Falling for "Laura"

She might be dead, but she gets to us all in the end

I fell for Laura at a young age. Late teens, maybe early twenties. What matters is I fell, and I fell hard. Harder than a maths paper. And I'm not talking no GCSEs here. I mean O-levels. Yeah, that hard.

You're probably wondering who this Laura is anyway, and what makes her so special she gets a whole movie named after her. Ain't that the sort of honour that only goes to those rarefied folk at the top of life's unruly pile? You know what I'm yapping about: Patton, Malcolm X, Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.

Well, her name's Laura Hunt, and she got to me the same as she got to everyone: to Waldo Lydecker, to Detective Mark McPherson, to every big lug in braces or puny squirt in spats who ever crossed her path. Hell, she even got to those tough guys at the American Film Institute, who went and put her flick in their all-time top five mystery movies, lagging behind a pair of Hitchcocks and a Polanski. Not too shabby, eh? But then Laura, and Laura herself, gets to us all in the end.

Look at that name: Laura Hunt. Don't go thinking it's no accident either. See, the hunt is what this is all about: the hunt for a murderer, the hunt for love and the hunt to find out how the hell those two things get all muddled up like your reds and your whites on a bad wash-day.

I hate to break it to you without passing the Kleenex first, but Laura's dead. I'm only giving it to you blunt because that's the way the movie lays it on us. Curtains part, music soars and the last name in the opening titles starts to fade from view. (That name being Otto Preminger, the genius who cooked up this stew in 1944. Stepped in as director, he did, when Rouben Mamoulian turned out not to know Bo Diddley about keeping the pot simmering on a slow-cooking dish like this.) So the movie begins and you clock a voice that's like a violin bow playing the hairs on the back of your neck: "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died..." Yeah, you heard right. How's that for a curveball? You go see a movie called Laura and the dame pulls a Citizen Kane on you, going belly-up when you've barely sat down.

This is no ordinary flick we're talking about. This is the sort of movie you see once, it changes you forever. Sent my head spinning it did, faster than a turntable cranked by "Goose" Gossage on a caffeine jag. Felt like I'd been bashed on the nut with a bottle of Black Pony -- the same one that turns up in Laura's drinks cabinet after she's been bumped off.

Don't get me wrong. I may have been a green teen but I'd seen a few films noir before. Nothing like Laura, though. Nothing so twisted. Nothing that left me feeling as clammy as a clam in a clambake. You'd have to be on the wrong end of a Mob hit, five fathoms deep and with a bullet in your frontal lobe, not to notice something very fishy is up in the movie's world of creepy guys and shifty gals.

Take this Waldo fella, our humble narrator for the picture's first part, a ratty little columnist who bashes out copy in the tub. (No wonder the water looks so murky.) McPherson waltzes in to question him about what happened to Laura, and what does Waldo do but spring to his feet, naked as a babe (off-screen, praise the Hays Code) and ask the good detective to throw him a robe? Waldo walks with a cane, McPherson has a silver shinbone, and I'll refer you back to the good Dr Freud to pick over all the business with the rifle that gets passed back and forth between every significant male character in the movie.

First time I saw Laura, I stumbled out of that cinema with all manner of stars floating in front of my eyes. But mostly Gene Tierney: the square face of a lioness, the almond-shaped peepers, the lips pursed in a kiss full of lust you can't trust.

Now, I've got to be straight -- God knows a picture this crooked needs some truth talked about it -- and confess that Laura is not Tierney's peak. Not to these eyes. She's damn good and all, especially in a twisty little interrogation scene where the lighting is positively architectural. But if you want to be carrying your jaw around in a wheelbarrow after watching her then it's Leave Her to Heaven you need. You want chilling? Watch her in the rowboat scene. Keep your winter coat handy.

Laura is about more than any single performance. The trick is in the twist. Not even a twist: a disclosure, a tease, a tell. Halfway through the movie, McPherson realises he's gone sweeter than a toffee apple on a woman he's never met. Laura has got him. And he hasn't even had access to the flashbacks we've seen. What a dope. Dana Andrews plays it virtuous and upright, which makes it all the more delicious when he crumbles like a cookie under a cosh.

No spoilers here. But I'll say this: when McPherson falls asleep in Laura's armchair, and the camera zooms in on his snoozing mug and zooms back out again with a jolt, we're not just being encouraged to view what happens next as a fever-dream unspooling in his cuckoo subconscious -- we're practically being handed a gold-embossed invitation to take such a reading on board. I'm going to toss you out some lines from the script here:

"Have you ever dreamed of Laura as your wife...?" (Waldo)

"Get some sleep. Forget the whole thing like a bad dream." (McPherson)

"You're a vague sort of fellow, aren't you?" (McPherson to Shelby Carpenter, Laura's fiancé.)

And this, from Dowson, quoted by Waldo:

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream."

Talking about what happens in the second half of the movie, James Woods has called it "almost supernatural." Now, I wasn't brought up to pick a scrap with my betters, but I'll say this to Mr Woods: drop the "almost." This is a movie that ends on a close-up of a mangled clock-face, for pity's sake, all bent out of shape like some fool lent it to Salvador Dali.

Put it this way: there's a David Lynch season in full swing over at the BFI Southbank right about now. See Laura, which is back in cinemas again soon, then book your tickets for Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway. When you've got every nutty frame of all those movies rattling around in the attic, come back to me. And if you can say with a straight face and a steady jaw that those pictures aren't swimming in the same deep, dank water like skinny-dipping cousins 'neath a full moon, then the Black Pony's on me.

Laura opens on 24 February.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia