Mis-en-Scene

Laura

Laura, Otto Preminger (1944) [88 minutes]

The first time I watched Preminger’s Laura, I became a film fanatic.Watching this movie with my dad as a young girl is one of my favorite memories. Immediately after it was over, we re-watched the entire thing again, this time with the commentary. It turned this already interesting film into a completely fascinating experience. I loved learning all the detail that went into making this movie. The more I heard the more I wanted to know. After this, I practically devoured every movie I could find, especially film noirs, which quickly became my favorite genre.

The level of detail and the amount of subtlety in Laura is lost on a first time viewer. This is the type of film that you  must watch over and over and over again… But don’t be discouraged! It’s still very good the first time you watch it (what’s the point if it isn’t?).

The film starts off with Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). She was shot in the face with a double-barreled shotgun in the dead of night. He questions and investigates the myriad of characters that surrounded Laura in life. Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is a wealthy writer who acts as her mentor. Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) is Laura’s bumbling, ladies man of a fiancée, who has been living off her aunt’s, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), fortune for quite some time. All these people divert and draw suspicion to themselves throughout the film. You never know who to trust. The film has some very shocking twists, yet the story is still believable. I abhor when I watch a movie and there is a twist out of nowhere that is “surprising”, but it’s pathetically nonsensical rather than being well-written (and Laura is certainly the latter).

Preminger shot this film in the “invisible camera” style, popular in Classic Hollywood era. In this style, audience doesn’t/shouldn’t  notice when or how the camera moves or any evidence of editing. The purpose is to fully focus the viewer on the story and have them ignore the mechanics behind it all, which tend to “destroy” the illusion. Achieving this style is not as simple as it sounds. The camera has to always be where it needs to be, largely keeping its distance from the characters allowing the audience to act like a detective who analyzes and observes the action. In addition, the camera zooms into closeup so rarely that when it does it adds weight to the moment.

This film is atmospheric. Like a dream, it is not a gritty detective story: fast and impatient. The film takes its time, showing us all the characters, their different stories and flaws. The amount of detail in the set designs is outstanding. Laura and all the suspects are very wealthy. Their homes contain a great amount of antiques, art and other expensive looking objects. Some of these things play a huge role in the narrative, almost becoming characters themselves.

The biggest factor in creating the dream-like mis-en-scene has to be the portrait of Laura [pictured above]. Located in her apartment, a large amount of the action happens around it. When I heard the commentary track, I found out some interesting things about the painting. Apparently, while they were filming the movie, they treated this object like it was another person in the frame. The way that it was lit, composed and positioned in relation to other actors was as if it where Gene Tierney herself. As the film progresses we see the detective become enamored with the murder victim. He becomes obsessed with the portrait; he gazes at the painting and it seems to look right back at him. There is one moment in the film, during one of the major twists, were the painting is very haunting and almost surreal in relation to its surroundings (sorry to be so vague! I just don’t want to spoil it, if you want more specifics ask in the comments bellow. Believe me you will love it!).

On the surface, this film appears simple. It is very short and it can seem like not a lot is happening (it takes a while to “get started”). Most of the scenes center around dialogue rather than action. The twists, however, are shocking and fun! I was just re-watching it with my brother before writing this review. He was having a great time trying to guess who the murderer was. I think you guys will like this film. It is not a big time commitment and you get much more than you would expect out of it.

[I was going to put a trailer here but all the ones I saw were either too long or full of spoilers!]

Musical Moment: Don’t worry, no one breaks out in song and dance (it would be a little out of place!). I just wanted to mention the film’s score, written by David Raskin. It’s the song playing throughout this trailer. It is so perfect for the film! Its one of those scores that elevates an already great movie to another level.

Special Features: The commentary tracks are very good. They are informative and entertaining!

Adaptations: I know that this is originally a book. I have it on my pile of books I have yet to read, which has been largely untouched throughout the school year. Have any of you who read the books think that this is a good adaptation? I’m curious to know.

How to watch: This one you can watch in English (I bet you thought I would never say that). I watched the DVD and the quality was pretty good, but not great. I looked on Amazon and I don’t see any Blu-ray options available, but we better get one very soon. Also, watch this on a stormy night, film noir always seems even better when its miserable out.

Who to watch with: There is a lot of dialogue in Laura. Make sure that you watch it attentively. Also, its pretty good for bookish kids, like I was. With all the dialogue and atmosphere it feels like a really great novel at times.

Final Verdict: Maybe I’m a little bias, I mean I really love this movie. I’ve loved it for so long and I adore re-watching it. It is smart, stylish, suspenseful, mysterious, dreamy and overall wonderful. If it can inspire this much passion in me, you really must give it a try.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 🙂

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Some Fancy French Words: Mis-en-Scene

If you want to sound smart when talking about movies, this is the post for you! Just pepper some allusions to mis-en-scene (pronounced mees-on-sen)  in there and you’re gold. This phrase seems much more complex than it actually is (probably because its French, for some reason things in French sound waaayy scarier). I promise, though, you know much more about it than you think.

A film can be split up into two parts:  style and narrative. Narrative is pretty much the plot, dialogue and the more literary aspects of a film. Style can be split up further into cinematography, sound, editing and mis-en-scene. Out of those four, three are pretty clear. Cinematography is location, lens and angle of the camera, sound is sound (I don’t have much to say on that one) and editing is the relation of one shot to another.  They all have special awards at the Oscars; thus, we are all mildly aware of them. Yet, mis-en-scene has been relegated to scholarly discourse. When is the last time you read a movie review that mentioned it? That’s what I thought.

I’ve been teasing you with the definition long enough, here it is: mis-en-scene literally means “putting into the scene.” It is a loan word from theater. In film, it refers to essentially everything that appears on-screen/in the frame. It involves the contents and the way they are organized in the shot. These contents are lighting, costume/makeup, decor and the actors. Mis-en-scene is predominately a director’s job. He/She is responsible for all these choices. When people speak of a certain director and their style, mis-en-scene is what they are talking about.

Mis-en-scene is all about atmosphere. Its not plot, but rather it is what creates the “feel” you get from the movie. Its the rain falling while the car drives off. Its the stark contrast of black and white while the man with the gun approaches. Its the actresses incredulous laugh as she undergoes an injustice. Its the moment where the young girl appears in her glamorous dress on the top of the stairs. None of these scenes are vital to the story. We don’t need to see any of them for the plot to be linear and understandable. Without them, however, what would the movies be? All these small details, or tangential moments, may seem useless, but they are what separate the good movies from the really freaking fantastic ones.

If you want to see an example of mis-en-scene creating an atmosphere read my previous post. In there I don’t speak about plot at all. When I talk about the lady on the boat, its all mis-en-scene.

The scenes you remember, the moments you love are mis-en-scene. You go to a movie for a good story, sure. But if that were it, movies wouldn’t be all that popular. People would just stay home and read. You go to a movie for the visual. All the style aspects are a part of that, but mis-en-scene is what you really take home. So, next time you watch to a movie think of your favorite moments. Is it a shadow cast on a wall in a horror flick, an actresses’ moving tears, and so on? And next time you tell a friend about these moments, just mention how it is part of a complex and dynamic mis-en-scene created by the director, and watch them look at you with confusion. Its fun sometimes.

[In this post, I referenced John Gibb’s Mise-en-Scene: Film Style and Interpretation. Its a good book! If you want to learn more about this topic, definitely check it out.]