Monday, 21 January 2013

Laura (1944)

“Laura”, directed by Otto Preminger, is a film where three men trying to assert their claims and possess a woman. One, Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb), wants her as the jewel in his collection of beautiful objects; the most beautiful ornament of them all. The second, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), wants her for the escape opportunities she represents, and the chance of a better life. The last, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), falls in love with her portrait, a necrophiliac passion that anticipates something of “Vertigo” by more than a decade. None of them wants the real Laura, only the fantasy (the Laura in the portrait and of the flashbacks is not the one we see). Waldo in particular rejects any visions of her which don’t match and taint his own. In the end (and minor spoiler here), the one who does get her does so because his fantasy and her own desires match the best (for Laura is really made of flesh and blood). 

As Laura Hunt, the title character, Gene Tierney is wonderful. She has the allure and intelligence that Waldo refers to, but she also is enough of blank canvas that he and the others (as well as the audience) can project their fantasies into. Tierney’s gift is in showing us her real feelings and desires as the film progresses, and the portrait over the fireplace becomes more of a real person.

Another highlight of the film is Webb’s performance as Waldo. Caustic and sharp, with eyes that shoot daggers, he incarnates his character to give one of the most memorable performances of the 1940s. He got an Oscar nomination out of it, but lost (and he would loose two years later, for a similar role in “The Razor’s Edge”). Noteworthy are also Dana Andrews and Judith Anderson, as Laura’s patrician aunt with a soft spot for Price’s character.

And then, there’s the music. One of the most recognisable theme tunes of any film, Raksin’s score is a masterpiece. Heard mostly throughout as source music (i.e. from the radio, record, bands), I got the impression it became more of regular score once (and another minor spoiler) Laura enters the film, breaking Dana Andrews dream-like drunken stupor. Interestingly, the score did not get an Oscar nomination - in addition to Webb's, the film got nods for art direction, screenplay, director (Preminger's first) and won for Joseph LaShelle's beautiful black and white cinematography (beating, among others, "Double Indemnity", another noir with ravashing black and white cinematography).

If Laura” is one of the highlights in the careers of nearly all those involved (Tierney, Webb, Andrews, Anderson, Preminger and Raksin), the one sour note is Vincent Price’s grotesque miscasting. He doesn’t fit the character. He’s ill at ease in his clothes and his manner (and he shouldn’t in either) and I can’t buy him as someone who depends on his looks and charm to live. I also can’t see what either Laura or her aunt see in him.
As one minor note, the chronology of the film is a bit dubious: by Waldo’s account, Laura was around 17 when she first appears in his life, which might make her a tad too young for her job. That is not Tierney’s fault though, it’s just lazy scriptwriting. As is, Waldo’s opening narration, wonderfully delivered as it is – unless what we are hearing is what he is typing, it is completely inconsistent with the film’s time scale (the present, whereas the narration suggests the past)

Another (very minor) irritation is the silliness of some of the characters’ actions: everyone tags along Dana Andrews as if it was the most common thing in the world (and to a sense it is in 1930s and 1940s cinema); and everyone obstructs justice and gets away with it (particularly in the maid’s case).

Monday, 14 January 2013

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

In early 2000, there was a life changing event in my cinema-going life: a season of screwball comedies that for two months made me go repeatedly to the Portuguese Cinematheque. By the end of that season, I had watched some new favourites and some forgettable things (and some that moved from one to the other later on), but more important, I had a good grasp of the genre and had seen most of its key titles. There was, however, one major exception – “Theodora Goes Wild” with Irene Dunne. I got to finally see it in 2009, when the DVD came out. Unsurprisingly I watched it on the same day it arrived.

Was it worth the wait? Oh, yes… Theodora, a small town good girl (Irene Dunne) writes a raunchy novel under a pseudonym. While visiting her publisher in New York, the artist who designed the cover of her book (Melvyn Douglas) takes an interest in her. He ends following her to her small town, and does his best to liberate her from her environment. Only now Theodora goes wild, in a sudden turn (and hilarious, I thought) that the script takes in the third act.

I can definitely add this film to my list of reasons of why I think Irene Dunne is a favourite. From repressed girl in the beginning, to the master and maker of her own destiny at the end, she makes you believe in the growth of her character. Her timing is impeccable, and no matter how many times and how many people have said it before it should be repeated. She also pairs extraordinarly well with Douglas (another of my favourite actors) - just look at the sequences in Lynnsburg, particularly the dueling confrontation between the whistle and the piano and how her face reflects the lyrics. (Also note how the cat and the dog in the scene represent Dunne and Douglas, with the cat following where she can't go...). I freely admit that the later sequences in NY aren't as good as the ones in the small town.

Interestingly, Dunne was reluctant to take the part. She preferred to be thought of as a dramatic actress. However, she could really be both, and she got an Oscar nomination and spanned a career as comedienne, with "The Awful Truth" (and another nomination) and "My Favourite Wife" (both with Cary Grant) as the other highlights. The season at the Portuguese Cinematheque in 2000, showed not only these two, but also "The Joy of Living" and "Lady in a Jam". I recall nothing of either, but I think I liked the first and definitely found the second very weak.

The supporting cast (which includes Thomas Mitchell and Spring Byington), is delicious, particularly the aunts and Byington as the town's gossip (who also gets her own comeuppance).
I decided to watch the film again following a passionate stance on it by Peter Swaab, the curator of the Screwball season at the BFI at the season's introduction. I wasn't able to go to the screenings (would have loved to see in on the big screen, introduced by him), so a DVD session had to do...