ROOMS LIKE REVERIES by Imogen Sara Smith
“A room that is like a reverie,” Baudelaire’s poem begins. Film noir is full of them: rooms that seem to be brooding, dreaming, warning. The half-lit spaces evoke a mood of silky foreboding, “made fragrant by regret and desire,” while the generic furnishings create a subliminal sense of unease and dislocation.
Film sets know what’s going to happen in them, unlike real places. But perhaps real places do more than that: “The way a place is built determines what happens in it,” an architect tells his bride in The Secret Beyond the Door (1948), explaining his hobby of collecting rooms that demonstrate his theory. The architectural theme is a clever twist in Fritz Lang’s take on Bluebeard, the gruesome fairytale in which a bride opens a forbidden door in her new home to discover the corpses of her husband’s previous wives.
Here, Celia (Joan Bennett) marries Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), who expounds his pet theory of “felicitous” structures on their honeymoon. Celia thinks that “felicitous” means happy, and is shocked to discover that every room in her husband’s collection is the site of a murder—and all the victims were women. There is a brocaded Renaissance chamber where a man strangled his lovers with a glittering scarf, and a grimy brick basement where a son tied his mother to a wooden chair and let her drown in a flood. Mark argues that “emanations” from the rooms themselves forced the men to kill.
Throughout The Secret Beyond the Door, Stanley Cortez’s camera caresses the opulent sets, roaming over arches and pillars, arabesques and lacy grillework, gliding up stairs and along deep-shadowed hallways. Celia is often alone, looking lost or menaced in these rich, unfamiliar spaces, surrounded by exotic objects—Aztec carvings, African masks, Boddhisattva statues—that seem to hypnotize her. But Celia is a classic fairy-tale heroine, curious and intrepid. She is determined to rescue her husband from the malevolent spell that emanates from somewhere in the house where he has lived since childhood.
The whimsical theory of felicitous architecture turns out to be a psychological blind; Mark’s obsession with rooms where men killed women is an elaborate, sidelong expression of misogynist rage rooted in a repressed childhood memory of being locked in his room by his mother. (“Paging Mr. Freud,” as Celia remarks dryly during a cocktail party.) Secret Beyond the Door is one of many mid-forties films in thrall to the chic Freudianism espoused by a young cocktail party guest, whom the film’s credits skewer as “Intellectual Sub-deb.” A double interiority lies at the heart of many noir films, with characters trapped both in confining spaces and within their own minds. Rooms that mirror their owner’s thoughts are part of noir’s legacy from expressionism, the style that turns its subjects inside out—the way, in Sudden Fear, Joan Crawford’s fears and fantasies are projected like little movies in the darkness of her bedroom.
Celia knows that her husband’s secret lies in the seventh room that he refuses to show her. She steals and copies a key, then creeps down in the dead of night, the sharp circle of her flashlight groping along the black, tunnel-like hallway. With great visual fanfare she unlocks the door, turns on the light, and draws aside a curtain to discover an exact replica of her own bedroom, with its draped and garlanded bed, its walls painted with delicate landscapes. It’s the room Mark’s first wife died in, but as Celia realizes, it doesn’t only commemorate the past: it is also waiting to become the room where she is murdered. The eeriness of the place comes from something else, too. Unlike the other rooms in Mark’s collection, which contain the original furnishings, this room is only a copy. The drawers are empty: “Where are her things?” Celia wonders, “The little things that made it hers?”
She might be talking about a film set: a meticulous model that lacks the final touch of life. Noir draws attention to the stylized artifice of the “white telephone” sets that dominated forties Hollywood, slicing up the idealized rooms with shadows and unstable perspectives. This disquieting note is vital to the mood of noir melodramas, with their plots full of deceptions, illusions, and impersonations. The luxurious comfort of these rooms is like a dream that might shatter on waking, or sour into a nightmare.
