Whirlpool (1949)

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Despite being ludicrously absurd, it’s impossible not to get whisked away by the swirling cauldron of psychological drama found in Whirlpool. Otto Preminger adds yet another perplexing noir to his filmography and it seems reasonable that Whirlpool along with The Fallen Angel (1945) and Angel Face (1953) deserve more recognition though, it’s true his debut, Laura (1944) will forever be the benchmark.

But these three films share such fascinating themes beyond beautiful photography and quality staging. They find roots in some odd bits of quack chicanery like fortune tellers and astrologers while interesting themselves in psychologically unstable women and male confidence men who like nothing more than taking advantage of others.

Whereas Laura (1944) works exquisitely because the title character casts a spell on everyone else, Whirlpool functions in part because our protagonist falls under another man’s spell. But it takes something else, something in her past that he can prey on and exploit.

You see, in the opening moments of the film we find out something about Gene Tierney’s character. She’s a kleptomaniac which in itself is a fairly startling albeit intriguing revelation. And we don’t see it occur just the aftermath that follows. But here is a dilemma already. Her husband (Richard Conte) is a renowned psychoanalyst. How would it look if his wife was found shoplifting from a reputable establishment? The house detective catches her. The manager is looking to bring in the police. The wheels of justice are turning and scandal looks all but inevitable.

Then, in walks David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) a man with a certain magnetism that still makes him a tad unsettling. In fact, it’s pretty easy to assume he has ulterior motives. Because he so easily smooths things out for Mrs. Sutton so she is, to a certain extent, indebted to him. Something like that can quickly turn into a splendid opportunity for blackmail. Except the check comes and he rips it up so from thenceforward it’s a little more difficult to discern his intentions and it proves to be a wonderfully enigmatic performance from Ferrer start to finish.

It’s true. He is a charlatan. He’s preoccupied with astrology and then hypnotism which he uses on his new “patient” supposedly for her own good. But he’s had other women who have called on his services before. In fact, one of them has now sought help from Mrs. Sutton’s husband. Because Korvo had made her life miserable coaxing her to withdraw her daughter’s inheritance and leeching her happiness. Soon Theresa Randolph is found dead with Ann at the scene of the crime — the prime suspect.

By this time, you almost forget that Charles Bickford is in the film because the bewitched Tierney and stolid-faced Ferrer steal the show. But it is Lt. Colton (Bickford) who must get to the bottom of this whole twisted affair. He and Dr. Sutton are quick to write off the poor woman with a closeted kleptomania hidden under the cloak of a respectable suburban housewife. However, after hitting the beat, they know it stinks to high heaven but there’s no proof.

What can be said of Ben Hecht’s script is the very fact that it relies on unbelievable occurrences in both its beginning and ending. But in this very reality, there’s a certain continuity where the psychologically dubious extrapolations become the new normal. That in itself is unsettling.

It’s notable that when he has multiple figures Preminger never seems content to be stagnant, instead constantly utilizing close-ups and see-sawing camera movements that readily change the dynamics of scenes. The climactic moments proving a prime example.

The power struggle dictates itself in other ways too, namely in the physical staging of characters. Ferrer hanging over Tierney as he begins to hypnotize her. Bickford questioning Ferrer who himself looks so vulnerable lying in his hospital bed. But even that composition in itself is at times a put on as we soon find out. However, it’s phenomenal that the very projections up on the screen are indicative of what is going on with the film’s main point of conflict. This quality we can safely assume can be attributed to Preminger himself. He has an intuitive understanding of cinematic space and how to utilize it to his greatest advantage.

3.5/5 Stars

Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Josef Von Sternberg always seemed preoccupied with telling stories involving places that he indubitably knew little about but therein lies the allure. He could develop the Moroccos, the Shanghais, the Macaos into places imbued with far more meaning than they probably ever could have in real life.

