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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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When Lydecker asks McPherson to hand him a washcloth, McPherson casually tosses the requested item in the general vicinity of the bathtub, and the cloth falls haphazardly into the bath. I'm sure this is not what Waldo expected.  He expected the detective to ceremonially present the washcloth to him.  I was reminded of the scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice (a superb example of film noir) when John Garfield has initial contact with Lana Turner.  She has "accidentally" dropped her lipstick which she had been seductively applying, and it rolls across the floor in his direction. He picks it up, and she holds out her hand, expecting him to trot over and place it back in her hand.  Instead, he stands firmly in place and waits for her to walk toward him to retrieve it.  The bathtub scene is the beginning of a tension-filled relationship.  The lipstick scene is tension of another sort.

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As someone pointed out earlier, it's unusual that a villain would narrate the film. The detective McPherson character (Dana Andrews) is a more likely voiceover candidate. Waldo's power as a narrator is both in what he says, telling us his skewed versions of events, and in how he says it, sarcastically, in his crisp and precise diction. When we finally see him, as played by Clifton Webb, Waldo fulfills our every expectation. He's a debonaire looking gentleman sporting a pencil moustache and topping it off, completely nude.

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Well, after watching Laura for the umpteemth time today. I have a change of viewpoint. I really think Waldo loved Laura and wanted to marry her. Before that Waldo loved one person- Waldo

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

 

The furnishings in this film are wonderful. I was attracted to film noir as a child because of the beautiful faces, spaces, and clothes. The interior of Lydecker's apartment is like a smaller version of Versailles - it's lavish and filled with very expensive frivolities housing a very frivolous-seeming writer. Although Lydecker's flattery seems superficial, like a put-up job - Lydecker is wickedly smart, with an acid wit - especially when he becomes almost giddy over the detective with the "silver shinbone," a hero he has written about.

 

Is Lydecker's flattery a way of deflecting McPherson from discovering the true killer? A way of matching the shallow, albeit expensive, accouterments surrounding Lydecker. Can a "charming" home hold the secret to Laura's murder? (Wow, there is so much wrong with that question, on so many levels, but no spoilers here).

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Revealing that Laura was murdered immediately in the opening scene is incredible-what a kick-start to the film and unheard of to reveal so much so early on.  The lavish set, the grand bath, the gorgeous furnishings and priceless knickknacks set the tone for our intro to Lydecker-you feel as if you know his personality just by all this excess.  And the once-over of a nude Waldo exiting his bath by Det. McPherson is priceless!  This brief few minutes is packed with information.  Loved watching this carefully again.

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The first scene is disturbing because Waldo is an unusually creepy character. His narration to begin the film is intentionally misleading since he will be the evil character in the end. The lavish lifestyle portrayed reveals a newer take on twisted noir characters. Typically we find down and out desperate characters with little hope. Here we find a successful professional who borders being a serial type killer with an obsessive compulsive desire to "own" another object, Laura. Ironically, Laura is in no way, shape or form a femme fatale type, yet she has the male leads pining over her.

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"...yet he exposes himself to McPherson. Just puts his stuff right out there." Indeed he does, especially when he rises out of his opulent bath tub and asks McPherson for a towel. The smirking look on McPherson's (Dana Andrews') face is classic, when he gives a little glance at the off-camera, naked Lydecker. The character of Lydecker is a puzzlement. Is he comic relief? Is he straight or gay? He appears to be a man who defines himself through his wealth and possessions. Is he really in love with Laura or does he just want to possess her, or even be her? The painting of Laura is a possession, and since she is deceased, it is all that is left of her. Through McPherson, she comes to life as he becomes more and more determined to discover who she was.

