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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Laura is, by far, one of the greatest mystery movies ever made (and, coincidentally, a favorite of mine).

 

I love how the audience gets to know Lydecker immediately via his VO and seeing the opulence of his place. We immediately learn how narcissistic and arrogant he is. We see his determination to be the smartest person in the room at all times through these two elements and his conversation with McPherson. He wants to rattle the detective by inviting him in as he takes a bath, having his statement prepared before it's requested, getting dressed as though it it's no big deal that the detective is present.

 

I love the detective's response too. Dana Andrews is the quintessential Noir detective. He's unphased, unimpressed, and unable to be distracted from his purpose in being at Lydecker's. Perfection!

 

There is an ominous feeling immediately. The ticking clock always gets me. I'm noticing that Noir films need little exposition. They'd rather jump to inviting incident and get the story going. It works rather well by engaging the audience immediately. This film does the same. Who is Laura? Why was she murdered? What is her relationship to Lydecker? Why is he so matter-of-fact in the telling of her death?

 

Absolutely brilliant film!

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The tone of the film is set immediately with the opening line "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died". You're immediately hooked in, as you find out the film's title character is dead, and seconds later you find out she was murdered. Waldo Lydecker comes across as an interesting character to say the least. The fact that he's sitting in his tub secretly watching Detective McPherson's every move is unlike anything usually seen in film noir. I think Preminger is trying to quickly establish Lydecker as an odd man whose actions are unpredictable. McPherson, however, is unfazed by all of it, immediately letting Lydecker know of his suspicion. The beginning voiceover detailing what the crime of the film is became a film noir staple, being used in my favorite of all films noir, Double Indemnity. I saw this movie once, a long time ago and I can't wait to rematch it!

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I'm a fiction writer, and I was troubled by what I'd call a break in point of view.

 

The movie begins with the voiceover of Lydecker, which would imply that we're with his consciousness and therefore have access to what he knows.  But then the point of view breaks, and we're in a more traditional dramatic mode of cinema, without a voiceover.  

 

It seems to me that, in much of film noir, the voiceover belongs to the detective figure, the one who shares the same information as the viewer, and is finding things out at the same time as the viewer.  

 

Since I suspect that Lydecker knows much more about the murder of Laura than he's letting on, I wondered why we began with him rather than with the detective.  Was it just easier to establish the story with that voice?

 

I saw this movie once many years ago, and I don't remember much of the plot.

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We see many artifacts and objets d'art before we ever see Lydecker, and we suspect that they are in their own way just as representative of him, and that he's happy to have that be one's first introduction to him.  Each object has an implicit story that goes along with it, and we get the idea that Lydecker collects stories as much as he collects art.  Lydecker seems to like to observe people, and to keep them off balance, two pursuits which each make the other more enjoyable.  He presents himself as unconcerned with facts, which puts him at a stark contrast with the detective he's interacting with, and also shades everything he has said and will say for the rest of the movie as unreliable, necessitating that we keep in mind that he is controlling the narrative throughout.

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I think Nino Frank's assertion in large parts rests on one Lydecker and his profession. He is paid to remember what he sees and that includes furnishing and faces.  Also, McPherson falls into that as he goes deeper and deeper into love with Laura. This includes his fascination with her portrait.

 

I like how Preminger introduces Lydecker as the quiet spectator quietly taking notes on McPherson. Old habits die hard.

 

Laura uses the femme fatale in Laura, the hard boiled detective in McPherson.  There is also suggestive lighting and shadows which comes into effect even more.

 

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I'm a fiction writer, and I was troubled by what I'd call a break in point of view.

 

The movie begins with the voiceover of Lydecker, which would imply that we're with his consciousness and therefore have access to what he knows.  But then the point of view breaks, and we're in a more traditional dramatic mode of cinema, without a voiceover.  

 

It seems to me that, in much of film noir, the voiceover belongs to the detective figure, the one who shares the same information as the viewer, and is finding things out at the same time as the viewer.  

