Implications between a portrait and a clock
A sequence analysis of Laura
Ioannis Tsirkas University of Edinburgh

    This essay is an analysis of a sequence from the film Laura (d. Otto Preminger, US, 1944) through which I attempt to demonstrate the way it reflects the film’s broader concerns and how it contributes to our consideration of it as a whole. More particularly, through the suggestion of the potential reasons behind the choices concerning the cinematography and the mise-en-scène I wish to give prominence to their peculiar significance, given that they imply characteristics of the heroes’ personalities ―especially if we perceive them comparatively with other similar ones throughout the rest of the film― and how they prove themselves conducive in order this sequence to constitute an epitome of the film’s main themes. Moreover, I will suggest that a kind of narrational irony, which is rather dominant in this sequence, may result from them, particularly applied to the depiction of Det. Lt. McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) character.
   My analysis will begin with the entrance of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura’s (Gene Tierney) house, around the middle of the film. McPherson is already there and has already searched her personal things partly because of his chance to find possible elements about her murder, but also because of his growing infatuation with her[1]. What follows is a short dialogue between them until Waldo leaves the apartment and McPherson sits in an armchair and falls asleep. The sequence ends up with the sound of the door’s opening which indicates the entrance of Laura, who until now was considered to be dead.
   At the first shot of the sequence we see from a slantwise angle the apartment’s door. The camera is positioned behind a small table on which an out of focus glass, a miniature figure and a part of a lamp are visible. The certain position of the camera behind these items leaves only the left door panel uncovered (Figure 1). The shot in which McPherson’s entrance into the apartment was depicted earlier was quite similar since the position of the camera was almost identical and the objects on the table along with a part of an armchair on the right seemed again to confine even more his figure when he opened the left panel to come inside (Figure 2). In both of these shots the two heroes are suffocatingly framed by the surrounding objects and in this way their agonies, in which they are trapped and are straightly relative with the reasons for which they are visiting Laura’s flat, are possibly reflected. The deliberateness of these choices would be reinforced if we compared them with the ones in the shot of her entrance later in which the camera is much more distant from the door, less slantwise to it and without any object intervening between them (Figure 3). This happens because the reason why Laura enters at her home ―even if it is unexpected for the spectator since she is hitherto considered as dead― is not due to a dark secret like in Waldo and McPherson’s cases as it will come out.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
   Subsequently, the doorbell rings and McPherson comes to open the door. While Waldo is coming inside the camera slightly crabs to the right in order to keep both of them within the frame as they talk. He, after giving reasons for his paradoxical presence there ―it ‘happened to see the lights on’, he says― derides McPherson about his extensive presence in Laura’s home and continues by accusing him of prying into her letters. Before the camera pans right to follow McPherson walking towards a small table to leave them we watch the two men standing with the clock in between them (Figure 4). This is the real purpose of Waldo’s visit which is suggested visually to the spectator here ―who nevertheless has to be very attentive in order to have in mind this clue so early in the film―. More specifically, he wanted to take the gun he had hidden inside it and stands as the only evidence of his guiltiness[2].

Figure 4

    When after this Waldo asks McPherson if he has ‘any sense of privacy’, we watch him alone through a low angle medium shot which suggests his instant power through his recognition of McPherson’s possessive emotions for a dead woman he had never even met (Figure 5). Waldo continues by talking to him jestingly about his necrophilia with Laura while we watch both of them in a new shot in which McPherson listens to him playing with his pocket baseball game, an action that according to Kristin Thompson (1988, p.173) suggests ‘nerves held in check’ or, as Βο Kristin Palinic (2009, p.160) proposes, ‘a sign of McPherson’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies’. When he starts to accuse him, Waldo stands next to the seated McPherson with his face in high-key lighting whereas McPherson’s is in low-key lighting (Figure 6). This, combined with their contrasting attitudes, implies that McPherson is the one who now tries to conceal something, perhaps even from himself.

Figure 5
Figure 6

    Waldo irritates him so much that he throws down his game and the camera takes a pan to the right to follow him when he stands up and draws away revealing Laura’s portrait next to his head while he says ‘Why don’t you go home? I’m busy’ (Figure 7). Actually, he is not busy. What he wants is to stay alone with his thoughts of Laura as the emergence of her portrait indicates. The next shot begins with Waldo moving towards him and bargaining for his own possessions in Laura’s apartment, namely a vase, a screen and, of course, the clock. The camera pans right to follow him until we have both of them in a medium shot. McPherson’s head hides Laura’s portrait which is revealed exactly when he dismisses Waldo by telling him ‘Get going’ (Figure 8). This indicates once again his desire to be alone with only her presence in his thoughts. Besides, it is not by chance the fact that before Waldo leaves the apartment he says to him that he had never had a patient who had fallen ‘in love with a corpse’. The camera crabs then left and now we watch McPherson drinking from his glass in a medium close shot with Laura’s portrait, aptly shown in a larger scale, being on his left (Figure 9). This along with Laura’s theme music which starts to be played reflects the climax of his tension.

Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 9

    After a dissolve cut we then watch him drinking again in front of an escritoire. While the music continues to play, the camera, through a pan to the right and an indiscernible track in, follows him walking until he sits in the armchair in front of the portrait after loitering for a little time to stare at it. Now we see both him and the whole portrait, which he continues to stare and now dominates the frame, as the camera stands stationary for about less than half a minute (Figure 10). Now, assisted by his immobility and the invasion of silence (O’Brien 2000, p.40) we are able to feel the atmosphere of the rainy night outside ―which is visible through the window― and conceive his complicated thoughts and feelings about Laura. McPherson is desirous of a dead woman who nevertheless lives in his imagination. Only a miracle would be able to bring her back to life in order to meet the real woman who is in the portrait; a miracle or maybe a dream.

Figure 10

   The camera then slowly tracks in as he seems to have fallen asleep, showing us a close up shot with a half empty bottle next to him and very close to the camera. The emphasis on the bottle maybe suggests that McPherson is drunk and thereby it is logical for him to fall asleep sooner than the normal. After a few seconds the camera reversely moves away from him and returns back to the position from where we can see him once again sleeping in the armchair in front of Laura’s portrait. The off-screen sound of the door’s opening while Laura is coming into the house does not awaken him.
   It is worthy of notice that the use of that track in and out of the ‘otherwise unmotivated camera’ (Thompson 1988, p.163), in combination with McPherson’s perverse desire about Laura, could constitute a cue of a dream. Yet, if we took into consideration only the elements of this sequence it would be rational to suppose that the director wanted to play with the spectator by puzzling him about the reality of Laura’s unexpected appearance which will immediately follow and will be revealed, as Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton (2002, p.41) brilliantly propose, as a ‘miracle of triumphant desire’. A desire about an idealized dead woman who haunts his thoughts ―she is the ‘fantasized object of male possession’ as Andrew Spicer (2002, p.52) would put it― and will be proved less forceful with her presence from now on than it were through her absence.
   As it comes out from my analysis, all the choices of this sequence to which I made reference seem to be particularly precise as about what has to be implied, something that has effect in the whole film even in a less extent. Furthermore, considering that as non-diegetic narrator at the very beginning of the film Waldo emphasizes McPherson’s attention to the identical with Laura’s clock in his apartment and that the last shot of the film is the smithereens of the damaged by his gunshot Laura’s clock, an image which could thus be taken as a metaphor for the impossibility of their harmonious coupling, this sequence around the middle of the film counterbalances the clock’s significance for the solution of the ―murderer’s identity― mystery and thus the coming of the final catharsis of each hero’s personal tragedy. Furthermore, in this sequence not only the three protagonists of the film appear, but their main characteristics both for the evolution of the plot and the dramatization of the narrative are being emphasized: Waldo, who is indicated as the possible murderer due to his insufficiently justified presence that time in Laura’s apartment, as being a person who demands full authority over the others and undoubtedly has to face his subversion by Laura who lead him to attempt to murder her; McPherson who has fallen in love with a dead woman as it is clearly depicted in this sequence ―and the one preceding it― and Laura as an absent presence who dominates Waldo and McPherson’s thoughts and acts, and her appearance as still living in the sequence’s end will offer an unexpected subversion to the film’s plot ―which, due to the implications of the directing choices I described, could as well be read as just a McPherson’s dream―. Finally, whereas the two male heroes in this sequence refuse to admit the darker causes of what tortures them, they are exposed to us not only by their dialogues, but mainly with the way by which their figures are every time put in association with the surrounding objects into the frame and between themselves. Eventually, what at the beginning of my essay was mentioned as narrational irony should have been made clear now that is related with the fact that at the same time when we listen to McPherson refusing dead Laura’s obsessive possession of his thoughts and agonies, her portrait which almost possesses his figure within the frame signifies his adhesion to her by implicating him with what it implies.

[1] The claim that he is here in order to grope the personal belongings of a murder’s victim in order to approach through them the image of a dead woman he loves by having idealized what she represents for him would not maybe constitute an exaggeration.
[2] As it will come out later in the film he had not killed Laura, but a girl who resembled to her.

List of references
  • Borde, Raymond & Chaumeton, Etienne (2002) A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond. San Frabcisco: City Lights Books.
  • Christopher, Nicholas (2006) Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City: A New & Expanded Edition. Emeryville: Shoemaker & Hoard.
  • O’Brien, G. (1997) Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. New York: Da Capo Press.
  • Palinic, Bo Kristin (2009) Otto Preminger’s Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Angel Face: An Obsession with Freudian Psychology. Unpublished PhD Thesis: University of California.
  • Spicer, Andrew (2002) Film Noir. London: Longman.
  • Thompson, Kristin (1988) Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

List of multimedia references
  • Laura (1944) Directed by Otto Preminger [DVD]. UK: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

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