Thursday, January 12, 2012


As a college student, I first saw the great old movie LAURA at a campus Film Noir retrospective. I went with my buddy Ron, a budding film critic who took his duties very, very seriously. This was a period when students viewed their films with life-and-death passion. We had seen two members of the Film Society rolling in a frenzied homicidal fight on the floor of the Student Union over a scheduling disagreement. Cups of boiling coffee were flung in faces when some sacred European director was disrespected.

I was eighteen years old, Ron was twenty. We arrived early for LAURA, and for several minutes before the screening I listened, enthralled, as Ron and another young critic, Jared, bitterly quarreled about whether LAURA could really be called a Noir. (SPOILER ALERT) Jared's stance was that it could not, because it had a happy ending.

"You KNOW the detective and Laura are going to get married," he snarled accusingly. "A Noir has to end badly, not with a white wedding and release of doves!"

Ron responded in a flat, deadly, damn-you,-you-ignorant-swine sort of voice. He argued that the detective (Dana Andrews) is hard-edged, jaded, insane, and nasty to his girl--the perfect Noir anti-hero. "If it's got feathers and it quacks, it's a duck," Ron added, somewhat obscurely.

I listened humbly to these 20-year-old cineastes, dazzled by their insights, so uncompromising and pure. As I understood Ron's reasoning, LAURA was Noir because the detective acted like a jerk. This seemed odd, but I accepted it because Ron was dropdead sure of himself.

Both Ron and Jared were wearing trench coats and ironic fedoras. Jared was smoking an actual Gaulois, which his girlfriend said he bought in Chicago when he visited his parents. Ron smoked Benson & Hedges, unfortunately an English-speaking cigarette, but they came in a very cool box that opened like a tiny drawer. Ron and Jared blew smoke in each other's faces as they laughed sneeringly at each other's theories.

The movie started. Halfway through it, the murdered Laura comes alive again. Whoa! I almost jumped out of my seat. But even so, I couldn't help but notice that Ron sighed deeply every time Laura (staggeringly beautiful Gene Tierney) left the room, bent over to look in a cabinet, ascended a staircase, or at any time turned her back to the camera. I heard Ron mumbling mysteriously....

"...Oh Gene, my Gene," he softly murmured to himself. "I could watch you walking away forever."

He explained later, over espresso. We were sitting in the romantic semi-gloom of a little cafe. His dark eyes looked poetically sincere by candlelight.

"You see," he said earnestly, "Gene Tierney had the best backside in Noir. The '40's were the heyday of the girdle, so even Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Russell had this Uni-butt look, all scrunched together and flattened out. But somehow Gene Tierney..." He sighed tenderly, infatuated. "Well, she just always looked...REAL. And of course those slinky silks of hers didn't hurt. YUMMY, you know what I mean?"

I did. So that is why I don't worship film critics, especially the male ones. We assume they're pondering the influence of Kierkegaard on Ingmar Bergman's religious themes, and all the time they could be thinking about Gene Tierney's caboose.