Sunday, May 24, 2020


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Laura (1944), directed by Otto Preminger, has elements that suggest it fits into the film noir category. There is murder and unsavory characters are present, but instead of focusing on the underbelly of life, with abundant shadowy camera work, the movie centers on upper-class citizens and the lighting creates scenes filled with brightness (the film won the Oscar for cinematography). The thrust here is to show that corruption lives among the so-called acceptable levels of society.
The movie begins with a shot of the portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who we find was killed by a shotgun wound to the head, destroying her beautiful face. We have the voice-over supplied by newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb in an Oscar-nominated performance) informing us of Laura’s death. He turns out to be something of an unreliable narrator. His writing is stylized, comparing the “silver” sun’s heat to a “magnifying glass,” on the day the woman died. He states that he was the only one who truly knew Laura. As he narrates, the camera pans around an upscale room with fancy goblets, candlestick holder, statue, bookcase, fireplace, and clock, among other luxurious items. The room opens onto a lovely bright balcony. 
It is Waldo’s place, and he says he was about to write Laura’s story but a detective interrupted him. His voice reflects annoyance as he says he had the policeman wait in the adjoining room while he watched him, possibly illustrating his journalist background, but also the way someone may observe the actions of an inferior creature. The cop, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) hears the ornate timepiece chime and walks over to it. (The detective’s first name sounds like he may be a marksman who wants to hit his target, and his last name phonetically may mean criminals should “Fear” him).Waldo’s voice-over states that there were only two of the timepieces in existence, and the other was in the apartment where Laura was murdered (an important clue). Does the double-clock ownership and Waldo’s comment about really knowing Laura suggest how connected he saw them to be?
When Mark opens a glass case to handle an object, Waldo breaks his surveillance (reversing what a policeman usually does) and voices his alarm because his “priceless” possession is being handled by this crude intruder (a symbolic act that we learn shows how he sees his relationship with Laura). He invites Mark into the adjoining bathroom where Waldo is immersed in his marble tub where he has his typewriter available for him to put his thoughts down in writing. The fact that Waldo is being cleansed suggests that his character is purer, at least in his own narcissistic mind, than the policeman, who spends his time dealing with the unsavory aspects of society. Waldo’s artistic bent, who only flexes mental and verbal muscles, and the fact that he exposes himself to a man, suggests that he may be gay, which at the time the film was made would make him an unsympathetic character. 

He quickly says that he was already questioned by two policemen and reads what he told them, which was that he was supposed to have dinner with Laura before she was killed. But she cancelled because she was going out of town. Mark wonders why he wrote down his statement, and Waldo responds that he is the most misquoted person in America (so he is obviously preoccupied with his fame). He implies he has an adversarial relationship even with his friends, since he claims they also are not accurate when it comes to what he says. Yet, as we find, he does not adhere to the truth.

He treats Mark like a servant, asking him for a washcloth and robe. However, when he finds out Mark’s last name he recognizes the cop is the policeman who took down some gangsters while also getting shot up in the leg. Waldo says Mark is the detective with the “silver shinbone.” Waldo likes the word “silver,” using it again here, suggesting his preference for expensive things. It’s almost as if Waldo is trying to see something valuable in Mark that he can add to his collection. Is he attracted to Mark's macho accomplishment? Mark questions him about a column he wrote two years earlier about how someone was killed with a “shotgun loaded with buckshot,” which coincidentally was the way the perpetrator killed Laura. However, Mark corrects the supposedly accurate Waldo by stating the person in his column wasn’t done in with a gunshot. Is Mark already considering Waldo as a suspect since he created his own version of a crime previously? Waldo says he doesn’t bother with “details,” which is what a journalist is supposed to base his reputation upon. (The first syllable in his last name, Lydecker, phonetically sounds like “lie). 
While he dresses, Waldo looks in the mirror (which as noted in other posts on this blog, can represent the other, more sinister side of a person), and says, “How singularly innocent I look this morning.” It’s a rather strange thing to say. Why is he stressing how “innocent” he looks, and for what reason? Waldo wants to tag along with Mark since he will be visiting other suspects, and he says, “Murder is my favorite crime.” To report on or indulge in? Mark isn’t even paying attention to Waldo’s self-serving words, and is playing with a miniature toy that represents a baseball diamond, trying to get little silver balls (that color again, only here more fitting a cop’s salary) into holes where the bases are. Mark’s interest in baseball also asserts his more masculine character as compared to Waldo’s fixation on artistic artifacts. Waldo is snobby again, joking that Mark probably confiscated the toy at a kindergarten raid. But, Mark says it takes a “lot of control” to win the game, which is a metaphor for what an investigator must do to see how everything in a crime situation fits together. 

Mark asks Waldo if he was in love with Laura, or vice versa. Waldo does not give a direct answer. He says that Laura thought he was “the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she’d ever met.” Waldo says he agreed with her, adding to the depiction of him as a funny and arrogant individual. He says that Laura also felt he was kind, gentle, and sympathetic. His statement illustrates what we see later that Laura is a person who seeks out the better part of individuals. When Mark asks if he also agreed with Laura on those points, he says he tried to be that type of person, but the most he could achieve was to feel sorry if his neighbor’s children were “devoured by wolves.” What a sweetheart.

