Laura as Film NoirIntroductionDuring the war years of the 1940s, there emerged a film genre in American cinema that film critics recognized and termed film noir. The term film noir literally means “black film” in French, although the adjective noir also denotes dark emotions, including gloom and sadness, both of which are also appropriate in the description of the film noir genre. Developing from a confluence of filmic and literary styles and traditions, film noir’s visual and narrative themes and motifs created a critical, cinematic look at American culture and society.
This paper argues that Otto Preminger’s film Laura (1944) is an excellent example of film noir and shares many of the attributes of genre, especially in regards to its characters, cinematography, mood/atmosphere, narrative devices, and music.Film NoirAlthough the extensive literary origins of film noir have been traced to the Gothic novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the sensation novel of the mid- and late nineteenth century, the most immediate literary influence on film noir is the genre of American “hard-boiled” detective or crime novels of the late 1920s and 1930s.
Termed by French literary critics as “La Serie Noire” (and occasionally referred to in later decades as romans noirs) the hard-boiled novels were often characterized by a dreary atmosphere, individual and institutional corruption, pessimism, graphic sexuality and violence. These hard-boiled novels were popular in the United States and in Europe; some were adapted into films noir during the 1940s (Borde and Chaumeton 13-15).
The visual influences on the development of film noir cinema include German Expressionism, the Strassefilm (gritty films about banal crimes) produced in the cinema of Weimar Germany, Poetic Realism in films—including many directed by Marcel Carne and Julien Duvivier—of French cinema in the late 1930s, and American Expressionist films of the 1930s and early 1940s. German Expressionism and Weimar-era Expressionist films contributed much of the emphasis on “distortions, alienation, fragmentation,” and a focus on “states of mind, feelings, ideas, perceptions, dreams and visions, and often paranoid states” that became core aspects of film noir (Borde and Chaumeton 16-17).The Strassefilm (literally, “street film”) lent to later films noir its emphasis on dark, urban settings, replete with criminals, underworld crime, and menacing and tempting women. In the context of its romantic and criminal narratives, French Poetic Realism contributed an emphasis on “doom and despair” to the formation of film noir (Naremore 11).
Many of the American Expressionist films that influenced the visual style of film noir are those horror films of the early 1930s (Dickos 7). Finally, the political and economic unrest in continental Europe during the 1920s and 1930s served as an impetus to many talented European filmmakers—including Otto Preminger among many others—to leave Europe and begin working in Hollywood. Many of these filmmakers served as a “medium” by which developments in European cinema (e.g.
, German Expressionism, French Poetic Realism) entered the American film industry (Dickos 8).Although classic film noir is often regarded as relatively homogenous in terms of visual style, such as frontal lighting, low- and high-key lighting, deep focus photography, low or high camera angles, and other visual grammar or symbolism of German Expressionism, classic films noir had in reality greater heterogeneity in terms of visual style (Dickos 10). Similar to the oversimplified assertion that a film noir necessarily predicates a single or rigid visual style, classic film noir was not simply a genre that was filmed in black and white.Numerous classic films noir were filmed in color, however, the use of monochromatic film stock predominated in classic film noir partly due to the costs associated with color film stock and processing, as well as the “documentary realism” that monochromatic photography lent to many classic film noir (Borde and Chaumeton 142).
The majority of newsreels, newspapers, periodicals, and many hobbyist photographers photographed the world in black and white (Naremore 19). This contributed to the realistic reception of black and white classic films noir as more realistic than color films.Although it is often debated among scholars as to which specific films during the period of WWII were precisely films noir, there is more consensus as to the characteristics of film noir during this period (Spicer 25-6). Through its extensive literary, filmic, and philosophical heritage, film noir developed distinctive iconography (repeated visual patterning), cinematographic style, narrative strategies, subject matter, and characterization (Spicer 4).
The iconography of film noir often consists of dark, nighttime cities, streets damp with rain that reflect the light of flashing neon signs, sordid and claustrophobic alleyways, deserted dockyards, elaborate nightclubs, and plush apartments.Although there were variations within the hundreds of films from the WWII period, classic films noir during this time often employed high-contrast lighting (chiaroscuro), deep, enveloping shadows fractured by shafts of light from a single source, and dark claustrophobic interiors that have shadowy shapes shown on the walls. Additionally, films noir frequently utilized decentred, unstable visual compositions that are further warped by the use of odd angles and wide-angle lenses, fog and mist to obscure the action and characters, and characters’ faces partially shadowed or lit with strange highlights that create hidden and threatening spaces (Naremore 44). Film noir often concerns dark, crime-related subject matter, a malignant and unstable world, and characters—male anti-heroes and the deceitful femmes fatales—trapped by fear and paranoia or overwhelmed by the power of sexual desire, while the protagonists in these films noir are alienated and sometimes psychologically disturbed (Naremore 45).
