May 24, 2008

The Song Remains the Same

directed by Otto Preminger, 1944

I've always enjoyed this movie, and I watched it a few days ago for the first time in a couple of years. I fully admit that the music is the main draw for me - David Raksin's score permeates the film thoroughly, and for me it's what answers the questions raised by the action on the screen.

The legend goes that Raksin was having extreme difficulty coming up with a suitable musical theme for the film, and the producer and director had Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" picked out as a substitute. Then, a couple of days before the score was due, Raksin's wife left him, he sat down at the piano, and the theme came out. Romantic story in the extreme, and perhaps deserving of its own Hollywood treatment.

The film is built on a mystery-thriller structure, contains noirish lighting and snappy dialogue, includes the postwar preoccupation with class differences, has a Jungian streak a mile wide, and has some of the most depressing and fatalistic views on love this side of "Sex and the City." It's also a meditation on the psychology of narrative - this is no "just the facts, ma'am" kind of police procedural. In fact, Sturges is using the mystery frame (and the camera, and the music) to probe at the nature of truth throughout.

There are lots of theories about what's going on in the movie, and I've usually fall into the camp that says the movie is divided up into two parts: everything before Dana Andrews falls asleep on the couch is something like objective truth, and everything thereafter is a dream he's having. Very Tao. Very Hammett. Very Faulkner. Very Virginia Woolf. If not for the music in the second half of the film, it would be more of a puzzle to me - the characters seem to go places just a little to much out of keeping with the way they were set up in the first half, the visual style seems to change in subtle ways too (though I'm not adept at picking up the visual clues, so I'm probably not the best judge). The theme music that was mostly diegetic in the first half of the film becomes a lush commentary in the second half, saturating the quiet moments, underpinning the actions and relationships, giving everything a dreamlike quality. Like the movie has crept sideways into a Wagner opera without us noticing.

I think the key to Laura's success is that this self-reflexive filmmaking and meta-commentary on storytelling are layers atop the foundation of a dynamic and rich straightforward mystery narrative. It works quite well taken at face-value, with brilliantly-wrought characters in Clifton Webb's Waldo Leidecker and Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter. There's a whiz-bang thriller finale, romance galore, long lurid close-ups of Gene Tierney, humorous asides, bad guys losing and good guys winning. It took a second viewing for me to notice things that seemed off-kilter, and the score was what pointed me in interesting directions to try and resolve that unsettling feeling.

Tone is a tricky thing in movies, as I remarked many times in other posts, and when it's put over well it draws me in like nothing else. Preminger and Raksin are at the top of their game here.

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