Tag Archives: Max Steiner

‘Laura’: Heavy Glamour and Timid Decadence

Laura:  Original poster.

Laura: Original poster.

The title role in Otto Preminger’s “Laura” (20th Century-Fox, 1944) was offered to several actresses before Gene Tierney finally accepted it, under protest.  Jennifer Jones was the first to turn it down. Then Rosalind Russell said the part was too small. Next, Hedy Lamarr. Some years later, when she was asked why she had refused, Hedy answered, “They sent me the script, not the score.”

Dana Andrews, portrait of Gene Tierney:  Falling for a corpse -- or so he believes.

Dana Andrews, portrait of Gene Tierney: Falling for a corpse. The famous portrait is actually a photograph with brush strokes added.

That score . . . David Raksin wrote it. After the picture was released, the main theme became so popular (“haunting” is the word commonly used to describe it) that Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics to it and it became a big hit. Raksin was crazy in love with Judy Garland in 1944, and said when he composed it, the name he had in mind was not Laura, but Judy. “Laura” is one of the few pictures — “Casablanca” is another — that’s as famous for its score as for anything else.  Yet there’s very little music in the picture other than its main theme. “You Go to My Head” is played on a dance floor in one scene. In the extended version (more about this in a moment), the song “Heaven Can Wait” is heard in the background. Max Steiner used the same tune in “Casablanca,” when Rick is introduced to Major Strasser.

“Laura” is also famous for its gorgeousness: every frame is meticulously lighted and shot — it’s the silver screen at its silvery best. Joseph LaShelle, who photographed it, won that year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White; Lyle Wheeler, Leland Fuller and Thomas Little were nominated for their interior decoration, but lost to Cedric Gibbons, whose interiors for “Gaslight” were even more excessive and ornate. “Laura” looks great, but since much of the action takes place in the apartment of the prissy, vitriolic columnist-cum-gasbag, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and in the home of his murdered protégé, the decor reflects his personality and taste. It’s ostentatious kitsch: lots of fringe, tassels, lampshades with ribbons and ruffles, sconces with crystal pendants, tchockes strewn about — late Victorian rococo. The cinematography and clothes are chic; the set dressing is maiden aunt. (Gene Tierney wears a lot of nice clothes, but most of her millinery is ghastly — some of the things she wears on her head look like a cross between a nun’s wimple and Paddington Bear’s rain hat.)

Gene Tierney, Andrews:  Look what the cat dragged in.

Gene Tierney, Andrews: gorgeous dame in Paddington Bear’s hat.

As a mystery, “Laura” isn’t much good (the solution is neither startling nor ingenious), nor are many of the performances terribly interesting (Judith Anderson is a notable exception), but it has a wonderful dreamlike atmosphere.  And there’s an overtone of necrophilia — Dana Andrews finds himself falling in love with the beautiful murder victim — which makes it most unusual.

On the DVD and Blu-ray, if you choose to watch the extended version, which is slightly over a minute longer than the theatrical release, this is the message that precedes it: “You have selected the Extended View of Laura which contains a montage dealing with remaking Laura into a society woman. According to Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, the scene was cut because  of war-atmosphere in America. The sequence was judged as too off-putting in its decadence.” . . . “Too off-putting in its decadence” . . . ! I like the sound of that!

Andrews, Clifton Webb: 'Laura had innate breeding.'

Andrews, Clifton Webb: ‘Laura had innate breeding.’

Here is the deleted, “decadent” narration, spoken by Clifton Webb. The establishing shot has him talking to Dana Andrews at a quiet little restaurant, but most of it is done as a voice-over to a montage of various points in Laura’s make-over.

Lydecker:  She had an eager mind, always. She was always quick to seize upon anything that would improve her mind or her appearance. Laura had innate breeding.  [He drinks.] But she deferred to my judgment and taste. [Cut to Laura at a beauty salon, with Lydecker giving instructions to the stylist.] I selected a more attractive hairdress for her. [Cut to Laura at a dress fitting, with Lydecker looking on approvingly.] I taught her what clothes were more becoming to her. [Cut to Laura and Lydecker at an opening; “Heaven Can Wait” plays as underscoring.] Through me, she met everyone — the famous and the infamous. [Cut to Lydecker dancing with Laura.] Her youth and beauty, her poise and charm of manner captivated them all. She had warmth, vitality. She had authentic magnetism. [Cut to Laura and Lydecker being seated at Sardi’s.] Wherever we went, she stood out. Men admired her; [Cut to Laura and Lydecker entering El Morocco.] women envied her. She became as well-known [Webb pronounces it “know-win”] as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation . . .

