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July 8, 2016

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Sex and Sexuality in Otto Preminger's Laura



@vitogulla examines the sexual politics of Otto Preminger's 1944 film Laura


I am often surprised at how little credit we give to our own history. When we look back at the past, we are likely to claim it as backwards or unrefined. And certainly, from a legal and institutional perspective, there is much to support that view. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Just recently, until Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex marriage had been illegal in many parts of the country—not to mention the exhaustive list of laws across the states against any form of sexual “immorality.”) In the UK, Oscar Wilde, the great playwright and novelist, was tried in 1895 and eventually imprisoned for engaging in homosexual acts. Those kind of civil rights abuses, of course, are not limited to the US and the UK: In Germany, Hitler and the Nazi Party committed some of the most heinous acts against homosexuals in the entire 20th century. Beginning with the expansion of Paragraph 175, the Nazis arrested thousands of gay men and later sent them to concentration camps, where many died of starvation or were executed. And in a sickening twist, when Allied forces began liberating those same camps, because some American and British jurists did not believe the camps were prisons, gay men who violated Paragraph 175 were sometimes returned to prison. But a top down view of history obviously fails to grasp some of the subtleties in our past. We forget that the first documented same-sex marriage (post-Rome) was performed in Spain in 1901 (though it was accomplished through a ruse). In the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator watches as Mademoiselle Vinteuil has sex with a female friend, whom she encourages to spit on a picture of her father which is on a bedside table during the act. And in 1924, The Society of Human Rights was founded as the first LGBT rights organization in the United States. Maybe most shocking of all comes from 1926, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (sorry it’s still in copyright): The narrator, Jake Barnes, goes out for drinks with a prostitute when in walks: 

[a] crowd of [gay] young men, some in jerseys and some in their shirt sleeves…. [Jake] could see their hands and newly washed, wavy hair…. The policeman standing by the door looked at [Jake] and smiled. They came in…. 
[Jake] was very angry. Somehow they always made [him] angry. [He] know[s] they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but [he] wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure. 

Hemingway, the supposed macho king of misogyny, writes that people should be more tolerant of homosexuality. Think about that for a second. It would be easy to dismiss such a line as it is a only a fleeting detail in a much, much bigger story—and the fact that Jake still wants to punch them—but this, I think, goes to show the very complicated and complex truth of history. History, as Hegel tells us, is a dialectic, not just a linear march towards progress. This brings me to the curious case Otto Preminger’s Laura from 1944. 

It is unique among film noirs, not just for its then frank treatment of homosexuality, but its hero-falls-in-love-with-the-victim plot, which seems to prophesy Hitchcock’s Vertigo, its claustrophobic mise-en-scene, and its aesthetic masterstrokes and subversion of genre conventions. The story is simple enough: Detective Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews) is investigating the death of a highly successful advertising executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who appears to have been shot in her apartment with a shotgun blast to the face. McPherson has a few suspects in mind. There’s Laura’s conman fiancĂ©e, Shelby Carpenter (a nearly unrecognizable Vincent Price), who is also the paramour of Laura’s aunt (Judith Anderson) but also keeps a model girlfriend on the side. Then there is Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a friend of Laura’s who takes a vested interest in her well-being. And it is Waldo that I find most interesting in the light of my introduction.

Waldo has all the trappings of a gay stereotype. He’s a snappy dresser, unwilling to leave the house without a carnation in his lapel. His home too is well decorated. He is a collector of antiques. He helps transform Laura from a drab woman working with the legions of other women scribbling ad copy into an elegant socialite and career-woman. He is certainly unencumbered by his sexuality and his desire as well, as he allows McPherson to enter his apartment while he writes in the tub. He even gets out and gets dressed in front of McPherson in an act of unburdened sexual bravado. Yet, strangely, we are encouraged to empathize with him, to understand him, to trust him—and it helps that he has some of the wittiest lines throughout the movie:

McPherson: Were you in love with Laura Hunt, Mr. Lydecker? Was she in love with you?
Lydecker: Laura considered me the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she'd ever met. And I was in complete accord with her on that point. She thought me also the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world. 
McPherson: Did you agree with her there, too?
Lydecker: McPherson, you won't understand this. But I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.
McPherson: Have any luck?
Lydecker: Let me put it this way. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors' children devoured by wolves. Shall we go?                   