 

Since I suspect that Lydecker knows much more about the murder of Laura than he's letting on, I wondered why we began with him rather than with the detective.  Was it just easier to establish the story with that voice?

 

I saw this movie once many years ago, and I don't remember much of the plot.

I think the reason we begin with Lydecker providing the voiceover is because he is the controlling figure in this movie, and so he wants the viewer to believe his version of events. He even pulls out a written transcript of what he told the police detectives. The tone of the opening voiceover is also melodramatic, "I, Walter Lydecker, was the only one who knew her." It's the stuff of the written word, not someone speaking from the heart (as well as once again showing his arrogance and need to be the alpha in every situation).

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Daily Dose #5 - Laura (1944

 

dir: Otto Preminger

writers: Vera Caspary (novel)

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

All I can say is wow! I love the bath connection to Murat! As someone with a degree in History I wish I would have thought of that!  I have to repost this!  All four poinst are excellent! Good job!

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Reminds me a lot of Marlowe going into Gen Sternwoods house. Except in this,we have a suspicious detective going to follow through on a George Saunders type (ala: All About Eve). The first big hint to the audience is when he looks at the clock,obviously that will be key later on. The reason for the grandiose enviroment in film,is too make the protagonist look smaller,overmatched,

outwitted,and mentally inferior as if to say...."This person has money,power,influence,intelligence and authority over me." How will our gumshoe ever break this caper? Tune in next week for another installment,as Lt.Columbo takes on his most challenging adversary yet in.."The Golden Tortoise and The Garden of Eve"

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I love how the opening dialogue is supposed to be all about Laura and the weather when she died. The camera's pan over his lavish apartment is telling us more about Waldo than Laura. The camera's pan almost overshadows what we just heard but the words hand in the museum-like space. "I'll never forget the weekend Laura died."  We are being pulled into Lydecker's world and not really Laura's. It is obvious from his tone of voice that he feels superior to others. He even remarks that his misinformation is a better 'read' than the facts in a case where McPherson was shot. Lydecker comes off as narcissistic and McPhearson plays out his role as a man who has seen the uglier side of life and might even resent Lydekcer. And because we don't really know Laura except that Lydecker claims to have known her best, we wonder if she is like him...conceited...snobbish and elitist. Did that get her killed? McPherson comes off as a tired detective, practically mumbling his words and this plays in contrast to the pointed, sharp, barbed remarks coming from Lydecker. And although it's a great contrast, they seem to share the same detachment from the common man but come from two different directions.

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"It was the weekend Laura died"

We know Lydecker loves Laura-

her dead is the reference point of his life - (BL and AL - before and after Laura)

I read the comments about the homosexuality of Lydecker- he never appeared to me so much as gay, than as transexual - a men in the body of a woman - he projects himself in Laura, and his love for her is a reflection of his narcissistic self-absorption.

I think back in the 40s there was not a deep understanding of LGTB orientation for writers to see the difference. 

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From this weeks' lecture" How would we go about defining the term 'film noir.' For our purposes, we are looking at a body of films made in the 1940s and 1950s. There is no general agreement as to what are the common elements that define these films because it depends on whether you consider film noir a genre, a style or a movement or cycle of films"

It's interesting that we start with Laura- I often wondered if Laura is an authentic "Film noir" - for starters- the opening- the weekend of Laura's murder - shows a beautiful apartment, with plenty of sunshine. The windows to the balcony are open, we and the outside world are invited to join in- the usual claustrophobic feeling of film noir is absent.  The film is no doubt atmospheric - but were it not for the murder, the nostalgic and mysterious music in the opening reminds me of the romance in the Portrait of Jennie, rather than of Phillip Marlow's underworld.

It was shot in 1946 - it is part of a cycle of noir films - the dark, ironic humor, the vulnerability of the detective  - he falls in love with Laura, for example, makes him a flaw hero. But he is a romantic with a good heart - ultimately his straightforward logic and ingenuity leads to a smooth success. Yet, Laura IS quintessential film noir - a reason I am taking the course is to understand what in it makes be recognize it as such....

