...the emphasis on a single character's descent into obsession, and often oblivion, is a hallmark of this type of film” (see: This film’s narrative starts in darkness,tells its story in via the light, then returns to eternal darkness.  The story starts with Lydecker and ends with him.  Despite the title of the film, this is not Laura’s story, but the story of Waldo Lydecker’s obsession: Laura.  Eddie Muller’s observation about this aspect of film noir fits Waldo Lydecker, whose obsession leads him to oblivion, and makes a mockery of all the greatness he thought he had won in life.  
     If I fully understood what existentialism and its angst were, I would probably say that this film shows the essence of existentialism (is it possible for existentialism to have an essence?) and its insistence on the absolute absurdity of being and that each individual has to exist in the way they see fit, because everything is absurd anyway.  But Waldo Lydecker tried that, and got humiliation, defeat and oblivion despite his efforts to exist as best as he could. 

     Besides, does it matter if one lives one's own life by doing it one's own way, by making one's own existential reality?  Death makes all of this attempt to exist without being futile and absurd.  So while I believe there is an existential ethic portrayed in film noir, film noir undermines this ethic by pointing out that trying to do anything about one's existence or existential state is too.
     It is easier to understand Waldo Lydecker’s defeat not in terms of existentialism, but in terms of Greek classical tragedy: a man (hero) tries to change his fate as ordained by [insert your eternal organizing principal or divinity here] and is destroyed utterly and completely for doing so because it goes against the will of [your eternal organizing principal or divinity].

     Waldo Lydecker undoubtedly started life as a miserable, scrawny, unlovable little man.  It is what he was and what he was fated to be.  He tried all he could to escape his fate by changing his existential reality: he acquired wealth, wealth, status.  But he reached too far and tried for true love, which fate denied him.  And he suffered the consequences: humiliation, his reputation destroyed, all he made himself, destroyed, He died a miserable, scrawny, unlovable little man.

     However, he comes back from the grave in a story, in a myth, as ancient Greed tragic heroes do, to warn us of the punishment for trying escape from or to change one’s fate or to defy the will of [your eternal organizing principal or divinity]: darkness, humiliation and oblivion.  Tragic heroes do come back from the grave via their stories to warn us.
     In short, since we all face death, existence is not absurd, but tragic, which has some meaning, even if it is lost on us.  All human life is a tragedy, especially if if all we are to do is to come into then out of existence pretending that anything we do here matters per se. 

     Perhaps we should see film noir, then, as Greek tragedy, adapted for modern times and for ordinary people, instead of for fictional times and fictional heroes.  Film noir attracts us because it is modern tragic drama.

     If so, this goes completely against the grain of American society that says, "if you have a positive attitude, are honest and work hard, you can have the Amerian dream.  As professor Edwards in part mentioned in another posting, "a noir should be a story about one or more people who have been denied the American Dream and therefore attempt to get a leg up by cheating the system."  Noir as tragedy suggests or even proclaims that this is not so and if you try, there will be ugly consequences.

     This was the dark side of American cinema, American society and American beliefs.  Film noir helped us bring our dark side, the shadow, as Carl Jung would call it, into the light.

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It seems to me somewhat disingenuous to interpret and contextualize a 70 year old film through our prism of 21st century values. Yet I suppose it would be politically incorrect to do otherwise.

 

Nevertheless, Waldo Lydecker is a coded "homosexual" (which we read through his affected manners,artiness and "bitchy" attitude). He is sissified in comparison to MacPherson's rugged manliness. He wants Laura as a possession...like his clock or priceless bric a brac. He can't "have" her because he doesn't "want" her in that way.

 

Lydecker, as we later discover, expresses affection toward Laura, but never romantic fantasy. It's interesting to note that in the opening of the film, he is very comfortable parading naked around the male detective whom he expresses "girlish" admiration for ("I always liked that detective; the one with the silver shinbone"). By comparison, later in the film at a party escorted by Laura (Gene Tierney in a dress that she's positively poured into) Waldo merely whines and has a "headache". I understand that Darryl Zanuck tried to nix Webb for the part of Lydecker because he thought his mannerisms too "effeminate" but that was exactly what Preminger wanted. Therefore, I think of Webb as more of a femme fatale than an homme fatale.

 

 In the 40s, homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment and is an oft recurring feature of noirs in a coded subtext as a form of social deviancy. Fortunately, these homophobic prejudices are no longer openly entertained by society, but I think they do inform the character of the villian in this particular film.

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  1. Waldo Lydecker an eccentric man like his house full of unusual things.

The way how started describing the scene . 

If the definition of film noir as a genre then it's Detective, he has a fedora, a suit and smokes.

The way how Mr. Lydecker met The Detective Mark McPherson was odd, in the bathroom.

