* Opened by DESPINA VENETI
COP, INTERRUPTED : THE INSTILLATION OF A DREAM
INITIAL WALDO-MARK DYNAMICS: POWER GAMES
The exquisite opening of Laura again instantly provides the first clues about detective Mark McPherson’s personality. This was to be a star-making role for Dana Andrews, who fought to get it after Lewis Milestone secretly handed him over a copy of the script, advising him to get that part no matter what. Andrews had actually met Preminger at Milestone’s house, and Otto was in favor of casting him. The actor furthermore managed to turn around Zanuck’s initial reluctance (he wanted John Hodiak for the role), by gaining the sympathy of his wife.
Dana Andrews in “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), one year prior to “Laura”. It was the role that truly got him noticed as an actor.
Andrews’s McPherson enters Waldo’s apartment with an obvious self-confidence – and semi-indifference- of a man who has indeed “seen it all”, although he’s also somewhat intrigued, if not amused, by this museum-like “home” he sees. Waldo, in his own voiceover, reveals that he wanted to show the detective that it’s only he who’s the boss in his own house (“I had him wait”), and wanting to make that even more clear, he didn’t even bother to interrupt his bath, which he combined with typing from inside his bathtub.
This is indeed a very good explanation for the function of that particular, much-discussed scene: Waldo Lydecker is an eccentric man, an undisputed “king” in his own “kingdom”, who will absolutely not change his daily routine or programmed activities for some cop who had the audacity to come in his own house, and question him.
When Waldo hears McPherson’s name though, he realizes that this is not the kind of cop he thought it was: he, the great columnist, had written an article about his bravery some time ago, choosing to devote his precious time and words on him – therefore, if only due to that alone, he can’t be so common, after all. He of course uses all his wit to answer (or avoid to answer) Mark’s questions, but he will soon find that this detective has a way with words himself. Waldo seems to be enjoying how Mark exposes Laura’s fiancé and aunt for what they really are, and accompanies him to Laura’s apartment. There, he will find that this particular detective, although taciturn at first glance, can be a worthy “adversary” in his own favorite battlefield, one-liners:
Waldo: Have you ever been in love?
Mark: A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me.
Waldo: Did you ever know a woman who wasn’t a doll or a dame?
Mark: Yeah, one. But she kept walking me past furniture windows to look at the parlor suites.
(MIS)TRUST AND CONFESSIONS: TWO MEN TOWARDS SHARING ONE DREAM
This somehow makes Waldo find Mark worthy of his attention, and although he had initially dismissed the young detective’s questions about his feelings for Laura and vice versa, he invites him to none other than Laura’s and his own favorite restaurant, choosing to sit at what had been their favorite table.
There, encouraged by Mark, the good listener, and watching him getting more and more absorbed by his words, Waldo will describe how he met the young Laura (still a neophyte), her development into a top-professional and an alluring woman, their time spent together – while we have the privilege and joy to watch his descriptions visualized on screen through a superb montage of brief, but vivid images.
The detective who at first didn’t give but only one look to Laura’s portrait in her apartment, is now captivated by this extraordinary eulogy of this “dead” beauty, who had “warmth, vitality, authentic magnetism”… Waldo uses all his mastery with words, and phrases like “the way she listened was more eloquent than speech” and “she became as well-known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation” fuel Mark’s imagination, while obviously waking up a sense of longing for an “ideal woman” that was already lurking inside him. Waldo is essentially a sort of a “seducer”, in the sense that it’s HIS words, HIS narration, HIS Laura that Mark is falling in love with. In the film’s most perverse twist, the seeming pragmatist will fall for a woman he believes to be dead.
And here lies a great irony, and Waldo’s biggest tragedy at the same time: believing Laura to be dead, he can finally talk freely to a receptive audience about her as his magnificent “creation”, because nobody can take her away from him anymore. In fact, Waldo is surprisingly sincere and open – for a murderer. He doesn’t of course admit he’s killed her, but he is pretty much honest to Mark about everything else, including his torment about seeing her with other men, and his self-humiliation of watching her and her lover under her window, in the freezing night. He even gets as far as telling Mark how annoyed he was that Laura had cancelled their dinner date the very night she was murdered! That’s pretty much as close to a confession, as he could get – and yet Mark, a supposed clever and thorough investigator (who had done his “homework”, as we saw when he was questioning the suspects before), fails to fully evaluate all the clues given by Waldo’s fevered narration, apparently mesmerized by the latter. As for Waldo, his greatest punishment will be that he caused Mark to see HIS Laura, and to fall in love with HER, shortly before she will prove to be very much alive…
IN LOVE WITH A PORTRAIT (OR THE DEATH OF A PRAGMATIST)
Still under the spell of Waldo’s words, Mark visits again Laura’s apartment, this time not as an indifferent cop on a case like all the others, but as a fascinated man, intrigued to know more about the woman in the portrait, than even about the culprit of the murder. He will be temporarily interrupted by Waldo’s “visit”, and will be confronted by him about the bidding that Mark placed on Laura’s portrait. With an obvious joy, Waldo will tell him: “You better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”.
