An Analysis of Film Technique in Laura (1944)

     Director Otto Preminger uses all six cinematic tools (connotation and denotation, codes, syntax, mis-en-scene, montage, and sound) to paint his portrait of the title character in the film Laura(1944).  He uses these techniques to particular effect in the scene between Mark McPherson, portrayed by Dana Andrews, and Laura Hunt, portrayed by Gene Tierney, in her apartment, when he first discovers she is still alive.  These scenes are the viewer’s first glimpse at Laura, when she is not part of someone else’s reminiscence.  Director Preminger uses cinematic tools to let the viewer glimpse the totality of Laura’s personality in contrast to the one-dimensional memories of Waldo Lydecker, portrayed by Clifton Webb.

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Still from the Laura Trailer

     When the scene begins, Mark is in Laura’s apartment and falls asleep in the chair underneath her portrait.  The haunting theme music is playing in the background as Laura’s picture dominates the scene.  The dominance of the picture over the scene is emphasized by the low-angle shot in the scene.

     The camera is still focused on Mark, when the viewer hears a door open and the scene cuts to Laura entering the apartment.  She is dressed in light clothing and is wearing rain apparel due to the storm raging outside of the window.  Laura moves from the door to the light switch in a long tracking shot and turns on the light, which awakens Mark.  She then challenges him as to why he is in the apartment.

     Mark is shocked to see Laura because of her believed death.  It takes him a few moments to gather his senses and identify himself.  The scene cuts back and forth from long shots of the apartment to medium close-ups of both Laura and Mark.  When Laura asks why the police are in her apartment, Mark shows her the newspaper headline about her murder.  Her knees give way and she sits down on the arm of a chair.  This scene is also shot from a low angle to accentuate Mark’s height advantage over Laura.  Mark suggests Laura change out of her wet clothing before she gets sick.  She agrees and exits the scene.  The camera focuses on Mark, who is watching her leave the room.  Through this scene the complete portrait of Laura was painted, while the other scenes accentuated portions of her character.

     Director Preminger uses connotation in two memorable instances in the scene.  During the initial phase of the scene, Laura turns on the lights and asks Mark why he is in her apartment.  Literally, she is asking a question of a would-be intruder.  Connotatively, she is showing her great inner strength by challenging an athletic stranger, who could conceivably attack her if he was a stalker.  In the same scene, she also shows vulnerability.  When Mark shows her the headline, she sits down rapidly on the arm of the sofa.  Connotatively, she is overcome with emotion and her emotional shock is exhibited in physical weakness.  She shows a normal but impressive range of emotion in these scenes.

     Director Preminger also uses codes to paint the picture of his heroine.  She is normally dressed in light clothing particularly in scenes where she interacts with Mark.  In this scene, the rain apparel she is wearing makes her look like a grown-up version of the Morton Salt girl.  Her stand-up confrontation with Mark also shows strength, which is another heroine code.  However, Director Preminger also includes a little exotic in his characterization of Laura with the insertion of the alluring portrait in her apartment.  The portrait reveals a possible wild side to Laura.

     In regards to syntax, Director Preminger uses tracking shots, high angle shots, and low angle shots to great advantage in the scene.  He uses the tracking shot of Laura moving towards the light switch to build the suspense of her impending meeting with Mark.  He uses the high and low angle shots to emphasize Laura’s dual personality traits of strength and weakness.  In the high angle shot of Laura sitting on the chair arm and Mark standing beside her, the viewer observes Mark’s relative dominance of Laura in the scene.  However, in the low angle shot of Mark sitting underneath Laura’s portrait, the viewer sees Mark being dominated by Laura’s presence.  The duality of the shots helps convey a more rounded view of Laura.

     Director Preminger also uses lighting to illustrate Laura’s position in the scene.  When Laura is exhibiting strength, she is the recipient of high key lighting, while the apartment is shadowy.  When Laura is exhibiting weakness, she is more shadowed.

     Director Preminger’s use of montage consisted of long shots, where you observed both characters interacting from the side, and close-ups, which allowed the viewer to gather information from facial expressions.  Montage plays only a peripheral role in Laura’s character development during this scene.  Sound is very important however.  Throughout the film, Preminger uses the refrain to clue the viewer audibly to the eminent occurrence of a significant event.  The refrain begins this scene much as it begins and ends the film.

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From Easy Street to High Noon available on Amazon in paperback and e-book.

     Director Preminger used these tools to paint the complete portrait of Laura.  Previous scenes only showed Laura from the perspective of others, primarily Waldo Lydecker.  Much like the character’s real life counterparts, people tend to remember someone’s personality to be what they wanted it to be and not necessarily the way the person really was.  In Waldo’s case, he wanted to picture Laura as young, naive and dependent on him.  Once the viewer has seen this scene, Waldo’s characterization can no longer be true.  Director Preminger created a believable, strong character instead of a stereotypical damsel in distress.

     This post was an excerpt from this book.  If you are not interested in the book but like film, please check back for more film articles.

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