They visit Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), (Should one be careful and “tread” lightly when dealing with this woman?), Laura’s aunt, who says she adored her niece. Mark, being the policeman, assumes guilt and corruption, since it’s his job to suspect others of crimes. He asks if Ann approved of Laura’s engagement to Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Ann hesitates, while Waldo quickly voices his disdain for Shelby. Mark asks if she was in love with Shelby, revealing that he knows that Ann wrote out checks to Shelby. She says it was just for some shopping for her. After Mark presses her about other monetary transactions, she then says that Shelby needed money and she gave it to him. So, we know Ann was lying and Mark is right to not be fooled by these sophisticated people. Shelby happens to be at Ann’s place and enters from another room, which casts doubt as to Shelby’s commitment to Laura. He says he couldn’t sleep following the murder. Waldo makes the suggestive comment to Mark that Shelby’s statement could be interpreted as showing him as innocent, or guilty, and also implies Shelby was up at night making love to Ann. Waldo reveals that Laura was having doubts about the marriage and that is why she was going to her country house to think over her decision to wed. Shelby returns fire by painting Waldo’s statement as a display of bitterness over Shelby winning over Laura’s interest. It appears that all three have motives revolving around jealousy.
Because Laura was famous, her death creates a media circus, with newspapers hawking stories about it and cops controlling crowds in front of Laura’s place, where Mark, Waldo, and Shelby go to find the key to Laura’s country house. Mark calls Laura a “dame,” a lower-class slang for a woman, which Waldo objects to, and which illustrates the film’s attempt to contrast attitudes about class, but also that inhabitants of high society also may be involved in crimes. Waldo points out the lovely portrait of Laura over the fireplace. At first Mark says Laura was “not bad” looking, and he seems cynical about falling in love with someone respectable. He responds to Waldo’s questions by saying he was once involved with a woman who wasn’t a “dame” or a “doll.” But, he ended the romance because she kept looking at furniture, which shows Mark didn’t want to give up his manly independence and be domesticated. 

Mark points out that Shelby wasn’t accurate concerning his alibi of being at a concert because the show’s program was changed, and Shelby didn’t note that another composer’s music was played. Shelby says that he was exhausted working on Laura’s new publicity campaign and fell asleep at the concert. Mark then catches Shelby in another lie when he says he found the key to Laura’s house in a drawer, but it being there was not noted in the police inventory. Shelby says he took it so Waldo wouldn’t acquire it before he gave it to the police. Waldo and Shelby almost come to blows, but Mark prevents it as he continues to play with the toy, still symbolically trying to fit all the parts in place as the deceptions pile up.
At dinner with Mark, Waldo talks about how he first met Laura. The first part of this film depicts Laura primarily from Waldo’s perspective. There is a flashback sequence introducing the younger Laura. She apologetically but boldly approaches the dining Waldo to pitch her advertising company’s proposition to pay Waldo if he will endorse a pen made by one of the agency’s clients (Laura’s last name is “Hunt,” so she is after personal gain). Waldo reveals his caustic wit when he says he doesn’t use a pen but instead employs a, “goose quill dipped in venom.” He does seem to pause to consider her strength of character when she tells him that the company didn’t tell her to approach him, but took the initiative herself. He is still sarcastic and derogatory with her, saying she didn’t consider something that was more important than her career, which was his “lunch.” She calls him out on his selfishness and self-absorption, which he says is warranted since he never encountered anyone other than himself who warranted his “attention.” She is surprised that he can write with such “understanding and sentiment,” (so she knows his work which probably entices Waldo). He cynically counters by saying those qualities can be bought. The film suggests how people can erect a deceptive facade of caring and insight if the price is right. But, the insightful Laura states how acting callous and negative over time has made Waldo lonely and worthy of her pity. So, in a way, her appreciating noble human qualities makes Waldo her inferior.
Waldo narrates that he was drawn to Laura because, as he said earlier, she saw through him. He visits her place of business, apologizes, and agrees to endorse the pen. She says he is “strange” because despite his vicious behavior, he really was sorry for what he said to her and, underneath, was “kind.” He doesn’t want to totally undermine his persona, so he won’t admit to being capable of kindness, but allows her to think of him that way. Laura wants to see the good in people, but in a corrupt world, unfortunately, that can be a weakness.
Waldo introduced her to the right people, and she eventually rose to the top in the advertising industry. Waldo says she became successful because of her own excellent instincts but she gave into Waldo’s “judgment and taste.” His statement suggests that Laura’s nature was supplemented by Waldo’s nurture. He says he picked out her hair stylist and clothes coordinator. His description of events suggests that she was the valuable raw material, an uncut diamond, that he fashioned into a precious jewel. The Pygmalion myth comes to mind here, but Waldo’ obsession is not sexual. Waldo says her beauty and personality created a magnetism that drew men and women to her. They would be alone twice a week and have dinner, listen to music, and he would read his articles to her. His description suggests a symbiotic relationship between the two. But when he says, “She became as famous as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation,” he implies that she was nothing more than the objects that became noteworthy because of their association with him. 

But the relationship began to show signs of wear when Laura failed to appear for their nights together. He said he felt “betrayed,” and discovered that the person she was seeing was the man who painted her portrait, Jacoby (John Dexter). It is interesting that another man also saw her as the inspiration for creativity. Waldo was vindictive, and used his writing to attack the man, holding him up to ridicule, showing his weaknesses compared to other artists. According to Waldo, the gullible Laura could no longer take Jacoby seriously after Waldo’s hatchet job. Waldo says that there were other men who chased her, but Waldo says Laura dismissed them without his intervention. Could it be that she was wary of starting any relationships early on because they might threaten her guardian angel? Or, is this account accurate since it is Waldo telling the story at this point?

However, after she had achieved success in her profession, at a party at Ann’s place, she meets Shelby. He jokes about the difference in age between Waldo and Laura, saying Waldo still danced “the polka.” With a quick comeback, Waldo says that Betsy Ross taught it to him. His remark shows witty self-deprecation, and still allies him with American nobility. Waldo, sensing a threat to his monopoly on Laura, comments, when informed that Shelby is from Kentucky, that the man’s family probably descends from sharecroppers. Waldo likes to play the upper-class card to downgrade his opponents. Shelby, looking handsome in a tuxedo, enters the kitchen rubbing at a stain, and asks for help getting the spot out. He says he can “afford a blemish” on his “character,” but not on his “clothes.” This line stresses the emphasis on superficial appearance over inner integrity. Laura should be more aware of phony facades since she is in the advertising business which pitches products for sale even at the expense of the truth. 