LauraAcademy Award winning film noir Laura was released in 1944. It was directed by Otto Preminger and stars Gene Tierney as Laura, Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, Judith Anderson and Vincent Price. The film was based on Vera Caspary’s Laura, a popular detective novel of 1943. The movie director was Otto Preminger and screenplay was written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt.
Music for the film was written by David Raksin, cinematography was directed by Joseph LaShelle and edited by Louis R. Loeffler. Black-and-White Art Direction-Interior Decoration was Lyle R. Wheeler Leland Fuller, and Thomas Little.
The film was nominated for 5 academy awards and won the award for best cinematography.In America, film noir contains social and filmic elements outside of conventional Hollywood. The music enhances the low-key lighting, the femme fatale intrigues, and the male perspective as the authoritative norm (Dickos). Further, while its stress on psychology adds in certain ways to its strength-insofar as it appears to have more dimension than the “classic mystery” movie – such an emphasis in other ways depleted the film.
Though a psychological rendering of character may bolster film noir’s “realism,” it attenuates its capacity for social criticism – even in the case of a film like Laura, which has a structure that, like Preminger’s camera, moves so smoothly that the viewer may not be.Characters. The common theme in film noir is a male fear of female domination. The noir male character, in general, finds himself in crisis having allowed the femme fatale to influence him to stray from society’s moral code.
In other words, he fails to act as the man that society accepts as upright and worthy. The status quo dictates that the male perspective is considered the norm as well as “the touchstone of authority, and the feminine is the safely distanced other (Krutnik 54).” The films produced between 1944 and 1960 were considered unconventional when the male star was made vulnerable by a woman (Dickos).Laura is a film noir belonging to the same.
The female character, Laura, is not a typical femme fatale but a woman who becomes the object of murder because of her attempted sexual freedom. Though believed to be dead, she seems to control the narrative even in her absence. surprised the film industry by its enormous popularity and afforded great interest in the ability of title songs to sell soundtrack recordings. Angela Martin argues that the musical score, composed by Raksin, especially main-title music, depicts “Laura” as “heroic, romantic, epic,” but that the shot of the portrait “reflects the double-bind of female sexuality in film noir: it attracts and threatens; allures and repels (211).
”Film noir is about male fantasy. As Budd Boetticher points out:What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself, the woman has notthe slightest importance.
(cited in Mulvey 19) Exemplified by Laura, the female protagonist is physically absent from the screen, but I contend that “scopophilia” works to establish her presence for the spectator through her portrait and her theme. For instance, McPherson becomes mesmerized with Laura without ever meeting her in person.James Maxfield contends that film noir is never from the view of the femme fatale (5). The woman is merely a catalyst to promote the male protagonist’s feelings of being “torn between the desire to live up to the social male code and the need to relinquish himself in emotional vulnerability,” often to his own self-destruction.
Maxfield argues that the common factor that links all film noir is “the threat that the femme fatale brings to the life, welfare, and psychological well-being of the male protagonist (5).” Laura’s presence constitutes an ambiguity that was not traditionally displayed in society in 1944. Other early film noirs highlight low-life characters and fatales who will stop at nothing to get their way. Laura depicts a new kind of fatale; one who is victimized by her situation rather than a vixen who dupes her male prey.
Cinematography. The film demonstrates a noir visual style, i.e., the cinematic aesthetic of night driving in the rain, the shadowy, yet high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, ideological shifts from what is socially acceptable, the man in crisis, the display of human longing that fails to obtain its object of desire, and endings not neatly settled in optimism.
The lights, not unusual in police procedurals of all sorts, suggest a crudely composed version of noir cinematic raise-en-scene: the reassuring three-point lighting system of the classic Hollywood film has been replaced by a two-point technique; the back light has been removed, and the fill light, designed to soften the hard edges of shadow, has been replaced by a second key light that flattens the face and divests it of all shade. The detective, like the director or cinematographer, searches for truth by compressing three dimensions into two.In addition, certain rivals barely appear within the cinematic image, or appear only as an image, much as we first encounter Laura: Redfern is seen in the film only via a photograph of her in a magazine, and Jacoby the painter is seen only via his shadow on a window blind. Further, a distinctive camera movement associated with Waldo: a whip pan, in this case from McPherson to Waldo sitting in his tub.
The same characteristic movement which introduced the image of Waldo (after the spectator has already heard his voice) again introduces him as he silently sneaks back into Laura’s apartment in order to kill her (again).The film’s final shots, and the absence of a firm, conclusionary romantic pairing, knocks the legs from under McPherson’s narration/investigation. The last note is Waldo’s, not McPherson’s. Indeed, Waldo has finally recovered the narrative, wresting control back from a stubborn, manly McPherson, who, hearing the sound of gunfire, breaks down a side door by himself as two other policemen struggle ineffectively to push through the apartment’s main entrance.
