I’ve seen Otto Preminger’s “Laura” three or four times, but the identity of the murderer doesn’t spring quickly to mind. That’s not because the guilty person is forgettable but because the identity is so arbitrary: It is not necessary that the murderer be the murderer.
Three or four other characters would have done as well, and indeed if it were not for Walter Winchell we would have another ending altogether.
Film noir is known for its convoluted plots and arbitrary twists, but even in a genre that gave us “The Maltese Falcon,” this takes some kind of prize.
“Laura” (1944) has a detective who never goes to the station; a suspect who is invited to tag along as other suspects are interrogated; a heroine who is dead for most of the film; a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual; a romantic lead who is a dull-witted Kentucky bumpkin moving in Manhattan penthouse society, and a murder weapon that is returned to its hiding place by the cop, who will “come by for it in the morning.”
The only nude scene involves the jealous man and the cop. That “Laura” continues to weave a spell — and it does — is a tribute to style over sanity.
No doubt the famous musical theme by David Raksin has something to do with it: The music lends a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it plays under, and it plays under a lot.
There is also Clifton Webb’s narration, measured, precise, a little mad: “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass.
It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her.
”It is Clifton Webb’s performance as Waldo Lydecker that stands at the heart of the film, with Vincent Price (see above), as Laura’s fiancee Shelby Carpenter, nibbling at the edges like an eager spaniel.
Both actors, and Judith Anderson as a neurotic friend, create characters who have no reality except their own, which is good enough for them.
The hero and heroine, on the other hand, are cardboard. Gene Tierney, as Laura, is gorgeous, has perfect features, looks great in the stills, but never seems emotionally involved; her work in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945) is stronger, deeper, more convincing.
Dana Andrews, as Detective Mark McPherson, stands straight, chain-smokes, speaks in a monotone, and reminded the studio head Daryl F. Zanuck of “an agreeable schoolboy.”
As actors, Tierney and Andrews basically play eyewitnesses to scene-stealing by Webb and Price.
As long as there is something worth stealing it is probably the case with the human race that what that something is won’t be, and will be stolen.
This has been the case forever, and as vigilant as an owner of property might be–whether that bit that stood for labor exchange units was a cow or land or gold or money itself–there will be someone else out there in the anti-vigilant world tempting fate and chance and skill at taking someone’s belongings away.
We have a little window that has opened to reveal a piece of that world–an unusual one, for the 19th century, anyway.
That is what I saw when breezing through the memoirs of George Washington Wallace (1823-1891), Recollections of a Chief of Police, which was published in 1887.
Wallace was police chief of New York City, making him the police chief (sorry, Chicago), and he had some pretty good recollections to recollect.
(Which is a good thing he recorded this book when he did, because he would be dead four years later.
Joseph Leslie Theodore (Squizzy) Taylor (1888-1927) criminal, was born on 29 June 1888 at Brighton, Victoria, son of Benjamin Isaiah Taylor, coachmaker, and his wife Rosina, née Jones, both Victorian born.
The family moved to Richmond and Leslie tried to make a career as a jockey on the inner city pony circuit where he came to the notice of the police. At 18 he was convicted of assault.
Between 1913 and 1916 Taylor was linked to several more violent crimes including the murder and robbery of Arthur Trotter, a commercial traveller, the burglary of the Melbourne Trades Hall, in which a police constable was killed, and the murder of William Patrick Haines, a driver who refused to participate in the hold-up of a bank manager at Bulleen.
Taylor was tried for the murder of Haines and found not guilty. Although rarely convicted after 1917, Taylor remained a key figure in an increasingly violent and wealthy underworld.
His income came from armed robbery, prostitution, the sale of illegal liquor and drugs, as well as from race-fixing and protection rackets.
With Paddy Boardman, he conducted an efficient and lucrative business in rigging juries.
Squizzy is the bloke on the crutches.
Disputes between rival racketeers resulted in the ‘Fitzroy vendetta’ of 1919 in which several men were shot. Taylor was among the principal figures in these gangland shootings. Charged under warrant in 1921 with theft from a city bond store, he eluded the police for twelve months but gave himself up in 1922.