Loving the Dead: Haunted Rooms
A room where a man killed a woman is also the centerpiece of Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). The title character’s apartment is haunted not by her spirit—though her portrait presides from the mantelpiece—but by the men who can’t stop desiring her even when they think she’s dead. They keep returning like habitual ghosts. The venomous Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) chides the detective on the case, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) for loitering: “Have you sublet this apartment?” he sneers, “You’re here often enough to pay rent.” He mockingly imagines the cop arriving at the crime scene “like a suitor, with flowers and a box of candy,” and concludes with a rapier-thrust: “If you don’t watch out you’ll wind up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”
Though many viewers (like Waldo), savor the notion of his necrophilia, Mark is not actually in love with Laura’s corpse, but with her image, which is largely Waldo’s creation. Mark succumbs to Waldo’s burnished tales of her charm and magnetism; to her cloyingly lovely portrait (really a touched-up photograph of Gene Tierney); and to the atmosphere of her rooms. Laura’s apartment has the staged look of a magazine spread—appropriate for an advertising executive who traffics in such glazed imitations of class and “hominess.” The place is stuffed with paintings, books, china figurines, flowered upholstery, antique clocks, vases, plants, flounced lampshades on statuary bases, and a lot more frou-frou decoration. This typical forties look is a radical change from the sleek art deco that conveyed affluence in thirties movies. The set is redeemed by extraordinary natural lighting, dappled as though sifting through trees and lace curtains, or pooling low around table lamps at night. (Fox cameraman Joseph LaShelle had a particularly velvety touch with noir shadows.)
On a rainy night, Mark prowls around the apartment alone, trailed by Preminger’s fluidly tracking camera. He’s looking for something: not clues, but communion with the dead woman. Reading her letters and her private diary leaves him hungry. He opens her drawers, fingering her filmy handkerchiefs—Hays Code stand-ins for her unmentionables. (As Nora Charles would say, “What’s that man doing in my drawers?”) He sniffs her perfume, opens her closet and looks at her dresses. Irritated by his own morbid romanticism, he gulps Scotch as he gazes with stormy eyes at the portrait. When he wakes from an alcoholic doze to find Laura staring down at him, Mark’s face becomes a battleground for conflicted feelings: relief, suspicion, confusion and hope. Played by Gene Tierney as a nice, normal, if rather hapless woman, the real Laura falls short of her commandingly elusive portrait. The lyrics later penned by Johnny Mercer to David Raksin’s haunting theme music say openly what the script implies: that Laura is “only a dream.”
The return of the dead, a longed-for miracle (especially in the aftermath of wars, which traditionally inspire an upwelling of interest in spiritualism), often leads in noir to bitter disillusionment. In The Amazing Mr. X (a.k.a. The Spiritualist, 1948), a fraudulent medium preys on a wealthy widow who can’t get over her husband’s death. John Alton imbues the whole film with a dreamy, twilit, ethereal sheen, but the script methodically reveals such atmosphere as a tool in the con man’s racket. The debonair Alexis (Turhan Bey) has an office tricked out with skulls and ravens and crystal balls, two-way mirrors and trapdoor cabinets and slide projectors. The dark-paneled space is lit only by narrow, misty shafts of light sifting through shutters. Knowing that it’s all theater doesn’t spoil the effect.
The home of his victim, Christine (Lynn Bari), is even more ideally designed for otherworldly reveries. She lives in an Italianate mansion perched on top of a cliff above the ocean. Marble statues gather like ghosts on the terrace, above a private cove where silvery surf is always crawling, its sound a relentless echo of the past. When the French windows in her bedroom blow open at night, Christine hears her husband Paul’s voice calling to her from over the ocean. White drapes billow and moonlight laps the room like seawater. Flowers suddenly wither; a picture of her fiancé falls to the floor and becomes a picture of her husband; her wedding dress floats out of the closet and chases her across the room like a phosphorescent jelly-fish. Despite all his brilliant flim-flam, Alexis is shocked when Paul appears in the flesh: Christine’s immortal beloved is really a sleazy crook who faked his own death, and who sets out to drive her to madness and suicide by piping Chopin into her room, drugging her milk, and tormenting her with incessant whispered pleas to “join him.” She lies in bed, paralyzed and dominated. She can only be saved by the death, not just of her love, but of her memory of love.
