Life and Death in L.A.: November 2017

Monday, November 27, 2017

When Works of Art Bewitch, Haunt ... and Judge

Detective Mark MacPherson is mesmerized by the portrait  of Laura Hunt. 

Noir anti-heroes often come from the wrong side of the tracks, and then struggle to brush off the dust from the old neighborhood. Lured by the trappings of the filthy rich — jewels, swell apartments, gorgeous babes — they cross the line into a saturnine world of deceit, plunder and sometimes murder, all in an ill-advised effort to reinvent themselves. And it usually ends badly.

One plaything of the well-heeled seen often in film noir is the painted portrait, a symbol of power and wealth, and sometimes the keystone of the noir drama’s plot. Portraits of women frequently turn up, sometimes echoing a character's desire to isolate and possess the sitter. Other times the subject of a painting seems to lord over a room, casting judgment on those who behold the artwork. 

In Otto Preminger’s “Laura” (1944), police Det. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrew) falls in love with the eponymous murder victim, Laura Hunt (Jean Tierney), whose portrait hangs over her living room mantelpiece. His frequent visits to the scene of the crime, the dead girl’s apartment, are part of his investigation, so he says. 

But while there, he compulsively sifts through her possessions, listens to her favorite recordings of romantic music and moons over the portrait. All the while Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a poison-tongued gossip columnist, chides the detective about “falling in love with a corpse.”

But the alluring portrait of the murdered woman has an unmistakable attraction for MacPherson, and the artwork is as much a character in the story as any of the living cast members. It also helps set the stage for a dramatic plot twist that comes halfway through the film. Under Laura's spell, MacPherson is suddenly snapped awake from his reverie as the story takes its unexpected turn. 

Gene Tierney, in 'Whirlpool'
In another Preminger noir, “Whirlpool” (1950), Anne Sutton (Jean Tierney, again), a psychiatrist’s wife, suffers from kleptomania and is hypnotized to treat her condition. Those around her consider her grasp of reality shaky at best.

Echoing “Laura,” a portrait of a deceased woman plays an outsized role in the film. Anne is blamed for the woman’s death, and the portrait, again, hung over the living room mantelpiece, seems to haunt the victim’s former residence — the piercing eyes of justice looking down on Anne, judging her and ready to pass sentence.

Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson,  
'The Woman in the Window.'

In Fritz Lang’s “The Woman in the Window,” Prof. Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), a beloved university educator, lectures his students about ethical principles. One night, he finds himself in a quandary that throws his life into turmoil and causes him to question his own principles.

His burgeoning problems begin after he spies a painting of a beautiful woman on display in a gallery’s front window. The story takes a magical turn when the woman in the painting suddenly appears on the sidewalk next to him. 

The heralded professor eventually lands in the middle of a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to envelop him like quicksand. For Wanley, the woman of his dreams, who seems to materialize out of the painting, is a siren lying in wait, ready to take possession of him.

Edward G. Robinson in ' Scarlet Street'
Likewise, in "Scarlet Street" (1945), Edward G. Robinson plays amateur artist Christopher "Chris" Cross, who gets mixed up with tawdry characters Katherine 'Kitty' March (Joan Bennett) and Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) who exploit his creative talents. 

Kitty takes credit for Chris's paintings after an art critic gives the works a rave review. Chris, the meek artist, is unable to convince the world that he created the masterworks that are selling for large sums.

Paintings used in these films, however, aren't likely to command whopping prices at auction. In fact, some are hardly paintings at all. The portrait of Laura Hunt, for instance, was actually a varnished photograph of actress Jean Tierney, who played the ill-fated title character. 

Then, there's a downright silly example of art appearing in noir. A portrait, supposedly by Renaissance master Raphael, appears in "The Dark Corner" (1946) (also starring Clifton Webb). It's a left-handed imitation of the artist's work that wouldn't fool a child.

So, let's just call them what they are — movie props that tell a story of their own. They're not great works of art, but part of larger creative works — the films they appear in — that oftentimes achieve greatness in their own wright.