Waldo isn’t present at the scenes between Laura and Shelby at this party, so the only way he can be relating the conversation is if we assume Laura told it to him later, or he just imagined them. We learn that Shelby is not a contributor to society, but instead is a charming parasite, who lived off of his family’s estate, which has now dwindled. His lack of an industrious past (his last name, Carpenter, seems ironic), caused one of his big-shot friends not to believe him when he asked for a job. Laura gives Carpenter a position at the advertising agency which she now runs. 
Shelby gracefully pursues Laura, as he shows his commitment to her by talking about sharing time in the future (remember those clocks that Waldo thought linked he and Laura as companions through time). Waldo spies on them, and confronts Laura about Shelby’s attempt to win her. He did research, sarcastically calling Shelby a “sterling,” character, another use of a reference to silver symbolically used as a measure of value. Waldo’s investigation revealed that Shelby bounced checks and may have stolen jewels when staying at a rich person’s house. (Is he thinking of stealing Waldo’s jewel, Laura?) Laura is now wising up to Waldo’s tactics. She tells him, “by stooping so low you only degrade yourself.” She is revealing that Waldo betrays the upper-class position he so values through his use of deplorable methods. Perhaps she is feeling suffocated and appalled by Waldo’s attempts to monopolize her. She may also be tired of his negativity about others, and she laments that attitude in the world. She says people are always “ready to hold out a hand to slap you down, but never to pick you up.” She wants to give Shelby a chance to change for the better, even though she says she recognizes his flaws. She says that she and Shelby are to be married soon. But Waldo drops a bomb on her positive outlook. He says Shelby is running around with an employee, Diane Redfern, a model at the advertising agency. He shows Laura the cigarette case she gave to Shelby that he had Diane pawn. He also says that Shelby is at Ann’s place right at that moment instead of being with Laura. The two go to Ann’s and find Shelby dining with Ann. Laura drops the cigarette case on the table and leaves (a piece of silver that has been tarnished?). Laura was supposed to meet Diane and relate what transpired between them to Waldo at dinner, but she cancelled their meeting, saying she was going off to think things over. Waldo ends his narration and he and Mark part after dinner. 

We now start to see how Mark begins to view Laura. He questions Laura’s housekeeper, Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams), who just wants to be called by her first name and makes it clear that she is not snobby, just the opposite of Waldo. But, she is very loyal to the memory of her employer, and tells Mark how kind Laura was to her. She does not like that Mark is going through Laura’s diaries and other personal papers. The smart Mark finds a bottle of cheap whiskey in the liquor cabinet and figures it doesn’t fit Laura’s adopted refined style (like the way those shiny balls avoid settling in place in the baseball game). He discovers she didn’t order the alcoholic drink, and gets Bessie to admit that she put it there after removing it from the bedroom and wiping it down. She didn’t want Laura’s memory smeared by cheap accusations. But Mark deduces that the bottle showed up on the night Laura was murdered, so someone who brought the booze was there that evening. Ann, Waldo, and Shelby then show up. They squabble over what items may belong to Waldo. These supposedly noble members of society seem only to care about possessions. The working-class Mark has no trouble drinking the cheap whiskey before they all depart.
The music that Laura liked plays throughout the movie, and its haunting melody surfaces again when Mark returns at night to Laura’s apartment to read her letters. He goes into her bedroom and looks in her dresser drawers, her clothes closet, and smells her perfume, sort of like a postmortem stalker. He keeps returning to her portrait, and seems vexed by his reaction to gazing at it. Waldo shows up after seeing the lights on and senses Mark’s growing obsession with the dead woman. Waldo wittily comments that maybe Mark should pay rent since he’s at Laura’s apartment so much. Waldo seems jealous of the deceased Laura, and doesn’t like Mark reading her correspondence. He says that Mark appears to be having a date with a ghost, and maybe should bring candy which he says in his condescending way would come from a “drugstore,” as Waldo emphasizes their class difference. Waldo found out that Mark put in a bid to buy Laura’s portrait, so we know for sure now that he, too, has been charmed by the magnetism of a woman so strong it transcends the grave. Waldo warns Mark that he may be going to the mental ward, and comments on his necrophiliac tendencies by saying that there may be no experience treating someone “who fell in love with a corpse.” 

Waldo asks if Mark dreamed about being married to Laura. After Waldo leaves, Mark keeps drinking and looking at the painting (one wonders if Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by this film when he made Vertigo, which deals with a man obsessed with the idea of a perfect woman for him). He nods off and then wakes up when Laura shows up at the apartment and wonders who this strange man is. The subtext here is that Mark was dreaming, and out of that unconscious state he may have conjured up his ideal female. Mark identifies himself as a policeman and wonders why she doesn’t know what happened. She says she was in the country and cut off from all the news, and her cottage radio was broken. He shows her a newspaper. He asks if anyone has a key to her place and she says no. Laura asks what is he going to do now? Mark says someone was killed in her apartment and he’s going to find out who was murdered and who is the murderer. 

The stormy night adds an atmosphere of darkness and danger to the confusing and volatile situation. Laura changes out of wet clothes and finds one of Diane’s dresses in her closet that wasn’t there before. Diane’s photograph in a magazine that Laura shows to Mark reveals a resemblance between the model and Laura. Laura implies that someone accidentally killed Diane believing her to be Laura. But the suspicious Mark interrogates her and finds out that Laura encountered nobody on her trip to the countryside, so she has no alibi for the time of the murder. Also, he knows that Shelby had access to the apartment, and Mark suggests that he brought Diane to Laura’s place. She denies that she knew Shelby had a key, which seems flimsy since they were engaged. She also confronted Diane, as Waldo had said she would, and Diane admitted to caring for Shelby. Laura, still holding onto her innocence concerning trusting others, insists that Shelby didn’t return Diane’s affection. Mark’s police mentality sees Laura as a likely suspect, the motive again being jealousy, and that she could have killed Diane, making it appear to be a case of mistaken identity, thus steering the investigation toward someone who would have a motive in killing Laura. Mark wants her to not let anyone know she is alive so he can discover if there are any alternative suspects. However, Mark’s professional mind gives way to personal emotion when he asks Laura if she decided to call off her marriage to Shelby. She says yes, and although not revealing anything, it is obvious that he is relieved by her response.

