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.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times