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First, I love the title of this topic..."Soaking in Noir"!  Clever.  It appears at first that Lydecker has the omniscience of a god as he observes McPherson's every move unawares.  This registers as an upper hand and power over the unsuspecting but then we discover Lydecker in the bath tub, a position of vulnerability, as if to say, things are not always what they seem which we eventually find out runs through the course of the movie.  By today's standards, the ascetic culture maven and intellectual (Lydecker) is a stereotype that generally assumes the position of the "bad guy".  Was this not the same in the 1940s?  If so, then his role in nefarious doings should have been telegraphed to the audience well before the film's conclusion.  I agree with other posters who have said that Lydecker, from his lofty perch above mere mortals, objectifies people, some, prized possessions (Laura) while others more easily discarded.  This falls in place within the noir ethos of an impersonal and uncaring world. 

I feel as if Lydecker imagines himself so powerful that he doesn't have to conform to any of the social niceties, even going full frontal in front of another man as if showing he has nothing to hide (and feels top dog even in the physical arena). McPherson's smirk instantly brings Lydecker back to earth in the viewer's eyes and is a brilliant touch.

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I like the opening in the regard that everything matters in film noir.  The smallest detail can tie back to the crime, many times you can rewatch a film and each and every time you pick up a detail that missed earlier.  The sense of us not knowing what Laura looks like and then the conversation about the clock.  Remember that a stopped clock is always right twice a day, it just depends on the time of day - so thus, the face presented to us about Laura is that there be more to her than what we will see - that there are layers to her and we don't know all the faces she has but she will "furnish" herself with clothes, manners and other things that reflect all of her faces.

 

It was also interesting in the fact that it opens up with a narration of a man who observes and writes for a living and talks about being misquoted.  Yet, he is in a bathtub - he is "exposing"  himself to a complete stranger - but he has nothing to hide or does he?  We will soon find out.  Is he worried about appearances (all the nice items behind glass - to be seen but not touched) or does he care nothing about appearances - we will find out.

 

Finally, our detective isn't your run of the mill detective - he's noted for doing the extraordinary - so he may be set up as a red herring for what will unfold in the picture.

 

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We have the insufferable, rich and condescending columnist.  We have the hardboiled, cynical and heroic detective.  We have a murder.  You have to love the first four minutes of this film. 

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The opening of the film is black, darkness (death?) with only Lydecker's voice "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died".  At that point the camera fades open into an opening shot of a statue of a Bodisathva, or perhaps a Hindu deity, in any event signifying Eastern mysticism (reincarnation).  Lydecker continues "a silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass" indicating that a closer inspection is in order.  The camera pans to a clock (passage of time will be a central motif) then to a silent McPherson studying masks (deception), who moves then to the clock where he checks the time on his own watch against it.  A bit of irony concludes the scene when Lydecker comments "I never bother with details you know" when up to this point the details are what is significant.  So up to this point the film is certainly a character study of furnishings.

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Where's Waldo? In the tub writing Laura's story. Seems strange that he remains there knowing a detective is waiting to speak to him. Is this his way of revealing he knows he is in "hot water" over Laura's murder? Or is he just playing it cool like he has nothing to hide? What a peculiar character. I'm anxious to watch this movie.

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The opening scene introduces us to Waldo Lydecker and Detective McPherson. Waldo is an observer and likes to do it on the sly. He is an erudite fellow collecting lovely objects that he is a bit possesive about. Especially when his stuff is messed with. McPherson is also an observant guy. He doesn't waste time waiting and gives the apartment the once over. When done, I notice he brings Waldo out by touching one of his things in the glass case.I can't help thinking his action was purposeful. One point for him! Did he know Waldo was watching him? Then the two are face to face and are sizing each other up. Waldo gets more interested when he realizes this detective was involved in a case he's familiar with. Their patter and actions reveal just enough to peak our interest in what is really happening and to want to know how the story will progress. There is something going on beneath the surface and it isn't good.