Because he is hardly working in reality but with the inventions of his own mind and he was a master when it came to setting the scene and texturing atmospherics. He was a world maker and one of the finest craftsmen in Hollywood exoticism.

The opening prologue juxtaposes the seedy underworld that we are about to witness to the last remnants of the Tower of Babel where Man coalesced in his indiscretions before being scattered over the ends of the earth. It proves to be a rather odd analogy as the film revolves around a velodrome of gambling — a pit of worldly devices that the camera slowly descends on.

Visually it’s the inverse of babel as our eye is led to sink into this world of Mother Gin Sling’s establishment, joining the ranks of Rick’s Cafe, the Cantina, and countless others in the pantheon of dubious melting pots of humanity captured on the screen.

We meet a fair many of the individuals who play a small part in her operation including Dr. Omar (Victor Mature) and Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney), a young provocative beauty looking for a good time and a glimpse of the notorious proprietor.  Then our friendly neighborhood dragon lady (Ona Munson) makes an appearance and things are in full swing.

The kind Doctor easily distracted by an attractive young woman, lets himself get wrapped up with Poppy while still sharing drinks with Ms. Dixie Pomeroy. But this is only a minor spat.

The main problem is Mother Gin Sling’s who has been ordered to relinquish her property and move her establishment to the Chinese sector which is far less profitable. But being the conniving magnate that she is, she’s not about to go down without a fight before the New Year.

She will host a little dinner party inviting many prominent guests including Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). All of this feels fairly straightforward and mundane though there is an obvious sense that dark secrets are being veiled in shadows to be revealed at the most advantageous moment.

Though it never truly grips us with a substantial climax, the film’s laurels rest mostly on its setting and the breadth of its character reservoir. It always makes me sad to see Marcel Dalio relegated to a roulette man following the work he commanded in the films of Jean Renoir. Meanwhile, Eric Blore always delights me even in his smallest, most insignificant appearances. In this picture, he plays the Bookkeeper. There’s not much to be said about his cruciality to the plot but he’s delightful all the same.

The feisty Phyllis Brooks delivers an acerbic and spirited performance as the chorus girl that comes with a lot of panache even if it feels so at odds with the world she has fallen into. Perhaps that’s the point.

But rather remarkably her screen presence is only surpassed by Gene Tierney in a seemingly uncharacteristic role — though I admit that the assertion is made with a certain degree of foresight glancing over the extent of her career.

In Laura (1944),  Tierney played a character who was a femme fatale without ever trying to be — men simply got drawn under her spell but in Shanghai Gesture, there’s a markedly different glint in her eye. It’s probably the same glint that would make her so deliciously evil in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). But no matter, she’s a conceited and ungrateful woman with a compulsive nature for the roulette wheel. Thus, her main companion is not Dr. Omar but gambler’s fallacy.

While there are some enjoyable performances, the aforementioned providing perfect specimens, the holes or inadequacies of the cast in certain areas is also an obvious weak point. Yellowface and other types of whitewashing are not just a matter of bad taste they simply take the world of the film and make it feel a little bit hokey when you think of the alternatives.

It really is a shame that at the very least Anna May Wong couldn’t have donned the role of Mother Gin Sling, especially because she appeared prominently in Shanghai Express (1932). Some might consider this as a spiritual sequel to von Sternberg’s earlier film barring the absence of two of its finest assets, namely Marlene Dietrich and Wong.

True, once again even if she was cast, there could be another digression on perpetuating negative stereotypes but if you don’t even have a part, to begin with, that’s a whole different problem. No disrespect to Ona Munson whatsoever but she seems woefully miscast. Anna May Wong would have at least been a step in the right direction.

There’s also the issue of the Hays Code which called for a markedly different script and numerous rewrites. Much of the content changes were for its earthier more debauched aspects, but another crucial change was Dr. Omar replacing a character named Prince Oshima.

