Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Movies: The Woman in the Window and Laura

Film Forum is having the most awesome New York City Noir festival right now, and it's all I can do to keep from holing up there every night of the month. Even the "bad" movies are good in that bad way.

Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window is one of those great bad ones. Mush-mouthed Edward G. Robinson plays a completely defanged professor-type who, through an unlikely turn of events, kills a wealthy man with a pair of scissors in the apartment of a mysterious and beautiful woman (Joan Bennett), in self-defense of course. Stunned, but still somewhat level-headed, he decides to dump the body in the country, hoping that the entire episode will be put behind him. Unluckily, the wealthy man had had a bad-news bodyguard who is now hot to collect the $10,000 reward, and since the bodyguard is the only one who knows that the mysterious woman was the wealthy man's mistress, he shows up to blackmail her. Meanwhile, our professor is getting more and more nervous because his good friend, the District Attorney, keeps talking about the case, and he's certain that he will be caught. The final scenes in particular are fraught with nervous tension as the bodyguard puts the squeeze on the mysterious lady and the professor, despairing, takes a lethal dose of medication, dying in his chair and unable to answer the ringing phone beside him; the call comes from the mysterious beauty, telling him that the bodyguard has been shot by the police outside her home, and that they are going to get off scot-free. Luckily, the professor begins to stir, and awakes in the smoking room of his club, his unfinished brandy sitting next to him, his book in his lap, and his waiter shaking his shoulder. It was all just a dream!

Otto Preminger's Laura is a much better film with a much stronger plot (even more twists and turns!), quirkier characters, and a brilliant screenplay. Young, beautiful, and successful Laura's (Gene Tierney) body has been found in the doorway of her apartment, riddled with buckshot, only a week before she is to marry the awkward and needy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Suspects include both Shelby and Laura's older gentleman friend, the uber-wealthy, uber-witty, and uber-eccentric radio host and columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who regularly writes his columns on a typewriter he has mounted on a swinging stand over his baroque bathtub. Lydecker and Carpenter do a good bit of entertaining verbal sparring in the presence of Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), whom they follow around as he tries to collect clues.

Then late one night, as McPherson is napping in Laura's living room chair, drunk from Laura's whisky, Laura comes home. She isn't dead at all! She's only been resting all weekend at her country house, reconsidering her impending marriage! But, then, who does the dead body belong to? A poor, unsuspecting model who worked for the ad agency where Laura was a top executive (a few choice scenes depict her as the only woman in a boardroom full of men), a model who, it turns out, was having an affair with Laura's fiance! But why was she in Laura's apartment, wearing Laura's dressing gown and slippers? It seems that Carpenter, knowing Laura was out of town, stole Laura's keys from her desk drawer and brought the little trollop to her home, where he was having a "conversation" with her when the doorbell rang. It must have been the mysterious visitor who killed her! But who could that have been?

McPherson has been smitten with Laura since he got deeply involved in the case, and now it seems she is returning his affection, since she's taken to calling him by his Christian name, Mark, and has cancelled her engagement with Carpenter. Lydecker isn't one bit happy about this, after all, Laura is a well-bred lady, yet she continually falls for handsome, meaty, low-brow men. Lydecker fusses to her that McPherson calls all women dames, but Laura doesn't care one bit. It's after this supreme insult that Lydecker shows his true colors, sneaking in to kill Laura in her apartment with the very same shotgun he used on the unsuspecting model. Luckily, McPherson catches him before any harm is done, Lydecker is arrested, and the detective and victim are free to live happily ever after.

It's all delightfully unlikely, and it's all done with such panache, that one would be mad not revel in the gorgeous absurdity of these movies. The professor is a putz, and Laura isn't much deeper than the mysterious beauty, but Lydecker is work of art, taking his type to a new level. Laura, in particular, is not to be missed.

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