 

I find that a puzzlement as well. Lydecker credits himself with creating Laura and therefore having possession over her. He comments:"With you, a lean, strong body is the measure of a man." Lydecker can never be that to her, and the only was he resembles this towering, masculine man is when he tears down her lovers in his column, emasculates them. I don't think he can ever love her in a romantic way, or even sexually, but more as an extension of his narcissistic love for himself. Laura choosing someone else over him whether it's Shelby or McPherson is something he can “understand” in his limited, self-absorbed way, but cannot accept. It is a love triangle unlike any other. We’ve seen this before in noir, two men fighting over a woman, and usually their opposites and Laura presents that in a incredibly different way.

 

It reminds me (if only barely) of the love triangle in The Philadelphia Story. Katharine Hepburn wants to be loved as a woman but has only ever been worshipped by men like her fiance or Jimmy Stewart. The idolization makes her more of a possession in their eyes, and she can't accept that that is the only way love can be. Laura wants love but Lydecker has a weird balance between condescension towards love or a idealization of it (as heard in his final radio program at the end of the film).

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To begin with, as full disclosure, Laura is probably one of my favorite movies; Gene Tierney was a true star in the days of real movie stars.

 

As for this Daily Dose of Darkness thread, the characters are pretty much laid out for the audience in those opening moments. Clifton Webb's character (Lydecker) is almost cartoonish in his pompous attitude and apartment surroundings. Dana Andrews' Lt. McPherson is the epitomy of the hard-boiled detective of the era, almost the model for a later day Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet. Yet, as the movie plays out (no spoiler, hopefully) he lets down his guard and allows a softer side to show through; perhaps he allows this human side to come to the forefront because the object of his sensitivity is the victim of the disclosed murder, with whom he needn't be concerned with developing a potential real relationship.

 

Preminger's extensive focus on the scenes' furnishings and characters' physical traits add to the detail of the foundation of the story line, in my opinion. These are not simply background pieces but integral parts of the whole. The audience can see each character and determine their own like or dislike of each one, and develop a better understanding of the back stories of the lives that are intertwined in this film noir classic.

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I have watched Laura many times and even own it (rare for me to buy dvds) and consider it brilliant, so I didn't have to watch the YouTube clip because the beginning is so memorable. To me, nothing is as it seems in this movie.  Obviously, Laura, the victim, is not dead.  The men who care for her don't really.  No one is without dark motives.  As far as it being about furnishing and faces, I think that it is more character study than some other film noir/detective stories.  The plot is character-driven more than genre, and the characters are three dimensional.  Wado's high life style as a Walter-Winchell type writer, to which he introduces Laura and into which he immerses her (as his supposed lover but we really don't expect there is anything physical going on between them) is important to the film, so the production values of furnishings have to be just right.

 

We see that Waldo is going to play psychological warfare with McPherson from the beginning by expecting him to wait on him ("hand me the towel"), accept being exposed to (when he stands up from the tub), and all of his wisecracks.  Waldo can't play physical warfare; he has only his brain, supposed wit, and pen to do it, and he does. 

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I find that a puzzlement as well. Lydecker credits himself with creating Laura and therefore having possession over her. He comments:"With you, a lean, strong body is the measure of a man." Lydecker can never be that to her, and the only was he resembles this towering, masculine man is when he tears down her lovers in his column, emasculates them. I don't think he can ever love her in a romantic way, or even sexually, but more as an extension of his narcissistic love for himself. Laura choosing someone else over him whether it's Shelby or McPherson is something he can “understand” in his limited, self-absorbed way, but cannot accept. It is a love triangle unlike any other. We’ve seen this before in noir, two men fighting over a woman, and usually their opposites and Laura presents that in a incredibly different way.

 

It reminds me (if only barely) of the love triangle in The Philadelphia Story. Katharine Hepburn wants to be loved as a woman but has only ever been worshipped by men like her fiance or Jimmy Stewart. The idolization makes her more of a possession in their eyes, and she can't accept that that is the only way love can be. Laura wants love but Lydecker has a weird balance between condescension towards love or a idealization of it (as heard in his final radio program at the end of the film).

