Laura with Shelby Carpenter

A complex psychological thriller masquerading as a film noir, 1944’s Laura is about three men who are bewitched by a woman so ethereally, transcendentally beguiling that it is entirely appropriate that, when director Otto Preminger takes the curtain up, Laura (Gene Tierney) is already dead.

What follows is a basic whodunit pulled in various unusual directions. A for-instance: the cop on the case, Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), invites one of the men suspected of killing her, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), to accompany him while he cross-examines other witnesses. What cop does that? Another: the cop doesn’t do very much actual investigating and instead spends an inordinate amount of time in the dead woman’s apartment, making big moony eyes at a portrait of Laura hanging on the wall, as if it’ll tell him who did the deed.

The two other men in the dead Laura’s life are men with bits missing. Though it’s never stated up front, acid-penned columnist Lydecker is a homosexual whose relationship with Laura has been of the courtly older gent/young ingenue variety, though he, bucking against the constraints of his sexuality, wants more, much more. Vincent Price plays Shelby Carpenter, the would-be playboy of the western world who’s held back by a lack of cash and is hoping to rectify the situation by marrying the self-made Laura.

Neither man has the full complement of what Laura needs. If only decent, stand-up McPherson – a red-blooded male happy to live within his means – had met Laura while she were alive.

Lydecker in his bath meet cop McPherson
Lydecker meets the cop

The casting is spot on. Preminger (who also produced) fought hard to get Webb for the role of Lydecker, and won out against the wishes of studio boss Darryl F Zanuck, who was unhappy about the star’s open homosexuality, when this was what Preminger – who had an instinct for a lurid tabloid sell – wanted him for. Price is suave to the point of being reptilian, in the days before he’d begun his slide into grand guignol. Andrews is particularly good, and plays what is essentially a mad role – the infatuated cop – with a great deal of subtlety and restraint.

There are two important women. Laura, of course, with Tierney doing good work as the go-getter who takes the breaks offered to her by Lydecker and becomes a lone female force in the male-dominated world of advertising. What’s particularly good about her performance is the way she catches the beautiful woman’s in-built expectation that men will fall over themselves to be near her. As a kind of shadow version of Laura is the nicely over the top (as ever) Judith Anderson, four years on from playing Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, and here playing the doomed friend of Carpenter, unrequited love busting out all over and with not quite enough of what Laura’s got to get what Laura gets.

Preminger always had a taste for the melodramatic and squeezes the mood from initially highly frivolous (when the cop first meets Lydecker, Lydecker is in the bath) to incredibly fraught. The scene towards the end where the cop announces over the telephone, and in front of a room full of people hanging on his every word, that he’s about to arrest the murderer just as soon as he’s finished this call, is a bravura bit of writing and directing Agatha Christie would have been proud of.

It’s a country-house murder-mystery with an urban (and urbane) update, and Preminger is at pains to keep everything moving as if on castors, so much so that the one sharp move in the whole film really generates a frisson.

A triumph for Preminger, a rebuke for Zanuck, who not only hadn’t wanted Webb but didn’t want Preminger to direct and even forced a contrived rewritten finale on his director. Preminger, a bull at a gate, got what he wanted in all three instances, and was vindicated when Laura became one of the big hits of the year. Laura’s Theme – later recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald – was a big hit too.

Laura – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

While the City Sleeps

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino sitting at a bar

While the City Sleeps is one of the great noir titles. Which is not the same as saying it’s one of the great noir movies. In fact it’s barely noir at all.

Though it does start off looking like it might be. A lurid murder before the opening credits, then titles that come blaring at us in gigantic white letters, while Herschel Burke Gilbert’s title music of clarion brass and shrill strings suggests a great noirish feast is about to be served up. The director’s name – Fritz Lang – also promises the same. He’d done Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, after all, noir lodestones.

There’s been a murder and the murderer has left behind a message scrawled in lipstick on the wall of the apartment where he killed the unlucky woman. “Ask Mother,” it reads, leading us into what actually turns out to be one of the great prototype serial killer movies – Seven takes quite a few of its cues from While the City Sleeps. The murderer who loves to leave a clue, who taunts the police, who acts out of a kind of demented sense of destiny, is a twisted ball of mother-love.

There are three stories in one here. The serial killer story, with Dana Andrews as the crusading journalist Ed Mobley. A love story – of sorts – in which Ed tries to get sexy newspaper secretary Nancy (Sally Forrest) into bed, while she tries to get him to the altar, that’s if hard-bitten hack Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino, laying on the Hedda Hopper) doesn’t peel Ed off first for some booze-soaked sex. And weaving between these two stories is the actual driver of the plot, a neat bit of inter-media rivlary in which the section heads of the gigantic Kyne media conglomerate – a newspaper business, a newswire agency and a TV station – all vie for an editor-in-chief position after old man Kyne dies and his feckless son (played by Vincent Price) takes over.

“While the city sleeps” is when newspaper guys (and they are guys) do their work and this is one of the great heroic-journalism movies, set in a world full of people desperate for a scoop and going into battle armed with the conviction that newspapers are a public good. The days of big bad MSM and fake news are way, way in the future.

The drinking is also heroic and Andrews – who has to play drunk a couple of times – was apparently drunk through the entire shoot. It’s one of his best performances, humane and sparky where he can sometimes be a bit bloodless and flat.