“I lived by feeding people’s desire to escape from the present, but you can’t escape for long,” Alexis confesses. The past may be inescapable, as so many noir stories insist, but it is also irretrievable.
Women Alone with the Blues: Empty Rooms
In haunted houses, the terror comes from presences—specters and poltergeists like the ones Alexis fakes. But in noir, rooms are haunted by absence: the real horror is what’s not there. Jennifer (1953) is about a woman menaced by the emptiness of a house.
The friendless, fragile Agnes (Ida Lupino) takes a job as caretaker at a vacant mansion. She becomes consumed by the fate of her predecessor: told that she disappeared, Agnes becomes convinced Jennifer is actually buried close by. The mystery fizzles, but the mood of clammy unease and numbing loneliness never lets up. Shot with rhapsodic intensity by James Wong Howe, and with a score that introduced the standard “Angel Eyes,” Jennifer has an extremely high ratio of style to substance for a nominally plot-based film.
Agnes is unnerved by finding Jennifer’s left-behind things: her slippers, her dresses, her little diary and checkbook, ordinary objects that become somehow sad and sinister now their owner is gone. Jennifer was an isolated, unstable woman who cherished a fantasy life, which Agnes misinterprets as a real life of dashing crime and liberation. That she’s a doppelganger is obvious long before Agnes, creeping down into the dank cellar at night, sees the reflection of her own face rippling in a pool of water and mistakes it for the drowned corpse of Jennifer.
Wong Howe makes images like this far more compelling than anything in the script (which has unconvincing elements, like the instant devotion of an uncomplicated local hunk [Howard Duff] for the repressed heroine, who is clearly two baby-steps from insanity.) There’s no real point to the scene in which Agnes, wandering the grounds, comes upon a gardener burning leaves, but the image is indelible: shafts of light falling through smoke fill the air with ghostly figures, and a crumbling statue mourns in the foreground. The house is a white stucco Spanish-style mansion with a cloistered courtyard and baronial fixtures, like some movie-star’s palace from the 1920s. It’s only the echoing spareness of the rooms, Lupino’s tense edginess, and the stinginess of the light and that fill it with dread. A shot of Lupino and Duff standing by a window, starkly framed against a blank wall, becomes a visual treatise on alienation: the man’s presence only intensifies the woman’s isolation.
Beautiful women with nothing to do drifting restlessly around their homes are a common sight in fifties noir (The Prowler, Pushover). They light cigarettes, stare into space, listen to the radio, visions of melancholy boredom. Perhaps the saddest walk through an empty house comes in Preminger’s Angel Face (1952). Near the end of the film, Diane (Jean Simmons) comes home to a house emptied by the deaths of her parents (she killed them—her stepmother intentionally, her father accidentally) and the desertion of her lover.
After paying off the servants, Diane wanders alone through the house, like a desolate sleepwalker. She stops to play a few notes on the piano (a picture of her beloved father sits on top), and the music floats off the keys into her mind. She walks more and more slowly and aimlessly along a hallway into the darkness of the foreground; behind her, the shadows of banisters and the folds of drapes become prison bars. Her shadow lies at her feet like a black pit. She opens a door and looks into an unlit room; crosses the hall and opens another door, stands in the middle of the empty room, lost. She goes to the chess board and gently picks up the white king, cradles it in her fist and then puts it back.
She wanders outside and looks up at the dark, deserted house, then goes up to the apartment above the garage that was her lover’s. She picks up a suitcase and it falls open, bare. She caresses a folded shirt on his dresser, wanders around a chair on which a sport jacket hangs, picks it up and hugs it. The scene fades out on a dark window, fades back in with morning light, and finds Diane sitting in the chair, wearing the jacket, her eyes wide open but dull and dead.
Frank’s jacket, Jennifer’s diary, Laura’s handkerchiefs are all cherished as totems of their absent owners. It is natural for the bereft to clutch souvenirs, but in the films this instinct comes across as tainted with morbid perversity. Objects in noir often possess an ominous, almost occult power, but it comes from the way they are regarded—both by the camera and by the characters—not from the things themselves, which in their shiny impersonality present the paradox of brand-new relics.