It’s certainly plenty wet . . . but decadent?  Not to me — not after the things I’ve seen . . . It seems preposterous to call it decadent — but it was, after all, the middle of the war, and Fox executives were worried that the depiction of wealthy people on the home front expending so much concentrated effort on luxurious fashions and hair styles (what they termed “non-military obsessions”), rather than on the war effort, would offend soldiers overseas. Well, perhaps they were right. And, come to think of it, there is something decidedly decadent about the line “I selected a more attractive hairdress for her.” . . . Well, maybe not decadent, exactly . . . At any rate, it’s the queeniest thing I ever heard in a major motion picture.

Makeover madness: 'I selected a more attractive hairdress for her.'

Makeover madness: ‘I selected a more attractive hairdress for her.’

Yet despite this fine feeling for the soldiers overseas, much of the sequence was used in the trailer — apparently, the Fox executives thought the material was compelling enough to draw in home front audiences. (And why throw out perfectly good, expensive footage without getting some benefit from it?) Have a look.


Bette Davis and James Stephenson in ‘The Letter’

The Letter:  Original Poster

The Letter: Original Poster

“The Letter” (Warner Bros. 1940) is a truly fine picture, with several impeccable performances, especially by Bette Davis, who is at her best, and James Stephenson, a wonderful British actor with a vulpine countenance, who matches her performance brilliantly.

Bette Davis, James Stephenson:   'I don't want you to tell me anything but what is necessary to save your neck.'

Bette Davis, James Stephenson:
‘I don’t want you to tell me anything but what is necessary to save your neck.’

James Stephenson is worthy of special mention.  He came to acting late in life — he made his first picture when he was 48 — and died of a heart attack at the age of 52.  Like Claude Rains, he was often cast as suave villains, and like Rains, he tended to dominate any scene he appeared in.  William Wyler was so impressed with the authority of Stephenson’s screen presence that he fought hard to cast him in the important role of Howard Joyce, over the studio’s strong objections.  Once you’ve seen Stephenson as Joyce, it’s hard to imagine another actor bringing so much gravitas and pathos to the part.  Claude Rains himself might not have been quite so ideal, as he was rather too arresting a personality for the role.  Stephenson manages the almost impossible feat of playing an ordinary, plain-spoken, humorless man of high principles — without being dull or priggish.  (Alan Rickman manages the same trick in “Sense and Sensibility.”)  When he agrees to bend his own integrity to save the skin of a client, Stephenson, neither expressing his inner turmoil in words, nor telegraphing it with theatrical grimaces, conveys that the ethical shortcut he has taken on his client’s behalf has destroyed his own self-respect, and very possibly, ruined his life . . . and he knows it.  It’s a quiet performance, and is in no way showy, but it’s as remarkable a characterization as I’ve ever seen on film.  The picture belongs to Bette Davis, first, last and always, but the support she gets from James Stephenson is beyond all reckoning:  his performance makes her greatness possible.  Had he lived longer, he might well have become one of the greatest actors of the Studio Era in Hollywood.  So three cheers for James Stephenson . . . a penny for the old guy.

One of the Greats.

One of the Greats.

W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote the original story, is unquestionably my favorite second-rate author (I like John O’Hara as much or better than Maugham, but aside from the rubbish he wrote at the end of his career and a few mid-career missteps, I don’t consider him second-rate).  “The Letter” is one of Maugham’s best known short stories, but I think it’s far from his best work.  (“Mackintosh” and “The Book Bag,” both of which take place in the same part of the world, are the two I’d recommend as his best.)  The picture is far better than the story (except for the tacked on ending demanded by the Hays Office), in great part because Bette Davis actually makes the protagonist believably human, rather than Maugham’s enigmatic monster.  It is possibly the best performance Davis ever gave.  She’s wonderful in many other pictures, but this is the one that makes the most of her talent and technique.  (To be sure, “All About Eve” is also one of her best, but she’s so much like Margo Channing, that the demands on her interpretative skills were not nearly so great — nor was she called upon to do an accent.)

The opening sequence is a marvel of story-telling efficiency:  it’s made up of a pair of lengthy tracking shots, a nearly invisible wipe and a few cuts, which establish that we are on Rubber Plantation in Singapore.  It opens with the full moon:

Moon over Singapore

Moon over Singapore.

Then it cuts to shots that establish the exotic location — a rubber plantation in Singapore, where a crime is about to be committed  . . .

The Scene of the Crime

The Scene of the Crime.

. . . there’s a cut to liquid rubber dripping into buckets (all this time, Max Steiner’s ersatz Oriental music is toodling away, to reinforce the sense of the Mysterious East) . . . The camera pans down the length of a rubber tree, then begins, without a cut, to traverse the property in a remarkable, long tracking shot . . .

The Letter Shot 03

Rubber dripping from tree to bucket.

. . . we see the main house, where the plantation’s manager, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall), lives with his wife, Leslie (Bette Davis).  The camera continues to travel . . .

