A Bit of Noir

Another take for Noirvember:

Uncover the secrets behind Laura or fight crime in post-war Vienna in The Third Man, film noir never misses in its gripping tales of crime and mystery.

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

Upon just looking at the poster and film titles Laura, and it being a film noir, I assumed it’d be about some fantastically diabolical femme fatale named Laura. I was wrong, of course, it’s like judging a book by its cover. What I discovered, to my pleasant surprise, was a tale of intriguing mystery with delicious characters to boot.

Directed by Otto Preminger, the film begins with the murder of title character, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Hard-bitten and tough detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the killing and systemically questioning the chief suspects: Laura’s mentor, quick-witted columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and her wealthy socialite aunt Ann Treadmill (Judith Anderson). McPherson pours over her letters and diary, getting deeper into the case, and slowly becoming obsessed with the enigmatic Laura and her portrait. One night, McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment, under her portrait, and is awakened by (without giving too much away) an unexpected visitor.

Laura often deliberately throws the viewer, along with McPherson, off-course with plot twists and turns. It creates this nail-biting anticipation that prevails throughout the film and it keeps you guessing right till the very end. The skill definitely lies in the story that unfolds, an expert concoction of well-crafted murder mystery and melodrama. Webb’s portrayal of captivating and malicious Waldo Lydecker is stellar as well. Lydecker delivers the film’s best lines when maintaining his charismatic front, at the same time, there’s a tension with his hidden fixation with Laura as the film gradually reveals his true, vindictive nature.

It also blew by mind tracing Laura’s influence on one of my favourite television series, Twin Peaks. It’s hard to deny the obvious connection in the name, firstly, title character Laura Hunt and of course, Laura Palmer. Both Lauras are stunningly beautiful but strangely fascinating and mysterious. In addition, the idea of the haunting portrait and the diary have been used in Twin Peaks as well. Andrew’s portrayal of the classic hard-boiled detective also helped in Lynch’s creation of Special Agent Dale Cooper and Kyle MacLachlan’s performance too. Though the world of Laura isn’t as bizarre or twisted as in the town of Twin Peaks, the characters can be pretty eccentric (Waldo Lydecker could possibly fit in very well in TP), and just like in Twin Peaks – everyone has a secret of their own.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

In this spy classic, American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-World War II Vienna, where he has been promised a job by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime has been killed in a traffic accident, and that his funeral is taking place immediately. At Lime’s funeral, Martins meets outwardly affable Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a weeping actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and Lime’s other associates. With the help of Calloway, Martins gradually discovers the truth about Harry Lime and who the unknown “third man” was during the scene of Lime’s death.

Besides that famous cuckoo clock quote, The Third Man is perhaps best known for its hypnotic soundtrack, in particular its title instrumental track “The Third Man” Theme performed and written by Anton Karas. Discovered by Reed, Karas was working as a zither player at Vienna beer garden. As to Reed’s directiorial version, Karas’s zither music is appropriate for a post-war Vienna. It’s breezy and playful yet embodies an uncanny sense of forewarning and melancholy as well. It’s also been endearingly covered over the years, ranging from Korean guitarist extraordinaire Sungha Jung to a rough rendition by The Beatles. Film critic Roger Ebert also once wrote, “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man?” (Fun fact: the background for Ebert’s Twitter account is coincidentally from the final scene of The Third Man.) My answer: No, probably not.

In addition, The Third Man‘s cinematography is mesmerising as well, especially in the film’s climatic confrontation in the sewers of Vienna:

[youtube http://youtu.be/qN84n-h4ObQ]

There’s the bold use of shadows, harsh lighting and distorted camera angles to create a seedy and perilous atmosphere. Together with its exquisite soundtrack, The Third Man effectively presents a riveting tale of mystery while scarily foreshadowing crime in an exhausted, cynical Cold War-era nation.


3 thoughts on “A Bit of Noir”

    1. Oh, thank you so much! I’ve been having so much fun with Noirvember. I also think my articles on film noir movies pretty much pale in comparison to yours, so I really appreciate your comment!

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