Instead of the plastic piece of eye candy Victor Mature, we could have had someone maybe a little more authentic like a Keye Luke, Philip Ahn, or Richard Loo. And I’m not being very discriminating about acting styles just the fact that these men are actually Asian (not even Japanese) and they had some prominence in Hollywood. Just not enough to wind up in a film such as this — set in Asia — though completely enveloped in Hollywood’s own distillation of reality. Not even von Sternberg could save the film in that capacity with his production values. Still, fezzes are cool. It’s an undisputed fact. But if I had to make a personal preference I would take Greenstreet in Casablanca (1942) to Victor Mature here.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 21-25

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One of the reasons film is so engaging and fascinating is the discussion that it evokes from all people. Every person, no matter their age or knowledge, can have their own subjective opinion on a film and why they liked it, or better yet why they hated it so much that they wanted to throw up.

But I’m going to cut the discussion short and put my cinematic life on the line by being completely vulnerable with some of my admittedly subjective picks for my favorite movies. Any agreement is highly encouraged. All dissenting opinions will be disregarded without a thought. Enjoy #21-#25 in this ongoing series:

21. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This first title was love at first sight. All the things I love about a great comedy. Completely lacking sophistication and full of hilarious insanity. Also, Mad…World has arguably the greatest ensemble every assembled for one film. Everyone shows up for the party and it’s wonderful. Jonathan Winters was my favorite discovery from this film because he truly was a comic gem of a man.

22. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Jack Lemmon will always and forever be one of my favorite actors. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my Grandpa because my Grandpa is a funny man. But that’s neither here nor there. Some Like it Hot stems from the genius of Billy Wilder, always ready with a funny storyline (two cross-dressing musicians fleeing Chicago gangsters) and a rapier wit. Of course, there’s Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe too, and the Hotel Del Coronado makes a memorable appearance filling in for Florida. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy!

23. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Now this one might seem kind of random. But I quickly fell in love with the fateful whimsy of Jacques Demy. His love of American musicals is evident with the casting of both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris, but this is also undeniably a French production starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. Michel Legrand’s music is surprisingly catchy and the fact that the film’s exposition is all given through song intrigued me from the beginning.

24. Laura

Film-Noir became a favorite genre, movement, style (whatever you want to call it) early on and Laura was one of the reasons why. I think I was smitten with Laura (Gene Tierney) much like our protagonists, and the film’s core mystery was gripping in more ways than one. David Raksin’s haunting score adds yet another layer to the drama as does Otto Preminger’s direction through the film’s interiors.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird

By now Harper Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch are almost intertwined in my mind, so much so, it becomes difficult to separate the two. And since I loved the book growing up, it’s only fitting that the film adaption would also hold a special place. Its set of sentiment and moral uprightness is hard for me to disregard, even when I’m at my most cynical. Mary Badham does a wonderful job as does Brock Peters — the perfect foils for Peck’s monumental portrayal.

Advise & Consent (1962)

Advise-&-Consent-(1)This is an Otto Preminger film about politics. That should send off fireworks because such a divisive topic is only going to get more controversial with a man such as Preminger at the helm — a man known for his various run-ins with the Production Code. All that can be said is that he didn’t disappoint this time either.

Who knew a film revolving around the seemingly simple task of passing the president’s nomination for the new Secretary of State could be so complicated and lead to such turmoil?  True, the nomination of Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) might be controversial, but there’s a lot more to it than we initially conceived.

There’s the obvious political angle on Capitol Hill involving a Subcommittee chaired by majority member Brigham Anderson from Utah (Don Murray). Meanwhile, the majority leader is working behind the scenes to gather the necessary support, since he is loyal to the president, despite his share of doubts. However, old curmudgeon Seeb  Cooley (Charles Laughton) is prepared to unleash all his fury and political wiles to stop the nomination in his tracks. Soon it seems to be working well enough.