Another detective tells Mark what he already assumed, that it was Diane who was killed. They have bugged Laura’s phone and they hear her call Shelby, who obviously already knows that Laura isn’t dead, as the two plan a meeting. Mark practically labels Laura a film noir femme fatale when he says, “Dames are always pulling a switch on you.” It is interesting that he uses the word ‘dames,” which reminds us of his conversation with Waldo, and which lowers Laura, at least at this time, from her sophisticated status to the level of the criminals a cop deals with. 
Laura meets with Shelby in the rain in a parked car. After the two separate, the other detective sticks with Laura, and Mark follows Shelby. Shelby goes to Laura’s country house and there is a brief moment where he looks at a shotgun mounted over the fireplace. It is a good directorial shot to remind us that Diane was killed by a shotgun blast. As Shelby takes down the rifle, Mark surprises him. He finds out that the gun was used since it wasn’t cleaned, and Shelby says he shot some rabbits with it. The weapon contains Shelby’s initials. He says he gave it to Laura for protection even though she didn’t want it. When asked when he used it last, he says he doesn’t know. He also isn’t sure if Laura knows how to use it. Mark is humorous when he calls Shelby “a vague sort of fellow,” suggesting he is hiding the truth. Mark wonders out loud if Shelby knew Laura would show up, and was planning on killing her, too, so there would be no chance of her “spilling the beans” concerning the death of Diane. Mark lets Shelby know that he concluded that Shelby was at Laura’s place on the evening of the killing since he was the one who bought the cheap liquor. We know that he is broke and the inexpensive liquor is the only kind of booze he can afford. After Mark pressures him, Shelby says he found a duplicate key to Laura’s apartment in her desk at work. He didn’t want to arouse suspicion about him and Diane, so they didn’t meet at each other’s homes. He took her to Laura’s and wanted to dissuade her about any chance of a relationship between them. Shelby says that the lights were on and Laura’s friends visited at all times. So, he sent Diane to answer a knock at the door so she could say that Laura let Diane use the place while she was away. He then heard the gunshot blast and found the dead Diane. He says he was horrified, and suggests that he didn’t go to the police to clear things up because he knew if it was known that Laura was not killed, the murderer would continue to look for her. He was going to get rid of the shotgun at the country cottage so Laura wouldn’t be implicated in Diane’s death. He met with Laura that evening to tell her what he just revealed to the detective. Laura had said that the radio at the cottage was broken and hadn’t heard news of her alleged death, but it works fine when Mark turns it on. Another “switch” in the tale, as Mark noted earlier.

Mark shows up early the next morning with food to cook for breakfast at Laura’s. There is a streak of feminism in Laura as she says she can make the meal because her mother would give her a recipe every time Laura told her of her future ambitions. She also says she called Shelby because she didn’t heed Mark’s restriction on contacting anyone as she only did things based on her “own free will.” But, her declaration is undermined because we know she has been manipulated by others. Mark hears someone in the other room and stands behind the kitchen door. He observes Bessie’s extreme surprise at seeing Laura alive which shows the housekeeper did believe that Laura, and not Diane, was dead. He has invited Waldo there that morning to observe his response to seeing her alive. But, Shelby shows up first, brings in a flower for Laura, and kisses her on the cheek as Laura smiles at him. Mark’s personal feelings intervene again as he observes that Shelby seems to have won Laura back. Shelby also says he talked to his lawyer and says that what he said before couldn’t be used against him since it was said under “duress,” and wasn’t true. As an angry Mark reminds Shelby of the facts in the case, the doorbell buzzes.

Waldo arrives and, when he sees an alive Laura, he collapses to the floor, which seems to validate that he knew nothing about Diane being the victim. After he revives, the verbal venom between Waldo and Shelby commences when Waldo hears Mark say he has enough evidence to arrest Shelby. Waldo says he has invited Laura’s friends over so that they can celebrate her still being with them. But Mark is ahead of him since he has already called her acquaintances, as we learn, for his own purposes.
At the party, Ann approaches Shelby and tells him that she can get the best lawyer for him, that his relationship with Laura won’t last, and she and he should marry. Obviously, Ann has a motive to kill any women who are romantically interested in Shelby. He rejects her overture. When Shelby and Laura speak, she asks why he went to her cottage, and he says that she might not have thought of hiding the gun, He obviously assumes that she shot Diane out of jealousy. She is outraged by his belief that she could be a murderer, but the implication here is also that Shelby is so vain he believes he is worth killing for. Diane escapes to her bedroom where Ann is applying makeup (metaphorically covering up her agenda to alienate Laura from Shelby?). She also wears a black veil which descends from her hat. It seems to suggest that Ann is here at Laura’s resurrection but would rather be at her funeral. Ann comments that Mark is interested in Laura, and he is a better match for her than Shelby. When asked, Ann says she doesn’t think Shelby did the killing, but thinks he is capable of pulling the trigger, and so is she, though she denies having shot Diane. Ann says Shelby is more compatible with her, which implies that Ann’s character is deplorable. She even admits that Shelby is not a “nice person,” and confesses neither is she. She says they are “both weak and can’t seem to help it.” The film continues to show how corruption permeates the society in its supposedly higher, respectable ranks. 