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Lydecker is pompous, narcissistic, cold and calculating. His voice at the opening of the scene when describing his knowledge of Laura is very matter-of-fact in my opinion, almost rehearsed. The panning of the camera around the apartment and the opulence, although used before, is eye-opening because the viewer learns these are not the dark, seedy surroundings common in film noir.

 

Lydecker's interaction in the bathroom with McPherson is unsettling primarily when you consider the time period in which it was filmed. My own take on this is Lydecker is attempting to throw McPherson off, another way of maintaining the control which is so paramount to Lydecker's character.

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In addition to the role reversal of the villain narrating the film, Lydecker also has some omniscient qualities to him. He tells Det. McPherson to stop touching his things as if he were watching him even though he's in another room with the door closed. He reveals that he knows some rather personal information about McPherson as well and then proceeds to toy with him a little as he gets out of the bath. It's clear who has the upper hand here.

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I think Dana Andrew’s McPherson engages the viewer so successfully in those first few minutes because he’s not like the typical smooth, confident detective we may be accustomed to from earlier types of films.   Although there is sharp and witty dialogue, there is no light hearted banter or carefree quips.  He’s not polished and suave.  We really do pick up on the fact this guy is incredibly flawed in just these brief few minutes and the fact  that he’s so  emotionally scarred is what keeps his character from being merely a “thinking machine.”  Instead his character adds an additional  level of complexity to the action because he is going to impact or even drive the story and the other characters rather than just being the one on the outside piecing everything together in order to solve the crime.  We also get some foreshadowing with this scene that maybe he doesn’t have the best professional boundaries considering he’s willing to interview Waldo (even though Waldo has no qualms about it) while he’s in the tub.  And as someone else posted, I agree, the smirking look on McPherson’s face as he glances at naked Waldo before as he tosses him a towel is classic!  This boundary blurring figures ongoing in the movie as McPherson becomes more personally involved and more taken with and mesmerized by Laura as he delves deeper into the crime.  Love the many comments and observations others have posted regarding Waldo Lydecker.  What a fascinating character !  So beautifully (yet disturbingly) entitled, arrogant and narcissistic.

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Didn't get to watch Laura but have seen many times before, and it is a favorite.  Waldo strikes me as one who tries to present himself as removed and above all others but inside he is completely consumed with Laura.

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This film opens on a long shot of the apartment of Waldo Lydecker. While he narrates, we get a sense of home: opulent, ostentatious, and perhaps a little cold, much as we come to expect from the man himself. His opening narration is much like the opening to a pulp detective novel except with his own lyrical spin. We discover later in this scene that Waldo is a writer which is not much a surprise coming after his descriptive opening narration. Through the narration, the state of his home and finally his interaction with MacPherson, we get a quick sense of Waldo's personality: high-minded, pretentious and high sense of self-worth. Even though he claims to have known Laura dearly and was devastated following her death, he acts as if he could not care less about the investigation into it. Recounting his testimony is almost a chore, and he's typed it up so that he need not dwell on the timeline of events immediately prior to her murder. It seems important to Waldo that we as the audience understand how strongly he was impacted by her death, but even his narration is almost devoid of feeling amidst such emotive language.

 

To contrast Waldo, MacPherson seems the ever serious detective, not put off by Waldo's lavishness and barely giving a second thought to having their interview while Waldo is in the tub. It's not until Waldo draws attention to his state of undress and actually stepping out of the tub, do we see MacPherson slightly rattled by the behavior of this man. Other people have noted the homosexual subtext and I think perhaps this is intentional on Waldo's part. Not out of sexual desire for MacPherson, but to find a way to assert power over this man. Acting superior barely got a reaction but once he sees the hesitation over handing a washcloth, Waldo sees an opening to exploit. This is a man who looks down on others and finds different ways to assert power and dominance over others. That sexual power is very much in the vein of film noir and usually reserved for the femme fatale.

