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Laura

Wowza!

Laura (1944)

     For me, Laura is the quintessential film noir. In reality, however, it is quite different from the standard flick of that genre. Whereas most noirs dealt with seedy underworld types and a blonde vixen,Laura’s setting is high society and focuses on a pretty brunette out to destroy no one.

     The title character, played by Gene Tierney, is absent for the majority of the flick, shown primarily in flashbacks as the movie paints a picture of her rise to professional wealth and of those around her who are now suspects in her murder. Dana Andrews plays Detective McPherson who seeks to unravel who unloaded a barrel of buckshot in the woman’s face in her own doorway one night.

     He starts his sleuthing with snide newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who accepts McPherson’s visit while he is at his typewriter … in the bath. Waldo is an absolutely unkind man who defends against an accusation of callousness with the response: “I would be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves.” He, who was responsible for launching Laura’s career and courted her platonically, glimpses no sign of guilt. Fascinated with the psyche of a murderer, however, he insists on joining the cool McPherson in his interviews.

     Next up are Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) and Laura’s fiance Shelby, played by a young and handsome Vincent Price. Shelby has been distraught, unable to sleep (is that a sign of grief or guilt, Waldo inquires), but his alibi of attending the symphony is shoddy as he inaccurately reports the program, defending himself by saying he fell asleep. Ann, meanwhile, is looking shady because she has been withdrawing large sums of money that appear to be resurfacing in Shelby’s coffers, and we learn the two were having an affair.

     It is impossible to go further into the plot without giving away a fantastic twist that transpires about two-thirds in. The change throws all theories out the window as McPherson considers a different suspect and a different body. Director Otto Preminger gives us a masterpiece in Laura. It seems impossible to determine a true motive for the murder and we and McPherson have a difficult time knowing who to trust.

      The dialogue is intelligent, witty and sharp, especially that coming from the literary Waldo. Webb fantastically plays the acerbic writer whose insults flow so gracefully off his tongue. The story, however, is not just a mystery; it also has shades of romance. As McPherson learns all about Laura and we view her through flash backs, the man gradually falls in love with her ghost and her portrait that hangs above the woman’s mantle. Andrews gives a wonderfully controlled performance. He never raises his voice and his demeanor of near disinterest has the suspects overly willing to offer up information or point out where they have been dishonest and why. He lets Waldo rile up accusations and spark arguments while he bows his head to play with a handheld puzzle game.

     Tierney, meanwhile, paints Laura as a woman we cannot help but admire and ourselves fall in love with –reserved, gentle, elegant, forthright– while Andrews portrays his detective as a perfect mate. Anderson gives her typically perfect performance, and Price is fascinating to see in his charming youth before becoming a master of horror flicks.

     Laura won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and the black and white picture really is a work of art, full of creative shadowing that instills the sexy, mysterious mood. This movie is yet another example of how Otto Preminger never disappoints.Laura is not as long as his other lengthy but worthwhile mysteries, but it packs the same wallop. I cannot recommend it enough.

Salome (1953)

Gasser

Salome (1953)

     I am not typically a fan of bible-era movies, so Salome had me nearly disinterested from the start, but thanks to a strong performance by Rita Hayworth and a decent romantic plot, I ultimately enjoyed this viewing. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai and Gilda in which she plays a great conniving seductress, several musical or otherwise light-subjected movies had me sort of jaded about the beautiful star’s talent. Salome stood to be another opportunity for the redhead to gallivant across the screen as merely a beautiful face, but the now-matured star showed her mettle here instead.

     Hayworth was 35 when Salome was released and although her face shows nearly no signs of aging, her voice and her manner belie a world-wise woman. She no longer comes to the screen with the gay light of the young and free, but instead gives us an embittered young woman who hates her surroundings.

      Salome, the step daughter of King Herod of Galilee, has spent most of her life in Rome where Tiberius Caesar banishes the woman from his city. Caesar’s cousin wishes to marry her, but being a “savage” non-Roman, the union is forbidden and Salome cast out. Her voyage back to Galilee is on a vessel occupied by newly appointed Governor Pontius Pilate (Basil Sydney) and his right-hand man Commander Claudius, played by Stewart Granger. Claudius immediately puts the moves on the sexy lady despite her wishes to have no contact with Romans. Once home in Galilee, Salome is graciously greeted by her mother Queen Herodias, played by an aged Judith Anderson, and is immediately spotted by King Herod as (Charles Laughton) as a desirable conquest.