Mark receives a phone call and assures the person on the line that he will bring in the killer that day. He makes the announcement loud enough so everybody hears. He approaches Laura and tells her they must leave. Bessie runs in front of Laura, trying to protect her. Laura thanks her, and then Waldo says he will use all of his resources to defend Laura and smear Mark and the arrest. Shelby just says to Laura that he warned her to be wary of Mark, who tells Shelby it was too bad he didn’t open the door on the night of the murder, suggesting it would have been better that Shelby was killed. When Shelby grabs him, Mark punches him. There is a feeling that Shelby has it coming, but the action also comes from the jealous rage that erupts after simmering under Mark’s cool surface. Shelby doubles over and Anne rushes over to comfort him as he calls her name. Shelby seems to sail into any port in a storm.
At police headquarters, Mark shines the bright lights on Laura, a cliché, to get her to tell the truth, but also metaphorically to reveal secrets. Mark tells her that the radio was working when he was at her country house. Laura says she called a repairman, and he used a key under an outside flowerpot to get in and fix it. Mark suggests that may be true, but she was smart enough to have broken the radio herself to validate her not hearing about her supposed death. Mark then moves from the criminal investigation to a personal one, as he wants to know why she said she was through with Shelby, and then quickly was back with the man. She verifies that Shelby convinced her to act as if their engagement was on again to make it appear that she wouldn’t marry a murder suspect. She didn’t believe he was guilty, but knew others would think he was. She just learned that he thought she was the killer. When asked by Mark about how she feels about Shelby, she says she doesn’t know how she could ever have thought she was in love with Shelby. Her statement reassures Mark concerning his very little doubt of her innocence, and Laura’s words please him on a personal level. He admits that her arrest was a fake, probably to put the other suspects at ease. 
Mark then goes to Waldo’s unoccupied apartment. The clock chimes, the one with its only duplicate being in Laura’s place. Mark looks for something hidden in it, and breaks its lower facade, trying to find the truth under a phony surface. But he finds nothing there. Meanwhile, Laura is complimentary about Mark in Waldo’s presence as he tries to undermine any possible relationship that may blossom between Laura and the detective. He basically says that the cop is not in her elevated league, having only dealt with criminals. Yet, the people Laura has associated with are hardly admirable individuals: Waldo is a selfish verbal hatchet man; Shelby is a gold digger; Ann is an immoral manipulator; and Diane was a sneak undermining Laura’s relationship with Shelby. It is the lower-class person, Bessie, who is the moral and trustworthy one. Waldo’s insecurity about his physical attractiveness shows when he says that Laura’s weakness is that she falls for handsome men. She says she won’t allow herself ever to be “hurt” by any man in the future. Waldo says he would never hurt her. He then reveals something about himself when he says that when a man who appears to have everything can’t have what he really wants, he “loses his self-respect,” and he becomes “bitter.” He says that man then “wants to hurt someone as he’s been hurt.” Do his words not only show why Waldo is demeaning toward others, but also demonstrate how he can physically harm someone else? He wants them to resume their relationship, which is, again, a jealous one which keeps her to himself. 
Mark enters and Waldo is sarcastically funny, asking the policeman, “Haven’t you heard of science’s newest triumph, the doorbell?” Mark shows wit and consideration when he says he didn’t want to mimic what the killer did. He reveals that after testing, the shotgun in Laura’s cottage was not the murder weapon. Waldo accuses Mark of not really believing in Laura’s innocence or he wouldn’t be there. Laura says she believes Mark thinks she is not the killer. As the two talk, Mark continues to play with his baseball game, wanting the parts to fit, as usual. When Waldo says Laura is again being taken in by good-looking men, she turns the tables and says Waldo is the one who repeats patterns, always trying to steer her away from other men so he can monopolize her. She shows her feminist independence by saying they should stop seeing each other. Before he leaves Waldo says she and Mark will have an “earthy” relationship, implying a descent into physical crudeness, and then tells Mark to listen to his recorded radio broadcast that evening on the history of love, a subject he really knows nothing about in his own life.

As Waldo heads toward the stairs outside, his shadow looms behind him, revealing his larger, darker self. He seems to be worried about something. Inside, the apartment, the duplicate clock in Laura’s apartment chimes, as it did at Waldo’s place. Mark says all he needs is “the gun.” We now realize that is what he was looking for in Waldo’s clock. Mark finds the way to open the bottom of the timepiece’s compartment, and discovers the murder weapon, the danger beneath the supposedly beneficial appearance. Mark says Waldo saw Diane who looked like Laura in the darkened room wearing Laura’s negligee and shot her, thinking if he couldn’t have Laura, he would deprive anyone else from having her. When Shelby surprised him by running out, Waldo hid on the stairway and placed the gun in the clock, since he knew how to open it, having given it to Laura. The little silver balls have now fallen into place. 

Laura confesses that she felt that Waldo could be the killer, but didn’t want to admit it because of all the man had done for her. Despite the man’s poisonous actions that tried to destroy her innocence, Laura still looked for the good in the man. But, she saw that he was trying to point the guilt at Shelby, as he had done with Jacoby, the painter. She feels guilty about Diane’s death because she should have discouraged Waldo’s obsession with her. Mark tries to dispel her blaming herself. He replaces the gun in the clock with a towel and says he will have the clock brought in as evidence and will arrest Waldo. He has her lock her door, and recalling the prior attack, tells her not to answer the doorbell. They kiss goodnight, as they reveal openly their affection for each other. After he leaves she shuts out the lights to get some sleep. But as the clock chimes sound again, Waldo, who snuck into the room next to the clock, comes out of hiding. Doorbells and clock chimes have become warning signals of the presence of danger. Waldo opens the clock and retrieves and reloads the shotgun. In her bedroom, Laura turns on the radio and Waldo’s program is on, where he talks about love being “eternal,” and the strongest “motivation” throughout history. But love is about caring for another over one’s own wants, and Waldo does not understand that. He surprises Laura, and says he won’t allow her to be “pawed” by Mark, showing how he views the detective as a wild animal unworthy of touching his artistic creation.

Outside, a policeman says he tracked Waldo to Laura’s place and didn’t see him exit the building. Mark and his men run up the stairs, and Mark breaks into the apartment just as Laura is able to deflect Waldo’s first gunshot. She runs to Mark and another policeman shoots Waldo as he discharges the rifle. Waldo fittingly falls in front of Laura’s portrait, since he fell in love with his creation in life and does so now in death. His shot destroyed the clock, the symbol of Waldo’s desire to possess Laura throughout time. The last shot of the film is the same as the first, the painting of Laura. She is a femme fatale, but not of her own devising, but instead created out of another’s self-destructive jealousy.

The next film is Groundhog Day.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Words

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The Words (2012) is a story within a story within another story. It focuses on what is real and what is imaginative, and how this line can blur when an author creates characters that are so real they become more important than actual people in the writer’s life. It also deals with the talent to create a truly inspired work of art, and someone who would appropriate the work of another to make up for a lack of that unique ability. 

Writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is doing a reading of his recently released novel, The Words. The question as the story unfolds is whose words are they? Hammond is telling us about a tale within the movie in which Hammond is a character. The film dramatizes the narration as Hammond says that there is an Old Man (Jeremy Irons, terrific in this role) watching in the rain as Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper, in a fine but not well known performance) and his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana) exit a building in New York City. It appears to the Old Man that the couple was able to avoid the water drops, implying they were blessed by fate. At his dreary apartment, the Old Man looks decrepit, using a cane, and his medicine cabinet is filled with medications. In contrast the Jansens look picture perfect in their fine clothes as they ride in a limousine to a ceremony awarding Rory a prestigious writing award. 

