Film Noirs and Cinematic Scars: Laura

rThis being the first in a month-long film noir review series. 

A basic description of Otto Preminger’s Laura gives the impression of a typical film noir:  a woman is murdered and a detective tries to figure out who did it. Technically that’s an apt description, but it misses the forest for the trees. When one thinks of film noir, one imagines dark, hard-edged characters, masculine cynics who deal in obsession, and a film with a suitably single-minded focus, a film suffocating on pure mortal fear and sin. This is not Laura. Where we expect focus, we find malaise. Where we expect single-mindedness, we have a lackadaisical atmosphere. Where we expect desperation, we get pomp and circumstance. And where we expect something ruthlessly efficient, we find something that quietly sneaks up on you, is generally amused with itself, and befuddles at every turn.

Take for example the central detective’s introduction, a scene where he meets with famous newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). Lydecker is, of all things, in a bathtub writing a column while cleansing himself. While speaking to the detective, he clearly moves the typewriter as if to allow the detective to see him naked, and then stands up as he asks the detective for his bath-robe. One would prod at a homosexual subtext, but the film makes no hint of this elsewhere – the film, in fact, is very much about the power relationships of men who obsess over women. Instead, the snarky, aloof scene openly mocks the detective by introducing him to a chief suspect in a compromising manner, with the suspect is rather clearly enjoying himself at the expense of the detective.

In this scene, the suspect,  not the detective, has all the power. When we expect a femme fatale to use her body to distract and do damage, we have an elderly, frail man in her place. As the film progresses, the detective grows to obsess over the dead woman, just as the two men he suspects, Lydecker and Laura’s ex-fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), had obsessed over her in her own life. As Roger Ebert notes, it is perhaps because of this that the identity of the murderer doesn’t really matter. We do get one at the end of the film, but everything leading up to it is more concerned with the three men who loved her, in life and, for the detective, in death. If anything, the identity is tossed-off in a sort of cheery reflection on how little the “culprit” really matters in noir, even when searching for their identity may be the stated goal of the film.

Obsession over the dead female body is obviously a dark theme filled with moral quandaries as cavernous as they come, but a dreary reading of obsession isn’t truly this film’s game. It wouldn’t know a universal void filled with ethical tension if it smacked it in the face, let alone a cavern. In fact, befitting the introduction of the film’s detective, who might as well be referred to as simply “detective” for how the film treats him, the character himself becomes somewhat inconsequential. He tries to solve the mystery, but every-time he seems on the verge of something, he backs off (as Roger Ebert so wonderfully notices). He suspects men and has reason to suspect them, but even when they all-but ask him to question them, he responds with a tossed-off “later”. Soon enough he has one suspect tagging along for fun (again, in a wonderful through-line followed by Ebert). One could say he’s secretly courting him, befitting the homoerotic interpretation, but the film doesn’t follow through – the detective is rather resolutely bored throughout the whole affair, and displays not the least bit of interest in the suspects. He’s only really interested in the female body, now dead. He wishes perhaps it could have been he who loved her enough to kill her.

Later on there’s a dream sequence that begins with a brilliantly wry visual commentary. We see the detective in Laura’s apartment investigating.  He then sits down and the camera pans in to his face as he falls asleep, cuts to the picture of Laura in her apartment he’s assumedly obsessing over, and then droopily pans back out. We’ve seen this done hundreds of times in film, the pan in reflecting a move in to his internal world, and we know to expect something to be different – we expect a dream or a nightmare –  when the camera pans back out. And when it does we get … the same image with nothing changed. Then a cut, and only then does something happen of interest, and something which turns out not to be a dream anyway.

Throughout, the film seems lazy, tossed off, and careless. However, this isn’t to say it tries to do something and does it with little effort. Instead, I think, it tries to be lazy with great skill. The film feels lackadaisical, as twists happen with little interest from the characters – the two men who loved her don’t display much interest in her death throughout the film. They do seem interested, however, in the detective, and engaging in boring conversations with him for their own interest. This makes the film come off rather sickly, but there’s too much else going on for this to seem the mark of poor filmmaking. For instance, we have a narration by Lydecker, as we have in many film noirs, but when we expect something stoic and rigidly focused, we get his wry observations on obsession that should sound impassioned but which sound more amusing than anything else.

Later, we have the backstory of the two obsessed men, when one resorts to “get” the other man for loving the woman he too loves, no doubt the same plan as many movie characters trapped in a love triangle whose lines are more barbed-wire than straight.  We expect him to aim for the throat with murderous intent. But instead the film cuts, on Lydecker’s declaration of revenge, to him ecstatically, cartoonishly typing away while in his bath again. It’s the only moment in the first 80 minutes of the film, right up until the final few moments, where someone does something with passion, and the fact that it is a man typing away in a bathtub is a thing of wry beauty.

Elsewhere, the performances are anything but hard-boiled, except of course the boring detective who seems to barely appear in the film. The film seems keen to toss him aside, and in his place we have Webb and Price conveying a sort of unnatural theatricality rooted firmly in irony and even smarmy kitsch. All of this adds up to something in-explainable – perhaps a reading of noir past itself that exposes its very theatrical fakery, perhaps a reflection on how noir detectives really couldn’t care less about justice as long as they get the power they want, or perhaps just a bit of pop-anarchism looking to have fun with itself. It may also be a cheap throwaway, but it’s undeniably effective at something, even if it’s not sure what. It has the feel of a hazy, dream-like impression of a noir from an over-eager viewer who fell asleep at the movies, with the detective leftover from the film trying to burst his way into the dream and failing miserably. It plays something like Robert Altman’s later classic revisionist noir, The Long Goodbye, where the detective is bored and even incompetent and couldn’t care about anything but cat-food. But while that film seethes with passion and mocking superiority in its commentary on the noir type, this film goes one step further. It, like its characters, does something wholly unique in the film world.: it spends 90 minutes strolling around lightly amused at its own boredom.

Score: I can’t even…

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