But that ends up being hardly the half of it. There’s perjury, the aging president (Franchot Tone) is biding his time, and Brig begins to receive threatening telephone calls at home. At first, they seem wholly unsubstantiated, but it seems there really are some dirty little secrets to be drudged up on him. As one who is faithfully looking to uphold their position and do a credible job accessing Leffingwell, it looks like someone really doesn’t want him to reject the nomination. Brig doesn’t end up having time to find out.

And so the day of decision in the Senate Chamber turns out to be an eventful one, bringing old rivals together and resolving the issue of the nomination once and for all. It seems that so much legwork was done all for naught, but that’s politics for you.

Advise & Consent is a fascinating representation of the political system because it involves so many interconnected, intertwining conversations and interactions going on behind the scenes. There’s the pomp & circumstance, the traditions that go with these posts, but it’s actually all the side conversations behind closed doors, in private, where the real work seems to get done. Preminger uses extended shot length to allow his audience the luxury of watching events unfold methodically while using a fluid camera to keep them from being completely stuffy. And his laundry list of stars great and small lend a depth to Capitol Hill.

Although Henry Fonda might be the headliner the film’s focus is wonderfully distributed by the well-balanced cast of players. In fact, you can easily make the case that this is Walter Pidgeon and Don Murray’s film with the decrepit-looking Charles Laughton (who unfortunately passed away months later) falling close behind. Murray is the principled tragic family man, while Pidgeon is wonderfully cast as a veteran white knight of politics. Laughton while beleaguered, still manages a wry performance worthy of his final screen appearance.

Preminger also includes his longtime collaborator Gene Tierney in her return to the screen in a small but crucial role and Lew Ayres as the benevolent V.P. Harley Hudson. Even Peter Lawford is involved in a role supposedly inspired by his real-life brother-in-law incumbent president, John F. Kennedy. Some notable inclusions in the cast include the formerly blacklisted actors Will Geer and Burgess Meredith. One notable part that didn’t end up being cast was Martin Luther King Jr. in a cameo as a Senator from Georgia. Although it truly would have been a lightning rod of a political statement, in reality, Preminger didn’t end up needing it. His film already used words and covered topics hardly touched previously thanks to the watchful eyes of the Production Code. It didn’t need more dynamite.

While Advise & Consent may not be the greatest of political films or the most stirring, it still certainly has its share of riveting moments. Most anything from Otto Preminger is bound to be interesting and this one is no different.

4/5 Stars

4 “Good Girls” of Film Noir

I do not particularly care for the term “Good Girl,” because it feels rather condescending toward the guardian angels of film-noir. In fact, on closer research, I’m not even sure if it’s a widely accepted term. However, they are the ones in stark juxtaposition to the femme fatales, acting as the beacons of light leading their men away from the path of destruction. As such, their roles should certainly not be discounted and here are four such women from four classic film-noir.

1. Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Taking her stage name from the plucky heroine out of E.L Montgomery’s perennial classic, Anne Shirley’s Ann Grayle is the one character of high moral standing in a film clogged with all sorts of undesirables. Even our protagonists Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is cynical as all get out and Grayle’s seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor) cares more about her jewelry than her marriage.

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2.Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is an obvious example of noir that is atypically shot in color. Furthermore, Gene Tierney gives the most chilling performance of her career as Ellen Harland. However, Tierney’s turn would not be so deathly icy if it were not for Jeanne Crain’s angelic role as her sister Ruth. The polarity of the roles, Ellen’s conniving smile, crossed with her sister’s utter sincerity makes the film work far more evocatively.

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3.Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the “Guardian Angels” the late great Coleen Gray (who passed away last year) was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most precious example you could ever conjure up. Her role as the faithful Nettie, tugs at our heartstrings. Though she doesn’t have a femme fatale counterpoint, the crazed Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) more than fits the bill.