Rory starts his acceptance speech by making an interesting statement, saying, “I simply tried to set down the truth as I imagined it.” Fiction’s connection to facts can be remote, as in fantasy stories. It is more aligned to them when dealing with tales that approach reality. But, even there, it is “imagined.” By insightfully portraying what people experience and feel, and how they behave, the author can demonstrate the “truth” about human existence. Rory says he hopes he can come up with something for his next book, an ironic statement, we later discover. There are cuts to the Old Man as he scans Rory’s novel, which implies that there is a connection between him and Rory’s story.
There is a cut back to Hammond who shifts the narrative to five years earlier so as to provide a backstory. The early part of Rory’s life as a writer is like those of others trying to be successful. Rory and Dora moved to Brooklyn after college. He starts out like most novelists, creating a story, doing the revising, and submitting his manuscript. But, in the meantime, he and Dora have little money. Rory approaches his father (J. K. Simmons) for some funds, and we discover it isn’t the first time he has gone to his dad for help. Rory doesn’t want to ask for cash since, like most people, he wants to make it on his own. He reminds his father that two years ago there was a decision to give the writing career a chance. His dad, like other parents in a similar situation, tells him the writing should now be a “hobby,” and he should work at something that brings in a steady income. His father gives in and writes him a check, but tells him it’s the last one. He tells Rory that part of being a man is to accept one’s “limitations.” That is a tough reality to accept because most young people have dreams that they want to live up to. But when is it okay to accept that not all hopes become real, with the possibility that prematurely failing to apply oneself means giving up too early? 

Hammond relates how Rory received nothing but negative responses to the submissions of his novel, or worst of all, “silence.” This last form is the worst kind of rejection because it implies that a writer’s work didn’t even warrant a comment. Rory gets a low-level job delivering mail and packages at a large publishing company in order to foster literary connections. He sort of half-jokingly tells a fellow worker, also an aspiring writer, that he writes “angry young men” fiction, which most likely mirrors his frustration at not getting published. 
Dora wonders one evening if Rory is going to write that night. He isn’t feeling like it, and so he may be accepting those “limitations.” Hammond says, “without even knowing it they had settled into their lives.” The operative word here is “settled,” which means no longer trying to strive for something more fulfilling. The couple marries and honeymoons in Paris. They stop to take a picture of a plaque which notes that Ernest Hemingway stayed at that spot. Being where one of the world's most famous writers lived brings with it awe and also envy on the part of another author. They stop at an antique store where Rory discovers an old soft leather briefcase. Dora loves it and buys it for him, and it eventually changes his life.

Rory continues to write, but there is disappointment on his face as he sits in front of his laptop. He has been at the publishing house job long enough that he is instructing trainees. He is overjoyed, as any hopeful author would be, when a literary agent, Timothy Epstein (Ron Rifkin), sets up a meeting with him and tells Rory that his book is very accomplished, and that he sees “so much truth” in his writing. But Epstein says the work is “interior,” subtle, and is a work of art, which, ironically, makes it too literary to be marketable coming from an unknown writer. It is the book business Catch-22 (which of course is the title of a famous book), that one can’t get published if the author isn’t already published. 

The movie itself comments on the writing process by showing us the difference between a successful story and one that isn’t. Up to this point, except for the mysterious Old Man, which keeps us invested, Rory’s story is not noteworthy, certainly not one that we would recommend reading. But that changes with what happens next. Rory finds a manuscript in the old briefcase that Dora bought him, which he reads. (IMDb notes that the first page is from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Hemingway’s ghost haunts this film). Hammond narrates that Rory could not stop thinking about what he found, and that “he had been confronted by everything he had ever aspired to be, and the reality of what he would never become.” Despite the fact that Epstein praised his work, Rory is humbled by encountering a level of achievement that he knows he can’t reach. And he is infuriated by finding out, as he says to Dora, “I’m not who I thought I was.” He has the love and devotion for writing, but not the talent (which is a similar theme in the play and movie, Amadeus). It is crushing to believe that he is not the great writer he thought he was, and he has no other aspiration, so he feels lost. Dora, understandably, is hurt by his words since she thought their love in the nonfiction world was the cornerstone of their lives (which, of course is also not real, because Hammond made it up, who was also created by the co-screenwriters and co-directors, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. Many layers here). 

Rory escapes his limitations by copying the found novel in an attempt to channel the revered anonymous writer through his typing. Hammond says Rory just wanted “the words to pass through his fingers, through his mind.” He even keeps the spelling mistakes. He places his thumbprint over the one on the original manuscript’s page, as if trying to be part of the tale’s uniqueness. Dora comes across his retyping on the laptop and believes her husband wrote the story. She is overwhelmed and tells him he is everything that he wanted to be. She says the new words show that he “stopped hiding. They're fuller, they’re truer, they’re more honest.” Rory’s own work was artistic, but an empty vessel, devoid of the emotional depth that, according to Dora, he shows in life. But Rory is not happy choosing a happy, though circumscribed life, over what a piece of accomplished fiction can bring him. Rory starts out by trying to clear up the misunderstanding, but after seeing how moved and adoring Dora is, he finds that he can’t disappoint her. Rory knows he can’t receive recognition for his own writing, so he decides to go for half of the dream by being the recipient of the praise of another’s work. His copying of the novel turns into replicating just the fame of a successful author. He submits the novel, called The Window Tears, about “A young man’s journey through love and loss in 1940’s Paris.” The book becomes a number one best-selling novel and garners critical acclaim. (It is interesting that the number two book on the best-seller list is entitled Buried Lies, an obvious echo of what is happening in the movie). He could have been honest and accepted his “limitations” honorably, but as Hammond says, “Rory Jansen had made his choice,” to become a fraud. The backstory concludes and Hammond says, “And then he met the Old Man.” Quite a teaser, as the author announces the end of part one. 