But what can we make of this character? What, as many a New Historicist would ask, does this film communicate about that moment? How does this film examine the sexual politics of the era? If we were to approach this simplistically, looking solely at the narrative as a movement from point A to point B, such an interpretation would suggest that Waldo, because he is revealed to be the villain by the film’s end, reinforces societal and institutional bias against homosexuals. They are, after all, killing "our" women. And it is the film’s sense of poetic justice that is a revivification of the laws of the time and its underlying assumptions, an act of power/knowledge that further justifies the status quo. This, I think, highlights the great flaw in the thinking of many who approach texts as cultural artifacts. This is cherry-picking at its finest: It is the highlighting of evidence which goes to suit your hypothesis, rather than recognize the complexities and uncertainties of text’s rhetoric. Even to suggest that Waldo is a representative of the gay community, that he exists as a place holder for all gay men is rather absurd, since such a claim relies on an assumption of monolithic identity. To investigate Waldo and his thematic consequences requires a formalist perspective, for, as my introduction notes, the truth of history is far more complex than we often recognize. A work of art has to have some form of individuation. It will be moored to its moment of creation, tied to its various paradigms in some degree, however small or large, but to say it is trapped in that moment, that it is unable to think outside its box, to transcend the mess of history in its most minute possibilities, is to limit art’s capacities and human achievement.

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The first thing you’ll notice about Laura, after the credits and its main musical motif, is that the film is narrated by Waldo himself. For a person who has been marginalized by society, whose very desires are illegal, this is a surprising amount of agency. What’s more striking is that his reflection, which comes during a moment of blackness on screen, refers to this past event as “the weekend that Laura died.” This, we know, is untrue for a number of reasons. First, Laura was not murdered in her apartment. Waldo had gone there to shoot her, yes, but instead, he kills Shelby’s mistress who had answered the call at the door. And two, by the end of the movie, Laura is saved at the last minute by McPherson and the NYPD. So is Waldo lying to us? He has the hindsight of memory in his opening narration. He’s aware of all that happens. But maybe we’re reading his words too literally. He doesn’t say murdered, which is the inciting incident of the entire plot: He says “died.” Therefore, instead, his statement should be taken metaphorically.  It is not she who died, but his friendship with her. Of course, the question should be what was the cause of “Laura’s death”? 

Waldo tells us, “It was the hottest Sunday in [his] recollection. [He] felt as if [he] were the only human being left in New York.” Already, we should be suspect. Waldo is “hot,” cooling off in his tub, but no one else mentions the weather. It’s not a detail that ever seems again discussed. So why mention it at all? The truth is that it is not New York City that’s burning but Waldo himself. He burns with sexual desire, and in a brilliant juxtaposition, we get the cause of his passion as the camera slowly pans to Detective McPherson. Waldo watches McPherson attentively, as he tells us, and mentions that McPherson notes Waldo’s—with a heavy emphasis on the last syllable—“clock.” When McPherson does enter the bathroom, Waldo talks with him briefly before asking him to toss him a wash cloth. Waldo pushes away the typewriter which sits on a table above his genitals, and McPherson walks to the other side of room. He finds him even more exciting when he learns that McPherson is a hero cop, a true man’s man, and then gets out of the tub as if to show off his body. McPherson goes on to question Waldo about the murder, but when the detective finishes his questioning and heads for the door, it is Waldo who calls him back and asks if he can join him.                 

All of this evidence suggests Waldo’s growing attraction to McPherson. It is a traditional story of unrequited love—but instead of Ophelia and Hamlet, it is between two men. And in fact, unrequited love creeps up repeatedly in the film. Both Laura and her aunt love Shelby, but Shelby loves, presumably, his mistress. McPherson falls in love with Laura, but as far as he knows, she’s dead. Bessie (Dorothy Adams), Laura’s housekeeper, loves Laura too, though maybe platonically, but when she is overwhelmed by Laura’s sudden resurrection, Laura tells her to calm down and make breakfast—which may be the most callous thing anyone says in the entire movie. So what is it about Waldo’s love for McPherson that is so terrible, and what is it about Laura and McPherson’s love that is so perfect? 