Mood/Atmosphere. One of the most conventional scenes in the film has McPherson turning from suspect to suspect, as partygoers stand stunned in the background; the detective finally lights upon Laura, whom he proceeds to arrest. In the traditional mystery, this climactic moment would be followed by a denouement, when the detective would explain the motivations and actions that led up to the murder; but the noir in Laura proceeds to twist its solutions. The noir hero needs few words for his purposes, just as the noir crime is rarely explicable.
The subsequent scene takes place in a police interrogation room, complete with the harsh lights that turn Laura’s face, in close-up, a ghostly white (suitable, given her recent status among the dead).Narrational Devices. When the spectators become voyeurs of the feminine presence in the film, the narrative discourse is driven as a reaction to the male gaze, a phenomenon referred to by Laura Mulvey as “scopophilic pleasure (49).” The “scopophilic gaze” drives the narrative as the fatale often provokes fear and love in the male protagonist.
The male spectator joins with the obsessed characters on screen and is given to vulnerability within the narrative, an abhorrent concept during those decades of film production.The movie is routed from one to the other position, moving along Lydecker’s take on Laura then detouring into McPherson’s reconstruction of events. This reconstruction will remain tinted by Lydecker’s stylish rendition of the world, as McPherson’s stroll through Lydecker’s living room is still informed by the latter’s continuing voice-over. Overarchingly, in the first half of the film, mystery, as a generic construct as well as an ideal of the transcendent quality of love, frames and narrates noir, while, in the second half of the film (with the important exception of the film’s waning moments), noir investigates mystery.
But, this conflict is itself generic to noir. As such, we sense almost immediately Lydecker’s unreliability. We are meant to distrust his intellectual tone, his mannered phrasing (“I, Waldo Lydecker”), his self-aggrandizement; and the genre disdains the decadent surroundings that mirror his stylish prose. The threat of exaggeration, of distortion in matters of truth, is implicit in Lydecker’s formal, flowery tone, and is articulated later in the sequence when he asserts that he “never bothers with details” when recounting actual past events, especially when his “version” is sure to be “superior” to the facts.
Lydecker insists upon a higher value than factual truth, yet his esthetic is suspect because it so obviously relies on his accumulation of expensive things.Laura’s structure sets up battle lines between its two male combatants, whose narrational styles reflect their sexual power and proclivities. Thus, from the opening sequence, Waldo Lydecker cannot keep his narration up, a disability we securely understand throughout the film. McPherson, the film’s hero by virtue of, among other, later attributes, his quiet scorn for Lydecker, partakes of the noir icon’s human weaknesses-chief among them, his susceptibility to the charms of the imaginary woman-and thereby he qualifies for our sympathy.
We identify with him, though we may fault him enough to scapegoat him, and we may be satisfied that the conclusion, though it superficially appears otherwise, does not register as the detective’s moment of triumph.First off, not only does Waldo begin by narrating the film in the past tense, as already noted, as it the entire film were to be his flashback, not only does he then narrate within the film another flashback about Laura, but I would argue that the enunciation of the film is identified with Waldo, hi particular, certain extreme camera movements, which are rare within the film, are associated exclusively with Waldo. Namely, at the film’s beginning and again twice at the ending, a characteristic movement, a whip pan, introduces Waldo: first when he sits in his tub; and the camera gesture returns at the film’s end in order to show Waldo sneaking into Laura’s apartment; and finally, the same camera movement connects the dying Waldo with Laura, McPherson, and finally the clock. Thompson carefully demonstrates that roughly the first half of the film comes under Waldo’s subjectivity, the latter half under McPherson’s, with the last scene shifting to a more omniscient perspective so as to generate tension by intercutting amongst diverse locations whose goings-on could not be mastered by any one consciousness (168).
Music. In fact, the presence of a woman character represented through music is a requisite part of film noir. In the 1940’s, the woman was present for the benefit of the male anti-heroes. Her character was represented and upheld by her musical theme and visual image in the narrative discourse and for the viewers.
Claudia Gorbman maintains that it is the music that accompanies and identifies the woman characters in film noir that allows the viewer to “slip out of the narrative” and enter a state of “spectacle (67).”ConclusionOtto Preminger’s Laura represents mid-1940s film noir at its most structurally sophisticated, and shares many of the attributes of genre, especially as regards its structure and the issues it addresses through that structure. Like many of the films we now consider classic noir, Laura, was assigned a regulation genre (critics almost always invoked the term “melodrama” when discussing these films, and often added more plot-specific labels such as “crime story,” “detective story,” “murder story,” or “mystery,” while “hard-boiled” was the most popular moniker when the reviewer wanted to clarify the detective’s style or the mood of the piece as a whole), then was praised or criticized to the degree that it both held to the expectations of “realism” and struck to a fittingly modern, “psychological” tone. Indeed, much of the tension of the film stems from the manner in which it plays with film noir iconography.
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Cite this Laura as Film Noir
Laura as Film Noir. (2017, Mar 17). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/laura-as-film-noir/