Great performances all round. Thomas Mitchell as the grizzled old editor of the Sentinel, a newspaper guy to his fingertips, George Sanders as the oily boss of the wire service, James Craig grabbing the short straw in an underwritten role as “Honest” Harry Kritzer, the lothario head of pictures who’s also secretly having an affair with the new owner’s hot wife (Rhonda Fleming).

Vincent Price as Walter Kyne
Vincent Price as Walter Kyne

There are three noir females – women who get what they want by manipulating men – Lupino, Fleming and Forrest all coming at the femme fatale from slightly different angles, Fleming as the most overtly wanton, Lupino playing the boozy dame who grabs her kicks where she can and Forrest’s Nancy at the Doris Day end of the spectrum. Perky. And she has been dressed so we notice just how perky.

Lang is an in-camera director, as usual, preferring to do with crane, dolly and track what other directors achieve with an edit in post production. It makes for a gloriously fluid film and the longish takes give his actors something to chew on. Ernst Laszlo, one of the great directors of photography, does a fine job but only really gets his head in the scenes towards the end when Mobley is chasing the serial killer down some subway tunnels lit in a style reminiscent of The Third Man.

The whole serial killer angle is a bit of a feint, really, and John Drew Barrymore (father of Drew) is wheeled out to sweat and boggle his eyes only as and when the other elements of the story, which are doing perfectly well on their own, need a bit of a breather.

For all the many claims to greatness, this is a bit of a potboiler, albeit one done with plenty of craft polish and with a lot of fine actors giving it their best. Having virtually created the noir genre in the mid 1930s, Fritz Lang is effectively bringing it to an end in the mid 1950s with this film and its follow-up, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, a noirish courtroom drama that’s also a bit of a genre mishmash.

Neither is a classic but then the genre, like Lang himself, was exhausted.

While the City Sleeps – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Daisy Kenyon

Joan Crawford and Henry Fonda

Let’s just get this out of the way. Daisy Kenyon isn’t a film noir, even though it features on many noir “best of” lists. It’s a romantic melodrama of a very peculiar sort – “High powered melodrama surefire for the femme market” is how Variety described it on its release in 1947, in their odd, truncated way of communicating. More up-to-the-minute viewpoints can be found on Amazon – “NOT a true example of film noir”… “certainly not a film noir”… “DEFINITELY NOT FILM NOIR” – three of many. However, the tagging persists. It’s in the Fox Film Noir series of movies, its Amazon page pegs it as “Mystery & Suspense/Film Noir”, which is doubly, if not triply, wrong.

Perhaps it’s the knottiness of the plot that has thrown people (though not, it must be said, people who have watched it). Joan Crawford, in another of her post-Mildred Pierce woman-fighting-adversity roles, plays Daisy, an urbane magazine illustrator having an affair with entitled lawyer Dan (Dana Andrews), and hoping he’ll leave his wife for her, though that seems unlikely. Into her life comes Peter, hot back from the Second World War and a decent sort who falls for Daisy with almost reckless haste – he’s got a touch of PTSD and so is a touch unstable.

Daisy loves Dan, Dan says he loves Daisy, Peter also loves Daisy, though that might not be everything it appears to be. As the story plays out, Peter proposes to Daisy, Dan’s wife sues for divorce and the proverbial hits the fan in a number of ways. A love-triangle melodrama was unusual material for Hollywood at the time, and writer David Hertz attempts to make his adaptation of Elizabeth Janeway’s novel more acceptable by playing down the sex. There’s none whatsoever. Instead it’s replaced by the sort of clenched emoting that was Crawford’s specialty.

Dana Andrews on the phone
Dana Andrews as Dan

This is a great role for Dana Andrews, as a heel who doesn’t see why he can’t have it all, a bad guy who never sees himself as anything but a white knight. Entitlement doesn’t begin to cover it. What Dan – a kind of oily Cary Grant smarm on the go the whole time – most needs is a punch in the face. Henry Fonda, by contrast, is in another of his Noble Fonda roles – the guy who has put it on the line for his country (actually, Europe, but let’s not go there just now) and is now back home again, where he finds that Dan and his ilk have been cleaning up (money, women, whatever’s going) in the interim. The character of Fonda’s Peter turns out, in fact, in a neat plot twist, to be what Daisy Kenyon is about.

It’s a story about the intersection of personal and a larger morality, told at speed by Otto Preminger, who is here warming up his later oeuvre – socially engaged melodrama – and hoping that Crawford, Andrews and Fonda will give him a hit after a patchy run since his Hollywood breakthrough with 1944’s Laura. Daisy Kenyon failed to connect with audiences at the time. Maybe releasing it on Christmas Day wasn’t the best idea.

However, the years have been kinder, at least partly because this is a prime example of exquisite Hollywood craft – Leon Shamroy’s cinematography is non-stop superb. His lighting is exquisite, even though the “beauty lighting” he’s put on Crawford is laughably obvious, an attempt to knock ten years off the age of a 42-year-old woman going through the menopause (Crawford kept breaking into sweats and had the studio cooled to 50ºF/10ºC). Crawford, for her part, puts on a display of girlishness that’s actually rather touching.

For Hollywood it’s an oddly grown-up and unsentimental movie, though the censor apparently got more exercised about the amount of alcohol being drunk – count the martinis! – than the suggestions of extra-marital sex.

I watched the Kino Lorber Kino Classics DVD, which is sharp, rich and rewarding, especially if you’re into monochrome lighting in the high Hollywood era and the whole film-as-craft experience.

Daisy Kenyon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022