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What I loved about this scene is that you have this detective who completely unaware that he is being watched by this somewhat slightly unbalance rich man who knows all about him.  Both knows more about the other then they pretend to. They are sizing each other up.  The old guy clearly wants to see what the detective reaction will be by asking him to not only hand him a wash towel but to hand him his robe.  The detective does both without giving it a second thought.  He only reacts when the old man mentions his bad leg which is his sore spot so to speak.  

 

This film starts out providing the viewer with all the elements of the backstory of what is to come. We know there was a murder, we know who the victim is.  What we don't know is why she was murder or what she looks like.  we need to see a face.  That is a classic style of of noir...a faceless victim must emerge from the darkness or shadows...or the viewer must be taken on a journey of discovery. that's how this film contributes to that.

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I found this interesting article at "The Great Villain Blogathon" that enhances my antidote concerning the underlining "gay" subtext about Waldo Lydecker's characterization played by openly gay actor Clifton Webb: 


"It’s impossible to discuss the character of Lydecker without speculating about his sexuality. Producer/director Otto Preminger pushed for the casting of Webb. Studio head Daryl Zanuck objected. The fact that Webb was known to be gay within the industry (though not the general public) was likely one reason. (Another may have been that Webb, who was already well into his 50s, had not done a film since the silent era.) Zanuck pushed for Laird Cregar as Lydecker. Preminger feared he was so well known as a baddie, the audience would suspect him as the villain right away.


(I unearthed a sad bit a trivia in my research for this article. Cregar died of a heart attack, possibly brought on by a crash diet he was on while preparing to play the Lydecker role.)


Preminger ultimately prevailed. He also prevailed in taking over as director, which Zanuck did not want.


According to Vito Russo in his book The Celluloid Closet, the original script made Lydecker explicitly gay. These references were eventually removed. It was not at all unusual for gay characters to appear in pulp fiction and film noir of the era. Because of the Hayes Code, references to sexuality in movies had to be circumspect. In The Maltese Falcon, there’s no doubt that Cairo and Wilmer are gay. In noir gay men (and sometimes women) were almost always cast as villains. Gay men were usually portrayed as women-haters, which is not quite the case with Lydecker. (He’s more misanthrope than misogynist.) They were also rarely the main villain–more likely they were minions of the main antagonist. Lydecker as a gay main character may have been a first for a Hollywood movie.


Reading the character as gay is plausible. It’s important to remember, however, that we read him that way because he fits certain stereotypes about gay men. Roger Ebert declared that the triangle of Laura, McPherson and Waldo only makes sense if Laura is a boy. I disagree. The love Waldo has for Laura is obsessive, and sometimes obsessive love doesn’t have a rhyme or a reason. While his sexuality is ambiguous, his obsession with her is not. Even if they had been explicit about his sexuality, Waldo is explicit about his love/obsession for Laura. He tells her that not having her has made him bitter and calls her “my love” as he is dying.


laurawaldo1.png?w=720“In my case, self-absorption is completely justified.”

Both the subtext and text make it clear that he is not interested in her sexually. So it’s plausible to read the character as asexual. He could be a latent homosexual (perhaps his anger at Laura’s interest in other men is that he feared losing her as a beard). Or even a heterosexual older man who is impotent or fearful he cannot match up to the masculinity of the younger men in her life. Or, as my mother commented while she watched the movie with me just before I started writing this article: “He’s a prig! A prude!”


I think the ambiguity is one of the reasons Lydecker remains to this day such a beguiling character. The obsession with Laura doesn’t fit with the other stereotypical gay aspects to his character. Which makes him a far more layered and complex character than he might have been if everything had been spelled out for the audience.