There is a break in the reading and we are now in the primary part of the story which deals with Hammond. While signing books, a beautiful young woman, Daniella (Olivia Wilde), approaches the author and obviously knows things about him, such as his favorite wine. He invites her to spend some private time with him during the intermission. She shows that she knows a great deal more about Hammond, including food preferences, and music and TV show favorites. She also knows that he is separated from his wife, but he still wears his wedding ring, probably because he has been married for quite a while, and clings to that past reality. Daniella sounds like a groupie, but she reveals that she obtained her backstage pass from her college professor, and she herself is an aspiring writer, having won the same literary award as did Hammond when he was younger. Is she similar to Rory in Hammond’s novel, a writer who hopes to be great at some point, admiring the work of another storyteller?
When the break is over and Hammond returns to the stage, the center of attention, which is where Rory hoped to be and found his way there under false pretenses. The Old Man rides the bus that Rory takes to New York City’s Central Park, and sits near him on a park bench. Rory is reading a book and the Old Man says he met the author, who they both agree should have been better appreciated, which is probably what Rory feels about his own writing. When Rory wonders out loud, “What happened?” to the author, the Old Man says, “life,” which also fits what happened to this stranger. He knows who Rory is as he pulls out a newspaper article that is about winning the writing award. The Old Man asks him how it feels to be so well known. Rory says it’s good to have one’s work recognized, but the irony is that it isn’t his. The Old Man says with a hint of sarcasm that God looked down on Rory and said there is a writer. Rory says that he wrote two other books that wouldn’t have been published if it hadn’t been for The Window Tears, which helped him get over that Catch-22 glitch that guarantees that nothing breeds success like success. The Old Man says that he read Rory’s book and felt like he was right there, tasting the wine, sitting in the cafe, making love to the girl, hearing the child crying, and longing for his distant home. After the man praises his writing, Rory feels a bit uneasy with this enthusiastic man, possibly out of guilt. He says he has to leave, and the Old Man asks Rory to sign his copy of the book. Rory doesn’t have a pen and the Old Man comments, “a writer without a pen,” which has the subtext that he is an author without the words.

The Old Man says he has “a story.” He says that if he told it to Rory and he wrote it he might be able to give the Old Man some credit. Rory’s response is, “Well that wouldn’t be fair, would it?” But that is exactly what Rory has done, and he starts to leave since The Old Man is cutting close to the bone now. The Old Man then drops the bomb which shows he is the writer of Rory’s novel when he says his story is “about a man who wrote a book then lost it, and the pissant kid who found it.” Rory sits down next to him.

The Old Man now is the narrator as we get to the third story of the film (so Hammond is narrating what another narrator is saying). He says there was a Young Man, a soldier (Ben Barnes), in Paris in 1944 who hadn’t seen action in WWII. The young man worked to rebuild sewer pipes after the German occupation, stressing how lowly his life was literally and figuratively. But he was happy doing these details with fellow soldiers. He became best friends with a scholarly fellow who lent him books that opened his mind up and planted the desire to be a writer. He then meets Celia (Nora Arnezeder). They only knew each other's word for “Yes,” which the Old Man says made it “the perfect relationship.” Here the Old Man suggests that when it comes to love, words, essential for a story, can become a problem when one chooses them over real people, as we shall see. The verbal communication between the two comes later as they rejoice in their time together. The Young Man was then discharged from the army and went back to his American home, working at a market. Back there, “nothing had changed,” but he had. His old life felt “small” after seeing other parts of the world, meeting Celia, and acquiring the desire to write. 

So, he started to write but he was not successful (like Rory?). He left America and went back to Paris and Celia. He started to be a journalist for one of the many publications hiring ex-patriots and the Old Man says it was “a good place to learn.” Perhaps writing about real people gave the Young Man the training to connect to others on a genuine level, which Rory’s writing does not achieve. (Here we have another reference to Hemingway and how he was a journalist in France, and also the time Rory saw Hemingway’s house in Paris). Even some of the shots of how the Young Man kisses Celia mirror Rory’s actions with Dora and both couples married after moving in together. Unlike Rory, the Young Man and his wife had a child, which adds more experience to his story as their two paths diverge.

When the Old Man hesitates, Rory wants him to continue, drawn into the story as he was by the Old Man’s novel, as we are drawn into Hammond’s book, and the story of the film as a whole. He says that the baby cried all the time, and they found out “my daughter” was hopelessly ill. So we now know what we suspected, that this story is what really happened to the Old Man. The grief from the death of the baby damages their marriage as Celia becomes numb and distant. She leaves to stay at her mother’s home. With another allusion to Hemingway, the Young Man reaches for his copy of The Sun Also Rises. It is Hemingway’s first novel which he wrote after quitting his journalism job, taking time alone, away from his family, in order to put all his effort into his fiction. 

The Young Man at first starts to toss stuff in his apartment in anger and despair. But on the back of Celia’s farewell note he starts to type his own work of fiction. His use of the other side of the piece of paper symbolically shows how he turns a negative into a positive, using his writing as a way to purge his pain and turn death into a creative birth. We even see the ink thumbprint that Rory noticed on the found manuscript page. The Old Man says words flowed out of the Young Man (himself) and, “The words became form, the form became whole,” and he completed the novel in only two weeks. After performing this healing process of the imagination, the Young Man slept and then went to be with his wife and gave her his book. But, she wasn’t ready to reunite and sent him back to Paris. She put the pages in the briefcase (the one Dora bought) and a little later decided to return to Paris and “start life over.” But she left the book on the train, which removes the possibility of beginning again for the Young Man, who felt the book “saved him.” The implication here is that he has lost a second child that he helped to bring into the world. 

He becomes angry with Celia and searches for the lost work (which is another connection to Hemingway, since his wife lost a collection of the author’s stories). The young man eventually left to go home, as Celia did when they lost their child. But, the Old Man says, he couldn’t write anymore because, “he was never able to set down one word that looked right to him.” The suggestion here is that he had written his book when there was a flood of emotion that channeled all of his feelings into the words on his typewriter, and after that, the inspiration receded. As the Old Man says, maybe he didn’t want to go “that deep again,” into the depths of that tormented ocean. He eventually found a sort of “peace.” But, just like a storyteller, he adds that’s when his tale became even more interesting. He says the Young Man was now the Old Man, himself, and he read Rory’s novel and knew that it was his words in the book. He says that he wanted Rory to know the story behind the story and maybe he now has the makings of another book (which is the one Hammond is telling), but the Old Man’s statement is sarcastic, implying Rory may steal from him again to write about the first theft of “the words.” 