Finally leaving him alone, Mark is now free to “make himself at home”, and look closely at Laura’s portrait: it’s objectively a flawlessly beautiful image, but rather generic and uninspired as a piece of art (it was in fact a blown-up photo that was painted over to look like an oil painting, something that worked amazingly well in the film), but for Mark it now has a significance it didn’t have before. This is emphasized by David Raksin’s musical theme that is continuously playing, giving a meaning and emotional power to the portrait for us, viewers. As for Mark, the music he “hears” is probably Waldo’s words about his magnificent Laura.
Mark almost fetishistically goes through Laura’s personal things, touching her dresses, opening her lingerie drawer, smelling her perfume… He looks again at her diary and letters which he had already read, but at a time when she was just a corpse to him. All worn out, and having drunk her liquor, he sits under her portrait – this shot of Laura’s portrait on the left, and Mark sitting in an armchair, looking at it, on the right is actually the film’s big “seduction” scene. The atmosphere, the music, the feeling of longing and dreaming, they’re all there. And there won’t be such an intense, emotionally charged scene between Mark and Laura, when she will enter the film as an actual woman, real and alive…
THE RETURN OF THE INVESTIGATOR
After the initial shock of seeing Laura alive in front of him, Mark changes mood and sort of finds his old self, becoming again an active and alert investigator, this time so as to find the murderer before he attempts to harm her again. He has to treat her as a suspect for a while, but in the interrogation at the precinct (whose sole purpose seems to be that Laura admits she doesn’t love or will marry Shelby…) the two of them come close. He has by now seen her beauty in person, her sweet nature, even became aware of her domestic skills – all these might indeed have been enough for Mark to fall in love with her anyway, but the fact remains that he fell for her while thinking she was dead, and based on Waldo’s description of her extraordinary allure. Nobody can really be sure if it’d have been the same without that enormous built-up by the eloquent Waldo, without that hype that preceded her actual in person appearance. As my dear co-author of this blog would say: “Thus were the poet and the pragmatist led to briefly share the SAME dream… and then tear it apart.”
COP AND LOVER, JOURNEY OF A TWO-FACED HERO
by Olivier Eyquem
This policeman has seen it all,or so he believes. Inquests tend to bore him, murders all look the same : a “dame” gets bumped, places and circumstances may vary, but motives all look ridiculously similar.
Mark is in for a shock…
This obstinate realist doesn’t instantly fall in love with Laura’s ghost. He hardly looks at her painting during his first visit to the apartment, and seems indifferent to her diaphanous beauty. He just does his job, scrupulously gathering data, checking alibis, trying to destabilize the main suspects. Little games like that amuse him.
A GOOD LISTENER
Yet, there is a “little something” about Mark that doesn’t quite fit with his studied nonchalance. Waldo, an excellent judge of characters, senses it, just like he sensed Laura’s potential during their first encounter. Years before, Mark had been shot in the leg during an armed assault. Waldo wrote a column about that famous incident. He fondly remembers “the detective with a silver shinbone” and invites him at his favorite Italian restaurant to tell him about Laura. Pain and loss will not diminish, but talking to a professional listener could help a little. Waldo is on the verge of confessing, Mark should book him that night, get the truth out of him, but he doesn’t. The story of Laura’s ascent is so enticing, Waldo’s excitement so palpable and contagious that McPherson probably starts to lose perspective then and there.
And there another story begins, that of a dream split in two, torn between two men who should have known better…
Mark listens in silence. Side framing makes it difficult to catch his reaction (or rather his “non-reaction”) on the spot. But the impact must have been quite strong to make him return to Laura’s apartment and start canvassing the place in one of the most obsessive love sequences in the history of film noir.
An exhausted, drunken Mark finally falls asleep under Laura’s portrait.A little while later, Laura, dressed in white, opens the door. Both stand mute for a few seconds : it’s a scary vision for her, the incarnation of a hopeless, most improbable dream for him. And the “ghost” quickly turns out to be a very real, earthy, unpredictable woman…