Thursday, September 21, 2017

Laura’s aura

What was the right sentence? ‘Ok, old bastard, you can start filming Monday,’ or ‘You can start filming Monday, starting from scratch’? Who shall we believe: Leonard Mosey in his book on Zanuck or Preminger in his autobiography? When Zanuck, the Fox tyrant, finally gives the green light to Preminger, Laura (which will be a box office and critical success before turning cult-film) is a poor and damaged thing. The number of people that became upset along the Laura-project is incredible. Vera Caspary, because his novel was first confined to Fox’s ‘B’ department. Brian Foy, the boss of this department, who detested the script but was overruled by Zanuck. Clifton Webb, a theatre actor, who was asked – supreme humiliation – to do a screen test. Mamoulian, who was chosen to direct the film and only accepted it reluctantly, to make a bit of money. Dana Andrews who, for his first starring rule, was held in contempt by Zanuck. Mamoulian’s wife who painted Laura’s first portrait but saw her work replaced by a large modified photography. Judith Anderson who took herself for Medea and was asked to play more economically. And Zanuck himself who, having forced an ending of his choosing, finally had to give in. Only Preminger, producer and eventually ‘auteur’ of this pile of muffled hatred, was right to take it on the chin and hold firm. Laura is not only the film that established his reputation as a director but, bizarrely, will stay as the leading film of this troubled period for Fox.  
These anecdotes are not meant to devoid Laura of its merits but to remind us of the rule of the game (and the beauty of cinema): films are not only the results of their conditions of production, they are – sometimes – their reflection. To watch and watch again Laura is to understand how, as early as 1944, nothing is simple anymore in Hollywood. We’re witnessing in real time the birth of mannerism. And because it’s in real time, we see on Gene Tierney’s and Dana Andrew’s inexpressive faces and amateurish acting, their real innocence as they sink (and us with them) in a world of useless complications, alternative truths and bouncing lights.  
What’s Laura if not the story of a gaze to come, Mark MacPherson’s gaze (played by Dana Andrews) on the Laura in flesh and bones that replaces the Laura in portrait as the storm rages outside? Throughout his relentless and fast-paced investigation, Dana Andrews only has eyes for the small baseball game that he carries in his pocket, as if his own eyes were steel balls that refused to move to an object that don’t deserve them. Dana Andrews – we will never say enough how much the great American cinema of the fifties owe to his closed and stubborn acting – is one of these actors that listens with his eyes. He listens (to the others’ lies) until he finds, in front of him, an object worth looking at: Laura. And when she (who exists so little) is facing him, he becomes immediately, in the great tradition of Premingerian heroes, the one that has, all in all, only one gaze for himself (we shall never forget Jean Simmons’ gaze at the end of Angel Face, how could we?). 
Mannerism is not being fussy, it’s taking samples. The characters in Laura belong to a world where people talk a lot but communicate very little because the organs of communication suffer a handicap. If a cop only has one gaze, the writer only has one voice, his, and a voice over on top of that. Waldo Lydecker’s voice (Clifton Webb’s) opens the film, accompanies his holder until he dies, to the sound of his own radio programme. As for Laura, she exists so little that the film is consumed in trying to make her image exist, for lack of anything else. Of Laura, we know the two houses, the portrait, the fatal negligee, the rapid career: all the samples taken on a bland character, a young women enjoying success but who doesn’t know – at all – what a man is.  
We called ‘mise en scene’ this know-how that saves appearances once the organs of fascination have become independent of the bodies they adorned.  
First published in Libération on 27 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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