The Crosbies' residence

The Crosbies’ residence.

. . . to the thatched, open warren where the Malaysian workers live.  One of them plays tune on a pipe, others sit up and gamble, others are asleep in their hammocks . . .   All is quiet.

The Coolies' hut.

A Malaysian musician and his comrades.

Suddenly we hear a report from a revolver.  A cockatoo in the foreground flies away in terror.  The camera glides — in no big hurry:  it’s a hot, muggy night — over to the main house.  There’s another report; a man, holding his belly, staggers out of the house onto the veranda, with a woman just behind him.  She fires a second shot.

Second gunshot, first sight of Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie.

Second gunshot, first sight of Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie.

Now we see that the woman is Bette Davis with a smoking gun in her hand.  She shoots again.  The camera cuts to sleeping dogs as they jump up.  Another cut to the Malaysians as they awaken and begin to make a hubbub.  The dogs begin to bark.  Cut back to the house, where the man staggers down the veranda steps and falls to the ground . . .

The man staggers and falls after the third gunshot.

The man staggers and falls after the third gunshot.

Once the man is down, Davis proceeds to empty the last three chambers into his back.

'And o'er [her] countenance, no shadow passed, nor motion . . . '

‘And o’er [her] countenance, no shadow passed, nor motion . . . ‘

When the gun is empty, she looks at the dead man and quietly drops the gun.

The end of the affair.

The End of the Affair.

More hubbub from the Malaysians, barking dogs, the moon goes behind a cloud, then comes out again.  Davis turns to look at it . . .

Full Moon and Empty Arms.

Full Moon and Empty Arms.

The “Head Boy” on the plantation runs up and looks at the dead man.  He cries in alarm, “That’s Mr Hammond!”

The Letter Thats Mr Hammond

Tetsu Komai as Head Boy: ‘That’s Mr Hammond!”

He looks at the empty revolver that she has dropped on the front step.

The murder weapon.

The murder weapon.

“Come inside,” Davis says without emotion and goes back into the house.

That’s the end of the first sequence — running time is approximately two minutes and forty seconds.  I can’t think of another picture that opens more impressively or conveys more information so smoothly and efficiently.

Davis as the murderess, Leslie Crosbie.

Scarlet Woman:  Davis as the murderess, Leslie Crosbie.

Color photography could not have improved this wonderful picture.  It is a shame, however, that there’s no way the audience can know that Leslie Crosbie was dressed in scarlet when she emptied one chamber into Geoff Hammond’s belly and five into his back.

In the following scenes, we learn from Leslie that she shot the blighter in self-defense:  he showed up at the house while her husband was away and tried to rape her.  Nobody doubts the truthfulness of her account, but her attorney, Howard Joyce (the remarkable James Stephenson) tells her that a man has been killed, and this is still a civilized country, so she must be imprisoned until the trial.  There is no doubt that she will be acquitted.

Stephenson, Davis, Herbert Marshall, Bruce Lester. Joyce:  'Well, you see, you're by the way of being under arrest now.' Leslie:  'Shall I be . . . imprisoned?'

Stephenson, Davis, Herbert Marshall, Bruce Lester.
Joyce: ‘I think you’re by way of being under arrest now.’
Leslie: ‘Shall I be . . . imprisoned?’

The entire picture is full of remarkably skillful writing, acting, directing and editing.  But one scene in particular deserves special attention:  it’s right in the middle of the picture — the interview between Leslie and Joyce, her lawyer.  It’s shot in a small room, with the door closed.  The scene lasts somewhere between seven and eight minutes.  The first four minutes of that scene are played in one continuous take; after that, aside from a few inserted close-ups, the rest of the scene is played in long takes, and always with both actors in the frame.  No editor had a hand in creating the timing and tension in that exchange — and a lot goes on in that scene:  there are many shifts in tempo and emotional states.  Nor is the camera static:  it moves around a lot — beautifully, never calls attention to itself, but just enough so that we’re always shown what we need to see — and all in that confined space.  Davis and Stephenson go at it hammer and tongs.  I consider that scene to be one of the high points of movie acting.  It’s not merely that the two actors are so excellently matched and so skillful, but Wyler lets them get on with it, and doesn’t rely on a lot of ping-pong match close-ups — the sort of hackwork that Vincent Sherman so often resorted to.

Davis, Stephenson.  "Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.'

Davis, Stephenson. “Strange . . . that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.’

I could watch that picture every night for months on end and not get tired of it.  Except for Steiner’s intrusive score, I think it’s very nearly perfect, not excluding the skulking racist cartoon slant-eyed devils, which are of course deplorable, but so perfectly of their time, and so faithful to Maugham’s own mixture of fascination with, condescension of, and occasional revulsion to the peoples of the Mysterious East.