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4.Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948)

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is a film that revolves around a man (Dennis O’Keefe) incarcerated in prison with a girl (Claire Trevor) on the outside ready to help him get out any way she can. But it’s the social worker Ann, who we first gravitate towards because she is the righteous one trying earnestly to reform Joe. It is his evolving character, after all, that is at the core of this one.

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Angel Face (1953)

angelface1Rumor has it that Howard Hughes was angry at Jean Simmons who had cut her hair short prior to filming, as her contract was due to expire soon. But not to be outdone he told Otto Preminger that the director would get a bonus if he could shoot the picture before Simmons was released. That he did, and in the 20-day interim he gave us yet another stylish film-noir classic to follow in the footsteps of Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Robert Mitchum plays ambulance driver Frank Jessup who falls victim to the webs of young beauty Diane Treymayne who adores her superficial father, but nurses a lifelong grudge against her step-mother. She has it in for her arch nemesis and meanwhile strings Frank along, coaxing him to become her family’s chauffeur. He loses sight of her other side, and their budding romance means trouble for Frank’s longtime relationship with the sensible Mary. She sees a better fit in one of Frank’s ambulance coworkers, but he still wants her back.

Instead, Diane and Frank get caught up in a trial for their lives, after they are accused of a murder that Diane did indeed commit. But due to some wheeling and dealing, their shrewd attorney gets them off. It’s at this point that Angel Face takes an unsuspecting twist that ends up being intriguing. Could it be that the seductive Tremayne girl is actually remorseful for her actions? Is she a more nuanced femme fatale then would first be assumed? Frank was an unsuspecting lout, but then again maybe Diane is a sort of victim to. Her tryst with Frank is doomed and he is stuck becaangelface2use Mary no longer wants him, so of course, he can only end up going one place. The slow buildup to the finale makes these last moments all the more shocking. Angel Face seems to be less of a deadly poisoning than a slowly ticking time bomb just waiting to blow.

Jean Simmons is most often associated with civilized and demure beauties. A couple counterpoints or variations would be The Grass is Greener and this film. Playing against type proves to be as fruitful for her as it did for the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda, just to name a few. However, in a way, Angel Face had a far more complex femme fatale than I was expecting and that’s to its credit. Still, I would never want to be trapped in her nightmarish world like Frank.

4/5 Stars

The Mating Season (1951)

b3d8e-the-mating-seasonThelma Ritter was always a scene-stealer, upstaging the stars, but perhaps it is no more evident than in this comedy starring Gene Tierney, John Lund, and Miriam Hopkins. She runs a hamburger stand in New Jersey, talks plain, and works hard. Her son Val McNulty is a college graduate and a kind, gentlemanly figure who also loves his mom for who she is.

In one of the fastest meet-cutes/courtships I have ever seen on film, Val marries the lovely socialite Maggie, a woman above him in status who falls for him, because he is nothing like the stuffy upper crust she is used to dealing with.
In a classic screwball type development of mistaken identity, Ellen McNulty arrives to live with her son after her stand was closed down. But when calling on the house she is mistaken for a cook, and she willingly plays along with the mistake in order not to embarrass her son. Imagine his surprise when he sees her and yet he does not explain who she is. She tells him to play along with the little deception and Val reluctantly goes along with it.
When Maggie’s own stuffy mother (Miriam Hopkins) comes into town, she disapproves of her daughter marrying below her and nothing will make her like Val. Just think what would happen if she knew who Ellen really was?
One evening the unlikely couple goes to a party held by the Kalinger Family who run Val’s firm. There Maggie is insulted and runs out of the party in a huff. The lady she has a spat with is a prestigious person, and Val forces her to apologize. Needless to say, the marital sparks fly. However, things heat up even more when Maggie finds out by accident who Ellen really is. Now Val has a lot of explaining to do and his wife feels lied to. She is furious that he would think her too proud to welcome in his humble mother. Maggie gets ready to leave for Mexico, a destination for attaining an easier divorce.
Interestingly enough, it is an unlikely outsider in Mr. Kalinger Sr. (Larry Keating) who gets the couple back together through a shameless ploy. However, they are not the only unlikely love story, he has a budding romance of his own.
Mitchell Leisen seems to be a little-known director, but after seeing this film I was quite impressed. This movie works because of the conflict in class and the complications and laughs that come out of it. It is this type of conflict that hearkens back to the scatterbrained screwball comedies of the 1930s. Perhaps it is a little hard to believe that Lund was Ritter’s son, but they had enough chemistry to make it seem plausible. It was also hilarious to see Gene Tierney struggling in the kitchen, and Miriam Hopkins was a decent inclusion playing Maggie’s opinionated and overblown mother. Call me plebian if you want, but I know which mom I would take…
4/5 Stars

