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In Love With a Corpse: The Film Noir of Otto Preminger, Part 1

Born in Bukovina—a location familiar to Dracula fans—in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Otto Preminger is one of several prominent European filmmakers forced to flee Nazism and emigrate to Hollywood, which he helped to reshape over the years with his daring and often transgressive films. One of the most publicly known directors of his time, Preminger is largely remembered for his taboo-breaking films, which concerned murder, obsession, perversion, sex, infidelity, drug addiction, homosexuality, and rape. Preminger said, “I always resisted film censorship, because I believe that the right of free expression is something that we will lose if we do not defend it.” Throughout his career he stubbornly and persistently confronted taboo subjects in ways that were groundbreaking for Hollywood and, in this sense, Preminger can be thought of as one of American cinema’s prime antagonists.

His confrontational behavior extended beyond his films and he was also known for his unconventional relationships—including affairs with Gypsy Rose Lee and Dorothy Dandridge—and tyrannical onset behavior; Charles Derry wrote that Preminger was known for “terrorizing his actors and bullying his subordinates.” Fritz Lang, Preminger’s fellow Austrian, was also known for his similarly tyrannical behavior on set, but while Lang is remembered as one of cinema’s greatest auteurs, Preminger’s talents have been somewhat ignored or minimalized over the decades. Preminger allegedly declared, “I don’t get ulcers, I cause them.” This determined sense of confrontation and a career marked by his utter unwillingness to back down is likely a reason that his legacy has faded over the years. Peter Bogdanovitch writes, “A decade after his death, he and his work are still being down, often by folks who never knew him.”

One of his most important contributions was to the loose cinematic movement dubbed film noir. It can be argued that many of the German and Austrian emigre directors—Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, and so on—made some of the most influential film noir titles and helped create the movement within American cinema in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Preminger’s Laura (1944) is certainly one of film noir’s foundational works, but he would go on to make a handful of gritty, nihilistic titles generally concerned with issues of sexual obsession: films like Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), and Angel Face (1953), a staggeringly nihilistic work that should be regarded as one of the classics of film noir.

As Lang would explore issues of justice, guilt, and vengeance within communities in his noir titles, many of Preminger’s films revolve around similar issues of the law, criminal detection, punishment, and the weight of the legal system on a government’s citizens. His study of law as a young man likely influenced the realism with which he approached this subject in some of his later films, such as the classic Anatomy of a Murder (1959); it was also one of the first where he pressed for location shooting. This insistence on a more realistic and less studio-bound visual style appears even as early as Laura (1944), where set decoration, a portrait, has an important role in the plot, and the artifice of New York culture is bitterly skewered.

Laura follows Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), a detective investigating the murder of advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), after her body was discovered in her New York apartment—disfigured because of a shotgun blast to the face. The two main suspects are Waldo Lydecker (the sublime Clifton Webb), a famous newspaper columnist and radio personality, and Shelby Carpenter (a young Vincent Price), Laura’s gold-digging fiancé. Lydecker was obsessed with Laura and helped “make” her, picking out her clothes, bolstering her career, and introducing her to society. Lydecker became jealous when she met the younger and more attractive Shelby, helped get him a job at her ad agency, and began devoting her time to him. Shelby, in addition to his greed, selfishness, and questionable past, was likely having numerous other affairs. As he immerses himself in her life, McPherson becomes obsessed with Laura and begins to fall in love with her—but is shocked to discover that events are not quite as they seem. One night when he falls asleep in her apartment while contemplating the facts of the case, Laura returns. It turns out that a model at the agency was likely killed instead of Laura, either by Laura herself or accidentally, in her place.

Based loosely on the novel by Vera Caspary, Laura started out as a very different film than it wound up becoming. Rouben Mamoulian (of the wonderful 1931 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was lined up to direct and allegedly George Sanders and Laird Cregar were supposed to co-star in the film—possibly mimicking the success they would shortly find in underrated serial killer thrillers The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945). Preminger was initially signed on as a producer, but fought for the role of director and was eventually promoted after Mamoulian’s departure. In a lengthy interview with Bogdanovitch, Preminger explained his struggles, from the beginning of the production, with Darryl Zanuck over Laura, and his insistence on bringing in certain actors like the unforgettable Webb.

Laura effectively introduced Preminger’s flair for the taboo and the controversial: two of the primary characters are wildly effeminate—actor Clifton Webb was openly gay—and Preminger leaned into, rather than shied away from an emphasis on the potentially homosexual qualities of both Lydecker and Shelby, the two dominating male force’s in Laura’s life. Particularly Lydecker, but Shelby as well, represent a character type in film noir that came to be described as the homme fatale, a sort of male inversion of the femme fatale. At best flamboyant and vain and at worst homicidal, these effeminate male characters recur throughout film noir. Possessing charm and charisma, the homme fatale is well-groomed and attractive, and, like the femme fatale, this character type is generally fixated on wealth, power, control, and manipulation and depicted as weak, amoral, or openly villainous.