 

Laura is a fascinating film and I hope people had the chance to see it. It is on TCM every so often and is highly recommended. The murder mystery is a film noir staple and at first MacPherson seems the all-business detective but this film is a character study in that mystery comes almost secondary to digging deeper into the lives and motivations of the characters in it. The opening is clearly about Waldo and while his personality is established strongly, we also already get the sense that this may be an unreliable narrative as his words and his behavior are in stark contrast to one another

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Replying without reading the others, looking forward to catching up with the discussion


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


 


Well the first scene features faces as furnishings and the opulent, priceless, clearly collected objects around Lydecker's apartment speak to his character as someone who wants to possess beautiful and rare objects. This combines with the voiceover and the title to hint at his relationship with Laura from the very first scene. 


 


 


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


Preminger builds to the visual introduction of Lydecker, throwing in a lot of fairly unsubtle coding about his effeminacy, introducing him naked in the bath in front of the police detective which again makes you wonder about what his relationship with Laura was, that it was unlikely to be a straightforward romantic one. His letting the detective go through his vitrines before stopping him when he was worried that he would break a precious object suggests that he is happy to stand back and take his own pleasures in manipulating the police but that he is possessive of his things and sees others as clumsy and beneath him and people who might accidentally break his treasures. This conveys his relationship with Andrew's character from the first.  He is a voyeur but he has things the police might break/uncover.


 


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


 


The voice over, the cinematography, the clear and obvious dark secrets behind outward urban respectability. The starting of the movie after what would at face value be the climactic event, the murder of laura, to poke holes in peoples psyches and what led to that point.


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We are shown that Mark is pretty much casing Waldo's apartment. He does recognize the clock that is exactly like Laura's. I feel he was doing this to size up Waldo before the interview. I do like the way we are introduced to Waldo. We are shown that he places himself above everyone else.

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You can learn a lot about a man by his things. In Waldo's case, we are introduced to a gaudy, lavish, opulent world of priceless artifacts that envelop the apartment. It is clearly designed to impress the audience and anyone who comes to visit and yet the only thing that he Waldo comments on is the clock. He doesn't tell us anything about any of the other items that we see, even when McPherson touches an artifact, Waldo merely says that it's priceless and that he shouldn't touch it. 

We can tell that these two men are going to be important to the story, but already our narration is unreliable. We won't know anything about what's going on except from the words of Waldo, who is a professional writer and therefore unreliable. Obviously he is going to change Laura's story to fix it for his benefit. McPherson even shows us that he is unreliable by correcting Waldo's writing of another criminal story and how a man was killed. He even says that this crime is similar to Laura's and therefore Waldo's opinion of what happened to Laura is probably wrong. 

This is an interesting concept to the film noir style, genre, movement, whatever by starting the narration at the beginning of the story. The crime has already happened, a girl has been murdered, and someone is trying to find out who did it but this world-weary detective does not really care about what happened; he's viewing it as just another case at the moment. 

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I've already seen this great film, so I already have quite a formed opinion of Waldo Leydecker. What always strikes me in this opening is his arrogance-- The obvious personal museum of treasures, but also his receiving the detective in the bathtub?!? Anyone else would have excused a guest, dressed, and then had the conversation. His popmposity is apparent in his manner of speaking and what he says as well. When McPherson points out that he misreported facts concerning a murder, Leydecker claims that his version must have been better. What a nerve! This guy oozes class, but even more so he oozes grossly overfed ego. Such a memorable character. And for those who have seen the film (spoilers), I was always intrigued by his relationship with Laura. Clearly he wants to possess her like one of his treasures, but is the attraction physical at all? He seems to love and hate her at the same time. Is it because she rejects his affections, or is it that he truly wants to be Laura or in the very least is jealous of all the male attention that Laura attracts?

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

 

 

That's a very cool point. My favourite detective show on TV was Columbo because of the cat and mouse aspect. I think writer/producers Levinson and Link must have enjoyed this movie tremendously in their youth.

