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.

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.