As McPherson’s shadow, he represents repressed aspects of his personality. Does that mean the story is saying McPherson has repressed homosexual tendencies? Perhaps. It’s not unusual in stories for there to be an intentional homoerotic vibe between men who are in love with the same woman. Nor is it unheard of for male characters in pulp fiction to fight against homosexual desires (i.e. James M. Cain’s novel Serenade). Some reviewers make much of the first scene where McPherson interviews Lydecker while he sits in the bathtub with his typewriter. Then he stands up and asks him to hand him a robe. McPherson coolly hands him the robe and smirks slightly.


waldo21.png?w=720“Sentiment comes easily at 50 cents a word.”

(It’s interesting to note that in a television remake of the movie, the scene is shot quite differently. Robert Stack, who plays McPherson, tosses the robe without looking at Lydecker and almost bolts out of the room. George Saunders–who was once in the running for the movie role–plays Lydecker.)


Later, Waldo recounts his history with Laura at their favorite restaurant. It’s almost like he’s taking McPherson on a date. What emerges from his tale is how he shaped Laura from an ambitious rube to an elegant and successful career woman. Waldo’s most telling line: “She became as well-known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation.” To Waldo, Laura was an accessory, an essential part of his persona. She was not an individual, living, sexual person.


This is a clue to both Lydecker’s and McPherson’s personalities. McPherson is a man who is just as afraid of dealing with women as human beings as Lydecker. He comments to Lydecker that “a dame got a fox fur” out of him once. He also claims he only knew one woman who wasn’t a dame, but ended it with her because she kept taking him to look at furniture. The implication, of course, is that he fears marriage.


markpainting.png?w=720“You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward.”

The fact that he falls in love with Laura when he thinks she’s dead–well, there’s just no way around it. It’s creepy. Like Waldo, he seems to want to love only an idealized, untouchable, unattainable woman.


One of the most beautiful things about Lydecker is how he has McPherson’s number almost from the get-go. He catches on to McPherson’s growing obsession with Laura. He relishes tormenting him with the knowledge. A typical aspect of a shadow character is how they can pick up on truths about the hero that others can’t. Lydecker understands McPherson’s captivation with this woman even though he doesn’t know her. Though he declares in the opening monologue that he was the only one who knew her, neither man bothers to know her at all.


Noir often deals with male anxiety over female power and sexuality. Laura Hunt may be the nicest femme fatale to appear in a noir, but she’s still a femme fatale. She seems to know it. She blames herself for the suspicions the police have about her fiancé Shelby and for the death of Diane Redfern. (The true murder victim.) She is not a man-eater, though by her own admission she used Waldo to help advance her career.


She’s also amazingly stupid when it comes to men. (One of the best non-Waldo lines in the movie is when McPherson comments that she has surrounded herself with a remarkable collection of dopes.) Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen Shelby as a lazy user and horn dog from a mile away. (It’s amusing that Laura’s aunt’s maid sees it when Laura doesn’t.) In spite of his success with women, Shelby is a foil both for Lydecker and McPherson. He represents another less-than-ideal portrait of masculinity. He is weak and willing to let women take care of him.


laurawaldoshelby.png?w=720“If you don’t come with me this instant, I shall run amok.”

While Laura may not be a man-eater, she is strong-willed. She ignores McPherson’s instructions to not talk to or see anybody after her “resurrection.” Her explanation: “You forced me to give you my word. I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will.” The idea of a woman with a free will is terrifying to both McPherson and Lydecker.


There’s a lot of complaining in reviews about some of the plot holes in the movie (yadda-yadda-yadda–I’ve yet to see a film noir with a plot that holds up to scrutiny). One of the big objections is how McPherson, after finding the murder weapon in the clock, puts it back and leaves Laura alone before Waldo has been arrested. Might there be a subconscious reason for it? In spite of the assumption that McPherson and Laura are heading for a happy ending, the brevity of their relationship and McPherson’s issues with women make it seem unlikely.


It’s also telling, I think, that it’s not McPherson who kills Waldo, but another cop. In most stories, the hero vanquishing their shadow is symbolic of the hero overcoming the dark and negative aspects of their personality that they shared with their shadow figure.


laurawaldo2.png?w=720“Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.”

