Monday, August 29, 2005

But She's Only A Dream

As my recent Lydecker vs. DeWitt post may have indicated, I recently watched Laura again. In many ways it's not a great movie or even a particularly good one: some of the characters aren't all that interesting, it's less than satisfying as a mystery, and it's very claustrophobic and talky -- almost every scene is just Dana Andrews standing around asking questions of somebody. (Rouben Mamoulian, the original director, would probably have made it more visually striking and less talky than Otto Preminger's take on the material.)

And yet it's a fascinating movie, one whose fascination is as strong now as it ever was. A large part of this fascination, I think, comes from the fact that there's so much left unanswered in the movie, whether deliberately or not, that it leaves all kinds of questions for people to argue over. It's one of the few American genre movies of its time that inspires arguments not only over how good it was, but what happened. Well, you argue over what happened after coming out of a bad, incomprehensible movie, but that's not what I'm talking about here: Laura, no less than any Antonioni movie, is a well-made movie that doesn't quite seem to make sense, and we're left with the feeling that it's up to us to make sense of it.

For example, people still argue over whether the last half of the movie is a dream or not. When Dana Andrews falls asleep, and the camera moves in on him and then moves out again, it sure looks like the setup for a "was it all a dream" sequence -- and Johnny Mercer may have picked up on this when he wrote the famous lyric to Laura's musical theme (the lyric was written after the movie opened), saying that Laura is "only a dream." Is Mark really just imagining Laura into being, creating a fantasy where the dead woman he fell in love with comes back to life? It certainly seems all too convenient that she suddenly wants him and that everything seems to break just the way he would have wanted it to, including the ultimate fantasy, of saving Laura from death at the hands of the man who "created" her, and killing off that man so that he, Mark, can have Laura all to himself. I'm not saying that the second half of the film has to be read as a dream, let alone that it was intended that way (though I suspect Preminger wanted to tease us with the possibility that it might be a dream, so we wouldn't be sure if Laura was really alive or not), but the fact that it can be read that way is part of what gives the movie its continuing strength: you can interpret it in so many ways.

The part of the movie most open to interpretation, of course, is the character of Laura, and no one who has seen the movie is without some opinion on the unanswered question that runs throughout the movie: who is Laura, really? Is she an innocent, unspoiled girl molded into a sophisticated career woman by Lydecker? Then why does she seem so calculating and cool with Lydecker when he first comes to see her at the place where she works, almost as if she's manipulating him more than he's manipulating her? Is she, as Lydecker believes, just a beautiful nonentity infused with the best part of Lydecker's own personality, but constantly compromised by her "common" taste in men? Or is that just Lydecker seeing her through his own egotism and self-love? Is she really as much of a regular person as she seems to be when she's with Mark, or is she the unapproachable goddess from the painting that Mark fell in love with? We all wind up seeing Laura a different way -- and that's part of what the movie's about.

I suspect Preminger himself went with the "nonentity" interpretation of Laura: that her unreal beauty makes men and women project qualities onto her that aren't there, and ascribe brilliance or goodness or excellence to her when she's just an unexceptional person. When David Raksin asked Preminger to say what kind of woman Laura was, Preminger shocked the composer by replying: "A whore." Fun guy, that Otto. But it's clear from that quote, if it's true, that he saw Laura the way Lydecker does at the end: just a overhyped Galatea whose main character trait is her fondness for tawdry affairs. But even assuming Preminger saw her that way, we can see her any way we want, and that, again, is what makes it so fascinating to come back to this movie again and again.

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