The Old Man walks away and Hammond ends his reading at this point to draw the audience into buying his book (and the filmmakers hook us as we want to know what comes next). It also allows the movie to further develop Hammond’s character. Hammond sees Daniella waiting by herself, smiling, and the writer, who seduces others with his work, is also being seduced. He takes her to his elegant apartment, but he hasn’t unpacked since becoming separated from his wife. He is adrift, like the characters in his book. (Daniella picks up a baseball off of Hammond’s desk that Babe Ruth supposedly hit for a home run. IMDb notes that a similar ball is pictured on Rory’s desk. Has Hammond just used an object he owns as a prop in his story or does this coincidence suggest that maybe Hammond also stole another’s work earlier in his career and his current novel is a sort of confession?). He wonders why Daniella wants to be something “silly” like a writer, and says words “ruin everything,” which suggest how harmful they can be when they become more important than real life. He echoes what he says in his book about the perfect relationship being devoid of them. Yet his living uses words, so he is a living contradiction, revealing an almost self-loathing. She doesn’t have the patience to read the book and wants Hammond to tell her how the book ends.

He continues the narration to his one-person audience. Rory gets drunk so he can tell Dora that he didn’t write the book. He wants to know why she loves him because he is afraid that she really committed to him when she thought it was his story. He wants her to admit that she knew all along he couldn’t be that good a writer in order to assure himself that the book isn’t why she is still there with him. But she loved him before the novel and her pain and anger derives from his dishonesty. 

He even confesses his plagiarism to his publisher, Joseph Cutler (Zeljko Ivanek), and says he wants to take his name off of the book. The furious Cutler says a public admission will destroy Rory and him. He proposes a cover-up by saying Rory can pay the Old Man whatever he wants to ease his conscience, and assures him that writers have committed this crime before. Rory initially dismisses that notion, implying that just because someone does something wrong it doesn’t justify another to do the same. When he asks if the subsequent book that Cutler published, that was his own, is as good as the Old Man’s, Cutler’s silence tells Rory what he already knows about his limited talent. 

Rory discovers the Old Man working at a plant nursery, where things still live, as opposed to what happened to his child and his writing. Rory says he wants to make things right by removing his name from the book and give the Old Man the royalties. But the Old Man is angry about what Rory did in the first place, taking a part of his life, the “joy and the pain that gave birth to those words,” for Rory’s own benefit. The Old Man will not allow Rory a way to dispel his guilt. But, he is still a writer at heart, and feels compelled to tell Rory, an eager listener, like us all, that part of the story that is not in the book. He says he saw his wife one more time, and there is a scene which shows him as the Young Man on a train that stops at a station. A man, holding a child, approaches and kisses Celia, and the Young Man realizes that she has been able to move on, unlike him, and start a new family, a new life. Their eyes meet and they tentatively wave to each other as he pulls away from her forever. The Old Man says she looked happy which gave him pain, but also some relief since he discovered that he hadn’t permanently hurt Celia. He says that allowed him to not keep looking back. Rory feels the Old Man would have had a better life if he continued to write. But the Old Man responds with something that is significant to the theme of the movie. He says, “my tragedy was that I loved words more than I loved the woman who inspired me to write them.” Rory has made a similar choice, as have many artists who chose their creations over those important people that were in their lives. Maybe the art connects with others, maybe even changes them. But, the sacrifices can be awful. The Old Man tells Rory that everyone makes choices, but they, like Rory, have to live with the consequences. Before he goes, Rory tells the man, “I do love your book,” which personally acknowledges the Old Man’s ownership and talent with no selfish attempts to lessen Rory’s guilt. Hammond concludes by telling Daniella that Rory continued living his lie, and the Old Man died a couple of weeks after Rory visited him. There is a shot of Rory dropping the original manuscript into the Old Man’s open grave. Hammond says, “It was as if by locking off the secret of one man’s life forever, he had unveiled another much deeper and darker secret within himself.” The implication is that Rory enjoyed his success that was not earned, and lived with the more awful truth that he was the kind of person who allowed himself to benefit from such a deception.

Hammond says there is no moral attached to his story, and that someone can make a terrible mistake in life, and even live well afterwards. Daniella says that is “bullshit,” because everyone must deal with guilt. We then get images of Rory and Dora, but they are not from anything written, and seem to spring from Hammond’s mind. Daniella wants to know what Hammond really believes would happen if the circumstances in the story actually occurred in real life. Here is where reality and imagination begin to blur. Hammond angrily says she has manipulated herself into being with him and getting him to talk. After all, she, too, has a selfish agenda as she wants to further her career. He turns the question back onto Daniella, and wants to know how she thinks it would play out if the story was genuine. 

She gets her jacket to leave and says about Rory, “He’s fucked,” because even though he may continue to write, “he’ll never, ever believe it. He’s robbed himself of the chance to find out” if he will ever really be accepted on his own merits since he already achieved fame under false circumstances. She also suggests that “maybe his marriage falls apart because for him and his wife to look at one another is for them to look at the truth” about the lie they are living. Rory might, in public, be able to “wear that mask of confidence and sophistication, but back when he’s alone late at night, he can’t sleep, because when he closes his eyes he still sees the face of that old man.” Hammond encourages her as she speaks, as if mentoring her writing, and then contributes the possibility that, “maybe he sees his own face, and the old man is just a story he made up.” Hammond is now talking about himself. He has written his book because he has the same struggle as the Young Man and Rory. He continues by saying, “At some point, you have to choose between life and fiction. The two are very close, but they never actually touch.” 
 Hammond tries to have that real “touch” by kissing Daniella passionately, but, despite what he just said, Hammond pulls back as an image of Dora holding Rory’s face in her hands appears. Hammond moves away and says Daniella should leave. She understands and says that Hammond “never let her go.” He conjured up Dora, and he can’t give up that fantasy of her, since he created in fiction what he can’t have in life. He couldn’t write an unhappy ending for Dora and Rory because he is living through his fiction and thus he would also experience a sad finish. She throws his words back at him, asking what does he want, “life or fiction?” We then get flashbacks of romantic moments between Rory and Dora, and we know that the writer chooses the words. 

The next film is Laura.