In many ways, Lydecker is the ultimate homme fatale, with his obsession with luxury, beauty, and appearance, which is codified throughout film noir (and much of American cinema) as a feminine trait. His apartment is full of books, art, elaborate carpets and tapestries, and ornate, expensive furniture. He’s the head of an exclusive ad agency and effectively sets the standards of class and elegance for the entire city. He’s obsessed with Laura, his young protégé and has complete molded her clothes, apartment, and behavior, though she frustratingly maintains her own identity, driving him to mania. The Hollywood Production Code forbade explicitly gay characters, but characters such as Lydecker—who first appears on screen while he is sitting naked in the bath, luxuriously typing up his latest column—represent the attempts of some directors to skate as close to this theme as possible. The homme fatale is certainly a more nebulous character than his female counterpart, but is a fascinating example of the tension inherent in how rapidly American gender roles changed during the postwar period. His inherent repression and sexless-ness generally drives him to murder and—perhaps ironically— occasionally drives together heterosexual couples throughout film noir, as is the case with Laura.

Shelby is evocative of the other strain of homme fatale characters, who are so obsessed with wealth and glamour that they are little more than glorified gigolos. Often they seduce or court older, wealthy women in exchange for a lavish lifestyle. Such characters appear in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Price excelled at playing such a character type and would go on a reprise a similar role in Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956), again with Dana Andrews as his “straight” masculine foil. Though Preminger was one of the first directors to deeply explore such a type, it would become more popular through the ‘40s and ‘50s; for example, Hitchcock would use similar characters in Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rope (1948).

The brilliant of Laura is the way it manipulates and distorts conventional gender relations, both within classic Hollywood cinema and specifically within film noir. Of course, some critics have taken this to be a particularly misogynistic approach to a male detective’s exploration of a female victim. In It’s a Print!: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, Liahna Babener writes, “Written in 1943, Vera Caspary’s Laura establishes Laura Hunt as the protagonist, subject, and controlling sensibility of her own story, an emphatic contrast to the voiceless femme fatale that film viewers remember.” Babener goes on to argue that “Preminger remakes the story into the triumph of patriarchy, a spectacle of female objectification imaged forth to gratify the cinematic gaze.”

I would have to argue against this kind of reductive interpretation, as there’s something perverse, even nihilistic about romance and sexuality within all of Preminger’s films noirs, which is dramatically felt in Laura. Preminger often portrays love as an inherently toxic experience, where characters who persist in upholding fantasy and illusion are always bound towards destruction. Dana Andrews mastered such flawed but likable characters, particularly in his collaborations with Preminger and Lang, and McPherson’s obsession with the deceased Laura is meant to be unwholesome. Lydecker tells him, “You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.” As the film unfolds, Preminger draws a parallel between Lydecker’s obsession with Laura and McPherson’s obsession with her; the attempts of both men to mold and shape a woman according to their own fantasies is undeniably portrayed as perverse.

The male characters in Laura, as in many of Preminger’s other films, are not heroes we are meant to identify with, but emotionally bereft men who view love as little more than an exchange of goods. Lydecker and Shelby’s obsessions with wealth and appearance are well established, but early in the film, even McPherson is revealed to be at this level. Lydecker asks him, “Have you ever been in love?” He replies, “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fur out of me.” Despite this cynicism, and despite the way the film draws attention to his perverse fixation on Laura, his growing love for her is revealed to be a strange source of hope—though Preminger delivers a somewhat downbeat, pessimistic ending which indicates that hetero-normative love may not be any less doomed.

These themes returned a year later for Fallen Angel (1945), which reunited Preminger with Dana Andrews. Eric (Andrews), a handsome drifter on his way to San Francisco, is stranded in a small, California town when he runs out of money. He latches onto to a con artist, Professor Madley (John Carradine), who claims to be a talented medium. Though Madley is impressed with his conning skills and is willing to hire him, he falls hard and fast for the tough, sexy Stella (Linda Darnell), a waitress looking for security. Though she dates a lot of men, she will only take things further with Eric if he is able to financially support her. He comes up with a plan to woo and marry local goody-two-shoes June (Alice Faye), who is independently wealthy. Though her controlling older sister (Anne Revere) tries to prevent the union, the two are married. Shortly after, Stella is murdered with Eric as the primary suspect.