He was acquitted. In 1923 the bank-manager Thomas Berriman was robbed and murdered at Glenferrie railway station. Angus Murray and Richard Buckley were charged with the murder. Taylor faced charges of aiding and abetting the crime, and of assisting Murray’s escape from Pentridge prison.
On both counts he again escaped conviction. He was eventually found guilty of harbouring Murray and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
Taylor had married Irene Lorna Kelly at the manse of St James’s Congregational Church, Fitzroy, on 19 May 1920. On 6 May 1924 they were divorced. On 27 May again at St James’s he married Ida Muriel Pender, the woman with whom he had shared much of his adult life. I
n 1923 they had co-starred in a film about Taylor’s life, Riding to Win; banned by the Victorian censor, it was released in Brisbane in 1925 as Bound to Win.
On his release from prison Taylor continued thieving, but concentrated his efforts on race-tracks. Involved in selling cocaine, he came into conflict with several Sydney gangsters.
He was wounded in a gunfight with one of them, John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore, at a house in Barkly Street, Carlton, and died in St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, on 27 October 1927. Survived by his wife and by a daughter of his first marriage, Taylor was buried with Anglican rites in Brighton cemetery.
‘Squizzy’ was a colourful figure in the drinking and gambling clubs of Fitzroy, Richmond and Carlton.
A dapper little man who dressed loudly, he strutted through the courts, race-courses and theatres.
While hiding from the police, he wrote letters and verse to the press. Yet he had few redeeming qualities.
Taylor won lasting notoriety by imitating the style of American bootleggers; he never matched their influence or immunity from the law, and at the time of his death could no longer command fear or loyalty from the underworld.
A comprehensive guide to help the unwitting visitor avoid falling victim to the various and nefarious crimes abound in early 19th-century London.
Written by “a gentleman who has made the police of the metropolis an object of enquiry for twenty-two years”, the book is split into six main chapters:
“Out Door Delinquencies”, “Inn Door Tricks”, “Miscellaneous Offences”, “House-Breakers”, “Minor Cheats”, and “Of Conspirators and Informers”, containing within them a multitude of sub-chapters including the rather wonderfully titled offences of “Smashing”, “Greeks and Legs”, “Private Stills”, “Bon Ton”, “Box Lobby”, and “Pretenders to Literature”.
[Prison hulk loading], Samuel Atkins, 1787–1808, watercolour. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia: an5601463
In the 21st century we are accustomed to thinking of imprisonment as one of the more obvious forms of punishment for convicted criminals.
This was not so in the past.
The industrial revolution, social change and war caused great changes in the lives of British people in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Extreme poverty was a fact of life for many, and desperate people resorted to crimes such as theft, robbery and forgery in order to survive.
If caught and convicted, they faced a harsh and complicated criminal code.
Imprisonment was only one of a range of sentences that judges could inflict and, with no national prison system and few purpose-built prisons, it was often not their first choice.
Instead, most criminal offences were punishable by death, public humiliation in the form of branding, whipping, hair cutting, the stocks or the pillory, the imposition of a fine, or transportation overseas.
British authorities had used the transportation of criminals overseas as a form of punishment since the early 17th century, particularly to provide labour in the American colonies.
The American War of Independence (1775–1783) put an end to this human export.
Convicts sentenced to transportation were sent instead to hulks, old or unseaworthy ships, generally ex-naval vessels, moored in rivers and harbours close enough to land for the inmates to be taken ashore to work.
Although originally introduced as a temporary measure the hulks quickly became a cost-efficient, essential and integral part of the British prison system.
Prison-ship in Portsmouth Harbour, convicts going aboard, Edward William Cooke, 1828, hand-coloured etching. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia:
Once tried and sentenced convicts were sent to a receiving hulk for four to six days, where they were washed, inspected and issued with clothing, blankets, mess mugs and plates.
They were then sent to a convict hulk, assigned to a mess and allocated to a work gang.
From 1776 to 1802 all English hulks were operated by private individuals such as the shipowners Duncan Campbell and James Bradley, under contract to the British government.
These included the Justitia, Censor, Ceres and Stanislaus on the River Thames at Woolwich, the Chatham and Dunkirk at Plymouth, the Lion at Gosport and La Fortunee at Langstone Harbour near Portsmouth.