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The narrator describing the sun like a magnifying glass, simultaneously lot of glassware is displayed in his house. Very fragile look. His voice is very haunting. Clocks ticking One after another, mention of a similar clock in Laura's house.

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I've already seen this great film, so I already have quite a formed opinion of Waldo Leydecker. What always strikes me in this opening is his arrogance-- The obvious personal museum of treasures, but also his receiving the detective in the bathtub?!? Anyone else would have excused a guest, dressed, and then had the conversation. His popmposity is apparent in his manner of speaking and what he says as well. When McPherson points out that he misreported facts concerning a murder, Leydecker claims that his version must have been better. What a nerve! This guy oozes class, but even more so he oozes grossly overfed ego. Such a memorable character. And for those who have seen the film (spoilers), I was always intrigued by his relationship with Laura. Clearly he wants to possess her like one of his treasures, but is the attraction physical at all? He seems to love and hate her at the same time. Is it because she rejects his affections, or is it that he truly wants to be Laura or in the very least is jealous of all the male attention that Laura attracts?

Someone in the course comments posited that Lydecker is gay and i agree with that reading.  His "love" for Laura is not romantic at all but more in the nature of obsession with another beautiful object for his collection of artifacts.  As to McPherson, Lydecker is initially dismissive of him in the opening scene, but becomes very interested when he recognizes the name of the cop hero that he himself had written about.  It's just then that stands up naked and asks for his robe.  He's snob enough only to be romantically interested in a guy who is not just physically attractive, but who has media notoriety.

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

 

The entire movie is visually lush, with images of affluence contrasted by those of the detective who seems almost like an intruder in this high-end setting, metaphorically illustrated by McPherson's handling the item in the curio, and being admonished for doing so (with a reference, of course, to the value of the item). Having seen this movie many times before, I know that it is rife with images of furnishings and faces (with their own interesting stories) that serve to add extra layers of intrigue in addition to, and as part of, the main story. We spend the better part of this movie studying the expressions of all the characters, and we see contrasts between the furnishings of the wealthy places and the decidedly modest surroundings, for example, of Laura's apartment, a subliminal message reminding us about the existence of these two "worlds" and that this girl crossed the threshold from one side to the other, with interesting consequences.

 

 

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

 

The portrayal of the Lydecker character immediately makes us wonder, right away, what exactly was the relationship between Laura and this eccentric person, and one might assume any number of things: that he was obsessed with her, as this object of beauty, without coveting her sexually (an implication about the dubious nature of his own orientation); or maybe that he was a stupid older man who had been used by this beautiful young woman who was getting an entrée into high society. There seems to be no doubt, at any rate, that Lydecker will be a very important character in this story

 

 

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

 

The narration by a central character during an opening scene is very much associated with film noir style; also, the high class setting of the scene signals a story that is not going to be played out in tenements, alleyways or cheap motels-- something of a pleasant departure, at least visually, from the usual story, and represents a forward evolution in film noir, from predictable social settings, to more elaborate ones.

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


 


Examples to me are the amazing apartment and his belongings. He even at one point is like, "Don't touch that!"


 


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


 


 I also consider him gay. His love for Laura doesn't seem to be "romantic." in any way. He just loved his artifacts. 


 


 


In what ways can the opening of Laura be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style? Clocks ticking.  There's also some interesting camera angles, as well as the narration. 

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What was certainly striking about Waldo Lydecker is the quick transition from hearing him narrate the scene, to appearing on screen in the bathtub! Certainly an eccentric character to welcome a detective into his home that way.

 

The museum-like setting with expensive trinkets could assume a materialistic and possessive person - could he also feel the same way about Laura? The beautiful younger woman may be just that, another trophy for him, rather than someone he loved or cared for.

 

The high-class setting of this opening scene is a contrast compared to the dark alleyways and cheap motels of other noirs. It shows that dark seedy characters can appear in any walk of life, that darkness can hit you at any level or social status.

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