Laura and a Remarkable Collection of Dopes (2013)

 

“I shall never forget the weekend that Laura died.” Those may have been the words of respected columnist and socialite Waldo Lydecker, but in truth they could just as easily be the words of a multitude of other players in the 1944 film Laura. The fact is, Laura not only casts a spell on everyone who happens to drift into her life, but she also captivates the audience who encounter her on the silver screen. She effectively reveals all their desires, obsessions, and shortcomings. In Laura, Otto Preminger conceived a wonderfully mysterious and enchanting film that constantly revolves around the life of this young woman. He utilizes his narrative, actors, cinematography, set design, and music in order to immerse his audience in this story. Preminger would ultimately create a hallmark in the film-noir genre of 1940s and 1950s, and it was Laura that also allowed him to truly realize his skill as a director. 

In Laura the narrative is important but it is not paramount because there are some many other variables that work alongside the plot to make the film special. Realistically, this film can be split into two distinct sections since it begins in the present before flashing back and finally returning to the present once gain. Initially Lydecker is our narrator and he relates his former relationship with the deceased Laura to Lieutenant McPherson along with the audience. However, during the second half there is a shift which focuses on McPherson and his growing fascination with this woman he is investigating (emmanuellevy.com). The film takes a shocking about face when the presumed dead person suddenly turns up, all too alive and none worse for wear. However, with that suspense gone it seems only too probable that the film would lose some of its luster. After all there are numerous plot oddities that do not quite add up. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “Laura has a detective who never goes to the station; a suspect who is invited to tag along as other suspects are interrogated, a heroine who is dead for most of the film; a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual; a romantic lead who is a dull-witted Kentucky bumpkin moving in Manhattan penthouse society, and a murder weapon that is returned to its hiding place by the cop” (rogerebert.com). Ebert brings up some very concrete instances that might cause the audience to ask questions of the film. These are not the trademarks of a taut and revered classic after all, and yet it must be said that Laura works in spite of a sometimes questionable plot. French film critics Jean George Auriol and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze put it aptly when they wrote that “the fact that this is a crime plot is not important. Laura could equally well have been introduced into a film drama or a love story…The miracle is to have brought her to life” (rememberingninofrank.org). Furthermore, the magic does not simply disappear when we discover that Laura is not actually dead. It is a cumulative effect that the director Otto Preminger was able to build up for us. 