A mind suited for cultural studies would be quick to suggest that such a contrast can be only explained by Waldo’s homosexuality—but what about Shelby and Laura’s aunt? Why are they so detestable? Waldo is even insulted by Shelby, who says, “Why don't you get down on all fours, Waldo? It's the only time you've ever kept your mouth shut.” If we’re to empathize with Waldo, it would seem that this statement should make us far more critical of Shelby than the columnist. Then what is Waldo’s flaw? What causes his unrequited love to be so toxic? The answer lies in the film’s approach to love. 

Early on, when McPherson questions Waldo, they exchange some dialogue:

McPherson: You said Harrington was rubbed out with a shotgun loaded with buckshot, the way Laura Hunt was murdered, the night before last.
Lydecker: Did I?
McPherson: Yeah. But he was really killed with a sash weight.
Lydecker: How ordinary. My version was obviously superior. I never bother with details, you know.
McPherson: I do.   

Love, for Laura, is precisely about the details. Lydecker wants to invent, to fudge the facts. Just as he transforms Laura into something she was not, he wishes to the same for McPherson; McPherson, on the other hand, accepts Laura for who she is. She smokes. She drinks. She’s ambitious. She’s in a position of authority in her company, moving up the ranks. She is the embodiment of the modern career woman. But Waldo was unhappy with her style of dress and choice in men, trying to change her, to make her the “superior” version. But nothing about Laura ever ruffles McPherson: 

McPherson: Did you know or did you suspect that he [Carpenter] was going to bring her here Friday night, Miss Hunt?
Laura: How could I? I don't know that he brought her here, and neither do you. You merely assume it.
McPherson: What other assumption is possible? Do you love this fellow Carpenter so much you risk your own safety to protect him?
Laura: My own safety? You suspect me?
McPherson: I suspect nobody and everybody. I'm merely trying to get at the truth.
Laura: I see you have been trying to get at the truth. You've read things I never meant anyone else to look at.
McPherson: Strictly routine. I'm sorry, really. 

He doesn’t judge her. He has no grand plans to change her. He knows all her secrets, all the things both good and bad about her but loves her regardless. It is this kind of love that, I would argue, the film is trying to emphasize. In its most pointed moment, during an argument about Shelby’s past, Laura communicates this message in its most blunt form: 

Lydecker: Did you know that he almost went to jail for passing rubber checks? That he was suspected of stealing his hostess' jewels when he was a house guest in Virginia?
Laura: What of it? I know his faults. A man can change, can't he? People are always ready to hold out a hand to slap you down but never to pick you up. All right, I'm helping Shelby. His past is his own affair. I only care about the present.

And that’s what it comes down to: caring about the present. Waldo wants to recreate the world and his lovers. McPherson is everything he wants—except he isn’t gay. This rage, of course, turns violent when Laura manages to win McPherson’s affection, and Waldo attempts once again to kill her, which may have been the case with Shelby. It is not Waldo’s homosexuality that makes him turn violent, but his inability to accept things (and people) as they are. 

Ironically, I think Waldo serves as an cautionary tale for many of today's critics, those preoccupied by their own ideological persuasions, putting those above the rhetoric of the text. When we view art, as Oscar Wilde so rightly noted

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things. The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.... All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.  
A good critic and a bad critic will both demonstrate their own biases, as we create meaning out of ill-defined, uncertain, arbitrary symbols. But it is the good critic who imbues the art with a reaffirmation of existence's possibilities; the bad critic is one who uses it as a cudgel  and beats us for our sins. In Waldo's desire to make things as he believes they should be, we see that corruption, and the critic who forces a text into a monolithic zeitgeist is just as corrupted. It would seem logical to recognize the connection between the widespread illegality of homosexuality across the world during that time and to conclude that the text is a victim of such momentary paradigms, but to do so denies the experience of the individual. Power does not solely come from the top down or the bottom up: It is distributed, ever-present and omnipresent, everywhere and nowhere. Yet we forget that power is not collectively held--at least not completely. There's no doubt that we are mired in our own present moment to some degree, but to force that on the moment entire, on every aspect of its collective being, allows us to "never bother with details." And that, I'm afraid, is the worst thing we can do when pursuing "the truth."    



Laura is currently available on Netflix.          



Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast and writes the column "Dissenting Opinions." He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You can find his fiction on the web in Pithead Chapel, Mulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla 

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