The story will evolve with so many faces and tones.

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In the opening scene of Laura, the audience is given the view of an expensively furnished room. Momentarily, one is given to ponderings and presumptions, as to what sort of a person could be inhabiting such opulent surroundings.

 

But all notion of half-formed assumptions disintegrate, once a voice breaks over the silence with the words, 'I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.'

 

The character of Waldo Lydecker, was well introduced with the precise intention of giving the impression that he was incredibly pompous, sarcastic, sardonic, and highly self-absorbed. And yet, like the masks that hang decoratively on his wall, he too wore several of his own, to hide the true nature of his being.

 

But his deadly obsession with Laura was beyond a doubt, irrecovable. Ultimately destroying him.

 

And I think what Nino Frank meant by a 'charmaing character study of furnishings and faces', is the aesthetic portion of the film. And how you can tell the sort of person that inhabits that specific space, just by either looking at how they decorate their place of residence, or how they present their face to the world. Because whether or not deception is intended, the choices are made conciously. So it still leaves some semblance of a clue as to what lies beneath the exterior.

 

Laura is a very significant contribution to the noir genre, and a most unique one at that. And what added to its intrinsic quality, was the fact that it was narrated by the murderer himself. And so we as the viewers are given briefly the glimpse of how such a man saw the world, saw Laura, through his eyes.

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A lot of history and personality is revealed in a very short time through scene, voiceover, interaction of the characters, and Lydecker's recognition of McPherson's name and past. The furnishings and style of the residence contrast with Lydecker's frail frame but match his demeanor.

 

McPherson looks out of place but not uncomfortable. His attitude reveals experience with the likes of Lydecker and he's living up to his expectations. As Lydecker gets out of the tub he even shows pity.

 

Mystery and murder are presented in the first few moments of the film informing the viewer that they are going for a ride on a film noir roller coaster.

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Other than the open scene of The Letter, the opening scene of Laura is one of my favorites. And the voice over is fantastic. "I will never forget the weekend that Laura died."

 

To paraphrase Robert Osborne, "what kind of movie tells the audience that the main character is dead, during the first few minutes of the film?"

 

The first time I saw Laura, I gasped when she walked into her apartment. Great movie. No matter how often I've seen it, I always find something new and exciting about this classic film noir.  

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i did too, talk about shocking plot twist

 

 

Other than the open scene of The Letter, the opening scene of Laura is one of my favorites. And the voice over is fantastic. "I will never forget the weekend that Laura died."

 

To paraphrase Robert Osborne, "what kind of movie tells the audience that the main character is dead, during the first few minutes of the film?"

 

The first time I saw Laura, I gasped when she walked into her apartment. Great movie. No matter how often I've seen it, I always find something new and exciting about this classic film noir.

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I guess I'm one of the very few, if there are any, who isn't a big fan of this film.  Anyway, talking about just the opening scene, I have to say that it establishes the character of Waldo Lydecker very well in showing him to be narcissistic and selfish, but yet still infatuated with Laura, though probably more as one of the many objects in his apartment than as a human being.

 

Frankly, to divert off from the opening a bit, I just don't see the fascination with Laura and since that is crucial to the story, I guess that's why I didn't get pulled in.

 

Andrews though is the archetypal noir detective, tough and jaded, and the contrast with him and the effeminate Lydecker makes for an interesting opening.

 

I enjoyed the rainy setting later on too, but when you can't sympathize or empathize with the titular character, then I guess there isn't much else to say.

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At least some of the credit for this opening goes to Vera Caspary, the author of the book. Much of the opening voiceover is taken from her book's opening.

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The   sub-text of Waldo's homosexuality and his complete transformation with his 'love' for Laura shows the dark side of self-absorption.  Mention of the mis-en-scene and all the objects that evoke Waldo's character, especially the masks reveal who he is but most important, in contrast to his bath tub office and shameless nudity the objects and their arrangements give the audience clues to his true nature.  Is his story even true about Laura one can ask? 

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Ciao.

 

-- What examples do you see that fit with Nino Frank's contention that Laura is a "charming character study of furnishings and faces?"
 
While the running shot is focusing on the collection of valuable objects (a showcase of "glasses", a pendulum-clock) we can also glimpse a terrace outside the room, with a skyline of buildings in the background. We are in a penthouse. The camera keeps going and other furnitures are shown, everything is furnished in very good taste. Then we see Dana Andrews, his body and expression are in contrast with the scene. He's smoking a cigarette, glued on his mouth (quite typical for a detective), he looks curious, exploring the room while he waits for someone. He surely doesn't belong to that world. 
 
I attached an editing of the scene as it could be in a storyboard.
 