Upon closer inspection there is a deeper significance to Laura than just its plot, because although it makes a good mystery, it is not altogether great. The actual brilliance of the film derives from something else entirely. First and foremost is the actual character of Laura played by actress Gene Tierney. Interestingly enough we do not see her in the present until the latter half of the film. Our only way of understanding her comes from the stunning portrait that hangs on her wall and the wistful recollections of columnist Waldo Lydecker. We are in the same shoes as McPherson (Dana Andrews) for the first half of the movie, as we try and piece together who Laura was. With McPherson the obsession goes so far that he actually falls in love with the image of this dead woman, in what would be a striking precursor to Alfred Hithcock’s own character study in Vertigo (emannuellevy.com). In fact, Lydecker goes so far as to call McPherson’s infatuation “warped” because the columnist believes that McPherson wanted her most when he knew that she was unattainable. In many ways she became his personal fantasy. For his part, Lydecker has his own fixation with Laura and he even tells her directly, “The best part of myself – that’s what you are. Do you think I’m going to leave it to the vulgar pawing… of a second-rate detective who thinks you’re a dame?” It seems like Lydecker almost envisions Laura as his personal creation because he endorsed her pen, introduced her to prominent people, and gave her a chance to succeed. Rather like the story of Pygmalion, he has tremendous feelings for her which quickly morph into jealousy when any other man gets close to her. He failed once to blow her head off with a shot gun and tries yet again only to slump to his death saying, “Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love.” As a viewer his logic and actions do not make sense, but then again are any of the characters logical? Ms. Ann Treadwell on her part wants the one man who Laura is engaged to be married to, and she openly admits “He’s no good, but he’s what I want.” The only somewhat normal figure as far as desires goes seems to be Shelby Carpenter, who is Laura’s fiancée and Ann Treadwell’s romantic objective. However, on closer inspection even he has other needs which are met by Treadwell who gives him financial support. Amidst all of this we begin to wonder how Laura could have become involved with such “a remarkable collection of dopes” but perhaps they simply gravitate towards her, much in the same way the audience does.


It is a credit to Otto Preminger for making Laurasuch a fascinating and visually interesting film-noir. It is a film that exemplifies noir by taking typical motifs and putting a unique spin on them to further develop the genre. The sometimes confusing plot and nonlinear storytelling, which help develop the story of Laura, are typical elements of other films later on like The Big Sleep (1946). Furthermore, Preminger’s story of a man infatuated with a mysteriously beautiful woman is somewhat reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944). The difference with that film is that it all occurs in the mind of the protagonist. Laura actually plays out for real or at least we have no indication to believe that it is in fact a dream. The moment Laura appears in the flesh, in her front living room, it pretty much shocks us out of the dream that would be Woman and a Window and it quickly becomes certain reality. Sharp contrast cinematography is almost always essential to film-noir and Laura is no different. Often when a character enters a dark room, walks down a poorly lit street in the rain, or looks up at two figures in a window, the scene is a mix of chiaroscuro lighting, and pronounced shadows. However, perhaps just important as the lighting in Laura is the Mise-en-scene. Not only is every space developed extensively whether it is Lydecker’s bath or Laura’s living room, but numerous objects within these settings play key roles in the film. The portrait in Laura’s home has such a grander purpose in the entirety of the film, but it also fits as part of the decor. The identical clocks in Lydecker and Laura’s flats are featured prominently at the beginning and end of the film and they function as more than a piece of furniture. They reflect Lydecker’s affection for Laura but also his tendency towards distrust. They are pristine artifacts at the outset and yet by the end of the film one is busted open and the other is decimated by a shotgun. It also seems imperative to take a look at Lieutenant McPherson in comparison with other prototypical investigators in film-noir.  In the beginning, he holds the characteristic cynical, tough as nails demeanor of a Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, and yet by the end of the film he leaves some of that behind him. He may smoke and drink incessantly but the simple fact that he fiddles with a puzzle to stay relaxed puts him in a different category than other film-noir protagonists. Laura on her part is difficult to classify as your typical femme fatale. However, in some respects she is a manipulator who puts men under her spell. Normally a femme fatale like Phyllis Dietrichson, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, or Gene Tierney in her role as Ellen Harland, manipulate men on purpose using their sexuality, wily charms, and power of persuasion. In Laura’s case it does not seem to be like this at all. It just happens, partially since she is such an innocent beauty, or maybe because she is an unattainable woman in a painting. When she is dead, she becomes a fantasy to be recalled and obsessed over, and yet she toys with her suitors in a way by coming back to life. Another prominent part of Laura is the score by David Raksin which in actuality is not present through the entire film. However, it creeps in at opportune moments when it is most needed and it effectively acts as a queueto the audience. Whether you hear Laura’s theme near the opening, on the radio, or by an orchestra at a party, the tune is the haunting essence of Laura herself and it reflects who she is even when she is not present, much like her portrait. To his credit Otto Preminger was able to put all these bits of inspiration together cohesively to make a seminal film-noir with its own set of strengths.