Early Nothing: Hotel Rooms
Even when rooms are shrines to memory, in films like these they never really look old. The sleek gloss of Hollywood studio sets, especially in these melodramas set among the wealthy, is incompatible with any hint of dust, abrasion, wear, or even patina. The houses don’t look lived-in: they lack the layered residue of habit, the tell-tale marks of things being touched or used. They have the quality of furnished rooms; their framed photographs, books and knick-knacks telegraph the class and circumstances of their inhabitants, rather than the personality. (Leaving aside those filmmakers like Losey or Minnelli, who made far more distinctive use of décor as an extension of character.) It was reaction against these kinds of studio sets that led to the trend for location shooting, which took noir in a grittier direction after the War.
Not only are certain fixtures ubiquitous—grand curving staircases, circular vanity mirrors, full-length drapes, upholstered twin bedsteads—but they are framed and lit in standard ways, so that they start to seem like scenes from a recurring dream. A set in a movie, on the first viewing, is always a place you haven’t seen before; yet the repetitiveness of the sets makes them naggingly familiar, like a buried memory. Watch enough of the films, and it becomes a case of chronic déja-vu. Like noir’s amnesiacs and haunted neurotics, the viewer reacts to objects and places without quite knowing why. Nothing gives the comfort of the known, yet everything seems vaguely significant.
In this way, the sets are like hotel or motel rooms: always new, yet instantly recognizable in their generic sameness; impersonal replicas of personal furnishings. They are “non-places,” in Marc Augé’s phrase: “where people are always, and never, at home.” The cheap hotel room is perhaps the quintessential noir interior: a metal-barred bed-frame, bare walls, Venetian blinds, and a neon sign outside the window blinking on and off. On. Off. On. Off. “I like this: Early Nothing,” Gloria Grahame remarks of Glenn Ford’s hotel room in The Big Heat (1953). He has retreated there after abandoning the suburban house where his wife was killed. Hotels, motels and auto courts are where people go when they’re on the run from the past and from themselves, taking refuge in the transient, banal vacancies.
The spare, shabby décor is at the farthest extreme from the sinuous, baroque style of melodrama mansions—though the difference is more like that between a fancy hotel and a cheap motel than that between a home and a hotel. The contrast is nowhere starker than in Black Angel (1946), an uneven Cornell Woolrich adaptation that never quite deserves the raw, bleak performance by Dan Duryea in the lead. A Universal B-movie trying to look classy, the film sports décor of surpassing vulgarity. In their excess, the sets are a glossary of genre conventions. Marty Blair (Duryea), a lovesick pianist, has been drowning his sorrows in a sea of booze ever since being ditched by his wife, a spectacularly narcissistic nightclub singer named Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling.) How do we know she’s narcissistic? Everything she owns (her bedspread, her scarves, presumably her toilet paper) is covered with enormous MM monograms.
Marty sleeps it off in the fleabag Palace Hotel, in a room with the requisite barred iron bed, flashing neon, and wallpaper stained by the dread of countless bad nights. Mavis lives in an apartment that looks like a lavish, surrealistic parody of Hollywood’s standard high style. The place is swathed in gauzy white drapes—even framing the mirror. (Women’s bedrooms always seem to be filled with drapes, which echo the sculpted folds of their dressing gowns.) There’s a patterned shag rug in need of a haircut, closet doors padded with white satin, a scattering of Dali-esque paintings and sculptures, vases of Calla lilies, tiered crystal chandeliers, a huge mirror in a frame like a Tanguy blob. In this room, someone strangles Mavis with her own monogrammed scarf, and the only clue is the disappearance of a huge, heart-shaped ruby brooch that Marty gave to her; and the turntable playing, over and over, a song that Marty wrote for her.