     In the midst of this story is another plot involving John the Baptist, whom the king thinks is the messiah, who preaches about a new religion and speaks against the throne because the queen is an adulteress having left her husband to marry his brother, the king. Herod will do nothing to silence the man despite his wife’s wishes because a prophecy declares any member of the Herod family who kills the messiah is doomed to die an agonizing death. Salome dislikes the Baptist because he denounces her mother, but Claudius is good friends with the prophet.

     Salome and Claudius draw nearer to each other as the plot unfolds and the woman begins to realize the evil of her mother. When John the Baptist is arrested, Claudius uses the palace guards to fight him free while Salome dances for the king in the hopes of convincing him to release the prisoner. This dance, which will make Salome the king’s possession, is something to be seen. Hayworth, dressed in layers of colorful, gauzy garment, spins and postures as she removes each successive layer of dress until she is down to a nude-colored, nearly sheer ensemble embellished with beads. This striptease is performed in front of a crowd and is brutally interrupted when a certain character’s head arrives on a platter.

     I’ve already noted how strong I found Hayworth’s performance to be. It seems at this point in her career she finally found her footing among strong, sexy roles, much as Lana Turner moved from light-hearted flicks to more compelling ones. Salome came out around the same time as the other two I mentioned liking, so it seems we can track down a good point after which her films become palatable.

     The Technicolor extravaganza of Salome was not the best backdrop for Anderson, however, whose age is apparent outside the black-and-white era in which she flourished. That is not to say she did not give her typically evil/strong performance. Laughton of course was splendid in yet another villanous role. He is entirely creepy as he makes eyes at Salome while she dances for him. With Granger I found myself going through the same motions I usually do with him. On first appearance I find myself disappointed that he is the male romantic lead, but as the picture progresses, he wins me over. He does a fine job with such performances and I cannot help but find my heart thawing a bit toward him by the close of each of his similarly romantic films.

Hitchcock Blogation #9: Rebecca

Wowza!

Rebecca (1940)

     Just as Citizen Kane is usually considered Orson Welles‘ best work, Rebecca, in my opinion, is Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece. The reasoning is the same. They were first films and ones that the directors had the most control over. For Hitchcock, it was his first in the U.S. and he had considerable control because Producer David O. Selznick was too preoccupied with Gone with the Wind to be hands on with Rebecca.

     When Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier, is on vacation in at some Europian hotspot he courts a young woman played by Joan Fontaine whom he marries. So for the first part of the film the story looks like a pleasant romance, but when the couple returns to the DeWinter estate, Manderlay, life is anything but pleasant for the new Mrs. de Winter. Maxim had been married before to Rebecca, whom we never see and are unsure of how she died. Traces of the first Mrs. de Winter remain throughout the estate and especially in the attitude of the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, played wonderfully by Judith Anderson. Mrs. de Winter feels as though Maxim is so overcome with his love for Rebecca and remorse over her death that he cannot properly love her. The mystery, however, lies in what did happen to Rebecca.

     Anderson is fabulous as Mrs. Danvers. The woman worships Rebecca and goes to lengths to undermine the new mistress of the house. For an annual costume ball, she convinces the young woman to dress as one of the portraits on the wall of the mansion, which results in humiliation because Rebecca had worn the same dress to the same event in the past. Anderson gives off the appropriate lesbian vibe as well. When Mrs. de Winter finally sneaks into Rebecca’s room, Mrs. Danvers finds her and shows her, so sensually the dead woman’s silk lingerie and fine bed linens.

     George Sanders also arrives as Rebecca’s cousin/lover, who is rather unwelcome at the estate yet buddy-buddy with Mrs. Danvers. He suspects Maxim killed Rebecca and sets out to prove it. In the end, Maxim and Mrs. de Winter are happy, but Mrs. Danvers loses it.

     Fontaine’s character does not have a first name, just Mrs. de Winter as the servants and guests call her. Maxim sticks to pet names. Fontaine puts on a great performance as the subordinated lady of the house. She is perpetually nervous, frightened and unhappy. She is babied by Mrs. Danvers, and the doorknobs in the house, which are positioned at shoulder height, deliberately make the woman look like a child. Fontaine’s fantastic performance was in part because of Hitchcock’s off-screen meddling. Vivien Leigh, who was soon to marry Olivier, was considered for her part, so when the Gone with the Wind star did not get it, Olivier treated Fontaine accordingly. To add to Fontaine’s discomfort on the set, Hitchcock also treated her poorly and rudely. It is likely Fontaine’s performance would have been disappointing without that “encouragement”.

The MacGuffin: The first Mrs. de Winter and how she died.

Where’s Hitch? Walking past a phone booth just after George Sanders makes a call.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

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