On first glance, Fallen Angel has quite an implausible plot, in which a poor drifter plots to become a rich man for the love of a tempestuous woman—and then has to solve the murder with the blessing of his wealthy, understanding wife. But it is yet another variation on Laura’s themes of moral ambiguity, uncomfortable romantic attachments, and sexual obsession. It also highlights Preminger’s deft ability to balance intense attraction and repulsion. In Chris Fujiwara’s book on the director, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, he writes, “In Preminger, fascination—the movement toward and into something—is in constant tension with its opposite: withdrawal from something, neutrality, detachment. A simultaneous push-pull generates the fantastic energy of his films, their subtle, spiraling rhythms, their veiled and discreet pathos, their intellectual weight and urgency.”

Despite his seemingly misogynistic material, Preminger often explored the feelings and motivations of complicated women, which is emphasized far more in Fallen Angel than in Laura, through dynamic characters like Stella, the sultry but desperate waitress, and June and her sister Claire. The central triangle—Eric’s attraction to Stella and June’s attraction to Eric—is a dance of attraction and repulsion that ebbs and flows throughout the film. Fallen Angel is based on another novel written by a woman, Marty (aka Mary) Holland, and Fujiwara writes, “Like Laura, the story pivots around the murder of a woman who is the object of obsession for several men.” According to Preminger, who said that he considered the novel a compelling work of melodrama, the original film had even more sequences focused on the female characters before Zanuck got to it; the producer was eager for the film to be a follow up to Laura and to hopefully mimic the earlier movie’s success. Preminger said, “All of us knew that Darryl Zanuck had no empathy for women in film. He liked women and he was happily married but women’s problems and feelings bored him totally.”

Regardless, Eric is not a simply a character who acts upon the world he has suddenly entered—he is a man profoundly changed by his encounters with a number of women. Holland also penned the source material for Robert Siodmak’s The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), which has a similar abundance of central female characters and also blurs the lines between melodrama and film noir. June’s faith in Eric, the pivot on which the happy ending turns, is almost impossible to believe, but her naiveté goes a long way towards explaining this—he romances her by showing her the possibility of a new life, one outside the restrictive bounds of her insulating wealth. Alice Faye was known to audiences of the day as the perennial good girl; she achieved fame in a number of musicals in the ‘30s and early ‘40s and Fallen Angel was actually her first—and last, for quite some time—serious dramatic role. She was supposed to sing “Slowly,” the song that runs throughout the film, but Zanuck apparently didn’t want Fallen Angel to be associated with her musical career and additionally cut a number of Faye’s scenes in favor of more screen time to Linda Darnell. Allegedly in protest, she retired from cinema for almost 20 years.

Though Fallen Angel is probably the least regarded of all Preminger’s film noir entries, it’s a compelling if strange companion piece to Laura, thanks in part to the appearance of Andrews. The odd plot elements give both films a somewhat surreal aspect and if McPherson’s passion for Laura seems to bring a dead woman back to life in Laura, Eric’s obsession with Stella is a destructive force that seems to bring about her death—even if Eric himself is not the culprit. Darnell’s Stella is undeniably the film’s focal point, the deadly flame around which all the male characters hover. Though she first appears to be a femme fatale, she is not one, and the film has a surprising amount of sympathy for her character. It becomes obvious that her numerous flirtations, dates, and increasingly risky behavior all revolves around a deep-seated need for security. She is certainly selfish and hard-boiled, but there is also the sense that she is constantly used and idealized by men unwilling to treat her the way they would treat a middle-class woman, such as the blonde, goodie-two-shoes June.

Unlike a traditional femme fatale, who uses her beauty as a weapon, Stella seems to bear her intense sexual appeal as a burden. Nearly every man in the film is attracted to or obsessed with her, which only results in the violence she unwittingly instigates against herself. There is no sense that Stella deserves her sudden, violent murder (unlike a film noir such as 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming, where there is a sense that the main victim, a selfish waitress scheming for fame by any means, brought about her own doom). When her room is investigated, it is cheap and sad, the domicile of a person who can barely make ends meet and—through the presence of a stuffed animal—the home of a girl who hasn’t quite grown up.

And if the glamorous locations of Laura are a reflection of the titular character, Fallen Angel represents a much different sort of environment. This film was the first example of Preminger insisting upon location shooting for the film, and though cinematographer Joseph LaShelle returned from Laura to work with Preminger again, Fallen Angel has quite a different visual style. The wonderfully atmospheric, black-and-white cinematography makes the film’s small-town a place of squalor and seediness, with a tense, claustrophobic air, where there is always the sense that characters are being watched by their voyeuristic neighbors. The odd note of hope at the film’s conclusion is a brief respite from this gloom, as June improbably remains faithful to Eric—despite his deception—and is able to win his affection, suggesting that love, rather than erotic obsession, is the only possible path to salvation in such a world. She tells him, “We were born to tread the earth as angels, to seek out heaven this side of the sky. But they who race above shall stumble in the dark, and fall from grace. Love alone can make the fallen angel rise, for only two together can enter Paradise.”

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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