-- What do you think about how Preminger introduces the character of Waldo Lydecker in this scene?
Preminger immediately outlines the traits of Waldo: good taste, rich (the environment), big ego (a series of aligned towels with his initial letters in a big size), eccentric (he invites McPherson to talk in his bathroom) and he's a powerful man, used to have everything in control.
 
-- In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?
We can see the classic noir opening story: a not sohpisticated detective goes to his/her rich client house to solve a case or getting hired.
 
Regards, Rob

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What a fun opening!

The actual first shot as the film is introduced is of the portrait of Laura, a grand introduction to Nino Frank's notion that the movies is a "charming character study of furnishings and faces." The screen goes blank as the voice-over speaks to his audience and we focus on the Buddhist statue standing in the Abhaya Mudra position, a symbol of fearlessness and enlightenment. We hear the clock ticking and see the large standing clock, the only other  sound in the room other than the voice-over. The two become fused. We learn through the camera as it takes in all the details of the items in the room. We hear the voice (which we find in time is Waldo Lydecker's) as it describes with curious detachment the setting of the death of Laura and how the sun burned that day. We notice the faces in the room - the statue, the clock, the masks on the wall - as well as the presence of the detective. All these details give us our first clues, and in light of the ending, tell us the full story in the first few minutes of the film. 

Waldo Lydecker is a collector of things, of stories, of people. He finds value in things and people only if he finds them interesting, expensive or "rare," When he meets the detective, he is dismissive until he finds out that he is "McPherson," the "man with leg of lead,"  a curiosity. 

Lydecker claims is the only one who truly knew Laura, yet he tells us nothing about her. She has been just another item in his glass case.

When the detective picks up an item from one of the cases, Lydecker yells at him from the next room not to touch it. He is possessive of his collectibles.

When we meet Lydecker, he is in the tub, exposed, but hiding behind his mini desk with typewriter. Interestingly, there are no statues in the room with the tub - no statues, no portraits. He is alone. He is making a point to show his disdain for the detective by meeting him this way, making him wait while he lounges in the tub. He is arrogant and cruel.

Lydecker is also extremely OCD, careful in all that he does and says, yet when McPherson points out that in a story years ago Lydecker describes a man dying the same way that Laura died, by a shotgun blast, when the man was killed in an entirely different manner. "I never bother with details, you know," Lydecker states, as he fastidiously examines himself in the mirror.

In this opening scene, we know all we need to know simply by studying the furnishings and faces.

 

This film is a great contribution to the film noir style with the use of the moving camera as it not only takes in the setting the same way a human eye might, but also enlightens us by its focus on details and symbols that tell us the overall story without needing explanation. Preminger masterfully takes the dark subjects of murder, greed and jealousy, and weaves a story with surprising plot twists and turns, sharp dialogue between the detective and suspects, cunning use of shadow and light and camera angles to create suspense and to give us clues as we are led through the lens of discovery. The characters themselves are examples of what Muller points out as "low company, high style." These are the very rich, surrounded in luxury and status, who are rotten to the core. Even the main character, Laura, who is presented as a sweet, naïve person with a good heart, is not above lying to the detective and compromising principals when she sees fit. The detective is hardened, cynical. He calls all women "dames." He is unprofessional, drinking and stalking Laura even in death as he hangs around her apartment snooping around, not for the case, but for his own morbid curiosity. There is not a single character that is left unscathed in this sordid tale, which is a comment on the film noir view of the world. There are no real "good guys," no "men in white hats." Reality is what it is.

The last shot in the movie is the clock face broken, no longer beautiful, dysfunctional now that its inner workings are destroyed. It stands as it is, exposed and ugly.   

Brilliant.

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Probably Preminger opted for creating this opening scene in an opulent apartment and presenting a vain, decadent but charismatic character (Waldo Lydecker) in order to set a different direction of the plot and deviate the viewer's attention about the murderer. At first, it's quite hard to believe picturesque and lively characters are villains, but when the story unfolds the masks and veils start to fall down and eventually the real faces of the characters get uncovered. As Jim Thompson (one the greatest hard-boiled writers) once pointed out: There is only one plot: things are not as they seem.


I agree with Bob Nutter (see above comments) on that Preminger wanted to expose the latent homosexuality of Waldo Lydecker, by presenting him in a tub and inverting the typical scene when a woman comes out of a bathtub in the presence of a man, in this case, the Lt. McPherson. It made Lydecker's a compelling character, quite sinister, quite fascinating. 


This opening scene displays a riveting device of setting the story: a poetic voice over offers to lead us to a great story about intriguing characters and a mystery that needs to be solved. "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died". A device that the very same year was used in Murder, My Sweet, by Edward Dmytryk, that recreates the marvelous novel written by Raymond Chandler.