Another man is convicted of her killing, and Marty teams up with the man’s wife to prove his innocence. They hunt for the brooch, but it’s not until Marty falls off the wagon that he stumbles across it in a bar, pinned to the dress of a women who tells him that he gave it to her. Lashed to a bed in the grim cage of an alcoholic ward, Marty flashes back to the murder, which liquor-induced amnesia had erased from his mind. Mavis’s apartment is now a dark, wavering, wobbling dreamscape, its previously unconscious surrealism unleashed. There is a fine wrinkle of irony in this twist ending: the man who can’t forget his wife also can’t remember killing her. Amnesia and obsessive memory are so far apart they’re close together, the one a desperate reaction to the other. If melodrama’s lavishly decorated rooms are places where Something Happened, drably impersonal hotel rooms are places where anything might have happened. Like criminals who can’t remember what they’ve done, they’re haunted not by the past but by the future, not by memories but by terrible suspicions.
Twice in Vertigo (1958) Scottie (James Stewart) watches a woman enter a hotel and then sees her appear in a window, framing herself. First it’s the McKittrick Hotel where “Madeleine” spends her afternoons, then the Empire Hotel where Judy (Kim Novak) lives. The McKittrick is part of the elaborate hoax of Madeleine’s obsession with Carlotta Valdes; the hotel was once the Valdes home, and she checks in under her ancestress’ name. The stifling richness of the interior envelopes Scottie as he moves through the glow of polished chestnut panels, the dizzying patterns covering carpets, walls and ceilings, the glitter of a crystal chandelier and stained-glass skylight. The scent of the past is overpowering.
The Empire Hotel, by contrast, is so chintzy it breaks your heart. The hallways are blank and bare, except for a deafening orange carpet. Judy’s cramped little room is furnished in pastel shades, mainly pink: the fixtures and furniture are both flimsy and little-girl pretty. There’s a wall lamp with bare bulbs, a cheap paper fan dangling from it, and a pink painting of flowers above the bed—classic “motel art.” This is the real Judy, stripped of the guise of Madeleine. But if the room seems prosaic at first, it’s transformed at night by the green light from the hotel’s neon sign: an eerie, ectoplasm glow that makes Judy, in her emerald dress, look like a corpse.
Why does Hitchcock give away the secret to Vertigo’s mystery as soon as Judy appears? The audience could be left guessing much longer, learning the truth only when Scottie does. With Judy’s flashback, the film switches tracks to become her story, even her tragedy. When Scottie begins, with neurotic persistence, pushing Judy to become Madeleine again, we’re inside her helpless conflict: she knows exactly what he’s doing and hates it, yet wants so much to be loved again that she keeps giving in. What’s most astonishing is that Hitchcock, who behaved with some of his actresses much as Scottie behaves with Judy, could portray so sensitively the plight of a woman sacrificing her identity to the molding hand of an obsessed Pygmalion.
Scottie waits in the room, by the green window, for Judy to return from her makeover; when she does, her hair is bleached but still dressed the wrong way. It’s not enough for him that she has Madeleine’s face and body: she has to wear the same suit, the identical hairdo. He wasn’t in love with a woman but with a manufactured image, an artificial soul. It seems improbable that a man begging a woman to pin her hair up could be a moment of great import, but Scottie’s plea, at once abject and cruelly manipulative (“Please, Judy”), and Judy’s crushed acquiescence, amount to a scene of the most exquisite emotional violence. He can hardly breathe as he waits for her to emerge from the bathroom; he’s waiting for the return of the dead. When she appears, she stands in a column of green light, pale and misty as a ghost, gathering substance and color as she walks toward him. Only then does he kiss her, as the camera circles around them—perhaps the most rapturously disturbing kiss in the movies.
Scottie fashions Judy into a replica of Madeleine, only to discover that the Madeleine he loved was always a replica. “You were the copy, the counterfeit,” he accuses her. The irony is that Madeleine’s haunted obsession with Carlotta was a meticulous, calculated impersonation, but it ensnared Scottie in a genuine haunted obsession. As he wanders around in a dazed trance of grief, seeing his lost love everywhere, he makes real what Judy faked: possession by the dead.
Vertigo itself is made with diabolical, Elsterian calculation. It applies to its characters the rule that applies to movie audiences: fake blood can open real wounds. Illusions can be even more powerful than reality. Again and again, noir scratches the surface of memory to find it is false; the past is a construction of brilliant artifice, like a movie set. But when the deception is revealed, the ghosts of feeling remain, forced to wander forever, homeless and disbelieved.
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