It appears safe to say that Laura was a spring board for the rest of Otto Preminger’s career, because he began as a producer and then emerged as a director who was adept at tackling complex and often controversial issues. During the 1940s and 50s Preminger kept on making film-noir including Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, and Where the Sidewalk Ends which continued his collaboration with Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, although they never equaled his success with Laura (Wallace, 91). All throughout the rest of his career Otto Preminger would test the Production Code and Joseph Breen with various taboo topics. With The Moon is Blue, he faced opposition from the Breen Office for “sexual explicitness” (Wallace, 89). Soon he would direct both Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess where he utilized all-black casts in both cases, which was unusual for the era (Wallace, 92). Next, came yet another controversial film in The Man with the Golden Arm where Frank Sinatra portrays a man struggling with drug addiction (Wallace, 92-93). Then, of course, there is Preminger’s classic, Anatomy of a Murder which revolves around a court case involving rape and murder. The often frank dialogue was revolutionary for the 1950s and it was bolstered by performances by James Stewart and George C. Scott who play opposing lawyers (Wallace, 93). His prominence may have dropped off somewhat after that, but it is undeniable that Otto Preminger was a directorial force from the 1940s well into the 60s and he can be acknowledged for pushing the boundaries of film content.

In Laura, Waldo Lydecker chides his companion for her “one tragic weakness.” As he sees it, for her, “a lean, strong body is the measure of a man.” Perhaps this does hint at the problem with all of Laura’s relationships, because each one has a superficial aspect. With Lydecker dead and no longer able to intercede, Laura walks off with McPherson, another one of these men with a “strong body.” As an audience we would like to see this as different from before but is it really? In the same way we too have one tragic flaw as well. To put it frankly we are human; humans with wants, desires, peculiarities, and emotions which are reflected and brought to the forefront by characters such as Lydecker, McPherson, Carpenter, Treadwell, and of course Laura Hunt. Whether he meant to or not Otto Preminger makes us face these issues through his film; however in the process he also develops a wonderful noir mystery that helped define the genre. It seems safe to say that Laura is a film-noir that is both stylish and witty, and at the same time haunting. Above all the film exhibits a “remarkable collection of dopes,” all tied to this enchantress named Laura. Every one believed they were “the only one who really knew her,” but every one of them, much like us, will never be able to quite figure her out. That’s the beauty of Laura, the character, and Laura,the film.

Leave Her to Heaven (1946) – Film-Noir

Starring Gene Tierney and Cornell Wilde, this film noir is certainly unique. The movie is completely in color, it takes place in quiet locales, and it features a nice family with a new son-in-law. However, Tierney delivers a chilling performance as the jealous and deranged wife who falls for the author Richard Harland (Wilde) and she will not let him go. At first Ellen seems nice enough but all too soon we see the extent she will go to be the only one in Richard’s life. Soon her treatment of others perturbs him and she in turn gets jealous of the attention he gives to her sister. In her final act Ellen commits suicide and tries to pin it on her sister. Even from the grave it seems like she will never give up Richard. However, as we learn from the flashback, this is the first time she did not end up winning. This film is less about action and more about the characters. I must admit Tierney seemed like the greatest villain of all time sitting there callously in the boat and ironically Jeanne Craig became more beautiful the colder Tierney got. Tierney was in a lot of great movies but I think this has to be her best performance because in most of her other movies the audience adores her and here we openly despise her. We cannot wait for her to be left to Heaven so justice can be dealt.

4/5 Stars