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I also meant to mention that we see that the "faces" in this movie are not ever what they seem. Lydecker (funny that his name implies it) is a liar and from the very opening line, is not really telling what is true, whether he knows it or not. Without spoiling the movie, there is much hidden behind the faces that are presented, including the clock's! Lydecker's comment about how he "never bothers with details" is also very important later on and is so ironic in the light of what happens.

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Two alpha males from the different ends of the "gender" spectrum establish dominance in this excellent opening scene. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) encounter one another in Lydecker's frilly, over-decorated apartment. Lydecker fires the first salvo by making McPherson wait, but McPherson isn't having any of that and tromps all over the "decadent" apartment, manhandling the ornaments and generally marking his territory. So far we have a tie. Waldo fires the next spectacular round by greeting McPherson while fully unclothed, soaking in the tub. 'I have nothing to hide' this says, 'and am so unafraid of you I will meet you in a completely vulnerable state'. Again McPherson isn't having any of it and is completely nonplussed, even when being asked to *participate* in Lydecker's bath by handing him the wash cloth, his robe, etc. Still a tie until Lydecker reveals his hand: leaping up in unveiled (so to speak) hero worship when he discovers that McPherson is the rootin' tootin' shootin' detective hero Lydecker has written about. 

 

McPherson wins.

 

The rest of the movie contains an excellent story about a murder mystery peppered through with Lydecker's renewed and increasingly frantic attempts to gain the upper hand over McPherson. It's a great opening scene that clearly sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

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The apartment is opulent, who has upholstered chairs in their bathroom? The idea that he indolently works while soaking in a bath is interesting. In the bath he is apparently fully exposed, but like so many things under water it is a distortion, a mask. He is so self absorbed he doesn't see how condescending it is to treat the detective as if he were a valet. Hand me a washcloth, hand me my robe. Fantastic way to start a movie. Each character has many layers, like the apartment with many things on walls and shelves, each of them brings their own history to the scene. We get a glimpse of how the two differ and the fact that there is a lot more to them than meets the eye.

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We hear Waldo’s voiceover as if he’s narrating from a distance while we look at a cold, controlled but abundant life – antiques, order, only the ticking clock (life passing, the tell-tale heart leading to the solution) to break the monastic, meticulous mood of silent possessiveness. 

 

After hearing in the vo that Laura has been murdered, we meet the obviously out-of-place but easy-to-identify hard-boiled detective whose first movement into this quiet world is first to a series of masks (human guises) then to a wall of glass objects; he seems clearly out of place here – all gumshoe virility invading this fragile environment while we listen to Waldo, who abruptly breaks the voice-over convention by calling out to the detective – this is HIS environment (not the victim’s): we know who he is.

 

This leads into an incredibly revealing scene – a scrawny man, imperious as Nero, completely nude in a marble bath tailored to feature his main attribute – a typewriter – dominating the conversation, and asking the detective to put a robe on him (Andrews’ take on being asked to put on the robe, removes any ambiguity about both the  hapless sexual curiosity in Waldo’s request as well as his lack of attributes).  Waldo seems to be in control, telling the detective about the detective – his storied past, etc.  And yet, the dialogue reveals the true contrast between the man of words and the man of action – Waldo is revealed in this scene as scrawny, risible (Andrew’s reaction to his nudity) and factually inaccurate.  The man of action, Andrews is proven to be superior in all aspects to Lydecker’s man of words; Lydecker is humiliated (to the audience) and rendered impotent in the very first scene of a film in which he will ultimately be revealed as the killer.

 

I find it difficult not to compare Waldo to the critic, Addison DeWitt, in All About Eve which also has a noir elements – femme fatale, blackmail, adultery, fraud, a city of night and inhabitants unique to that environment.  Addison, like Waldo, is a writer (acid pen no valid substitute for the masculine sword, in All About Eve, wielded by Gary Merill’s he-man director). Both men are possessed with a huge sense of power, brought down by the unattainable object of their sexual longing/sublimation – a woman whose inaccessibility unleashes the monster within: for rejecting him, Laura is ostensibly destroyed by Waldo (although the victim turns out to be a Doppler– the reappearance of Laura – the ghost of his deed and corporeal proof of his impotence as both a killer and as a “man” – will finally undo him). Addison, trades his arm-candy “protégée”, Miss Caswell, presumably for services rendered (whether actually bedding him or merely bearding him) at a party where he sees in Eve Harrington both the poise and especially talent that the voluptuous but vacant Caswell lacks.  When he subsequently offers himself to Eve she laughs in his face and he loses the very composure by which he defines himself and strikes her; her rejection forces him to show his hand – his ability to destroy her in a highly charged scene in which he goes from submissive to dominant and literally brings her to her knees. In Laura, this rejection of Lydecker as a sexual companion results in a murder.

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