Waldo himself might disagree with that analysis, and declare: “Let’s not be psychiatric.” But I think there’s something to that. This is still a noir. Endings in noir always have some disturbing elements.


Zanuck did not care for the ending and insisted on a new one with the reveal that Lydecker had imagined the whole thing.


How’s this for irony? Columnist Walter Winchell, who was one of the people invited to screen that cut of the film (AND quite likely one of the inspirations for the Lydecker character) insisted to Zanuck that he had to change the ending.


Zanuck complied. Laura went on to great success. Lydecker became one of noir’s iconic villains, cementing Webb’s place in Hollywood history as one of the great character actors of his time.


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I love that Waldo Lydecker loathes being misquoted, but liberally rewrites the words/histories of others at whim--just as he does with Laura, and the whole tale we're about to see unfold before us. 

 

In this scene we already have two charming characters, the supercilious yet amusing Waldo Lydecker and the anything but ordinary gumshoe McPherson. The former may be villainous--and is certainly a coded character, and therefore suspect--but interestingly so. The latter we know is a heroic type (thanks to Lydecker's exposition), but not without humor himself, and a certain sangfroid in the face of Lydecker's colorful ways. Already we know this is no simple story populated by simple types.

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This is the first clip I've seen of "Laura" and can't wait to see this film.  The viewer is drawn in by the objects of the room on the wall, the clock, as is the detective not knowing he is in Waldo's view the entire time through the open door by the voice over creating a sense of sophistication and mystery.  It opens the question of who is Waldo?  He is a man who may obsess over possessions, artifacts, and detail.  The feel of the room is avante-garde with a chiaroscuro atmosphere.  One could get the feeling of a man who is isolated, futile, and possibly anxious, and over obsesses with writing down details in the bathtub scene.  These are existential common themes in crime film noir.  We know he is a writer, and a key suspect in the murder of "Laura".  We get to know that Mark McPherson is a no nonsense hard-boiled detective, responding with a sense of ironic wit to Waldo's eccentric behavior in the bathtub scene. Waldo's need to be in control at all times stemming from guilt or insecurity? 

 

This film has all the aspects of mystery, criminal psychology, existential theme, character complexity, and visual detail.

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This film is an example of film noir because it shows an emptiness. Even though the pan shows this apartment contains many "things", it's clear that something is missing. Through the voice over, we find out what's missing is Laura.

 

Lydecker's smarmy judging of Andrews shows that his superiority is flimsy at best. By saying he's often misquoted, the implication is that his words are important enough to be quoted in the first place.

 

With Lydecker pointing out our hero's injury, he's trying to again point out his superiority as well as his hold on the "facts" I.e. what's is printed in the paper.

 

By referencing the piece Lydecker wrote which has a double focus, we can see that he also thrives on drama. And loves pushing buttons - those of the public and the detective.

 

The fact that the detective is chided for touching something "priceless" shows us our detective is supposedly not worthy of touching the object. This would, in Lydeckers's opinion, make him lesser - flawed. We all know one of the best things about noir is it highlights that we are all flawed. Even those with morals supposedly in tact.

 

As far as the bathtub, yes it's true that's he's making the detective do his bidding. But just as interesting to me is the fact that there's a typewriter in his bathtub! This is a man who thinks his words are so important they must be documented immediately. It reminds me of the story of the mathematician's Eureka moment - which allegedly happened in a bathtub. If Lydecker ever had such a moment, at least he'd have the typewriter there to document it.

 

I also like the playing between the typewriter and the notebook. The detective finishes the thought by looking at his compact notebook - showing that the "facts" are far easier to document without using so many words (unlike how I've done here).

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I beginning of Laura is fabulous. It's what made me love old movies when I was young, back in the days when old movies were on TV all the time.  The music from Laura is also the best. You can get lost in a movie like this and forget where you are.......you are in the movie....... I love everything about this film!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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