When I think of old Hollywood glamour and mystery, I think Gene Tierney. Like Hedy Lamarr and Merle Oberon, she had one of those faces that just seemed to convey so much — more, maybe, than existed in real life. She has an almost Asian face, with those unusually slanted pale eyes; but then there’s her oddly out-of-place mouth, which looks perfect closed but seems pinched when she speaks. Being entranced by her surely dates from my seeing the classic film noir Laura (1944) at a very impressionable age.

In Laura, the other characters talk about her mostly in flashback for an excruciatingly long period of time because she’s presumed dead — and they speak about her with such reverence that the gritty, laconic police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) starts to fall in love with her in a clumsy way, gazing at her portrait. Maybe it’s easy to idealize a dead woman; no one has any doubts about why McPherson falls so hard. As a kid watching it for the first time I had no idea that she would appear, like a vision, midway through the film, not dead at all, and slightly harder in real life than the idealized version would have had her. It’s a terrific plot twist — and the only problem I ever had with that brilliant film was that I was never sure why Laura fell for him, too.

So imagine my delight to discover Where the Sidewalk Ends, also starring Andrews and Tierney, also directed by the great Otto Preminger. I can’t emphasize enough what a great film this is, and such a great follow-up to Laura. Andrews’ character is even named Mark again, which gives Tierney the chance to pronounce it Mahwk in that same low, refined way. Andrews is a complicated, crooked anti-hero, much more fleshed out and darker than in the earlier film; his mouth is set in an even more unforgiving, hard line, especially in all those bitter close-ups. It’s as if he’s still that other Mark, except more brutal. And Tierney almost seems to be Laura again except a sad six years and an unhappy marriage later. She’s just as beautiful, but a bit haunted and still attracted to the wrong men.

The earlier film Laura haunts Where the Sidewalk Ends just the way the portrait/fantasy of Laura haunted Mark McPherson. But in the latter, their tentative romance plays out against the gritty city streets of New York, filmed beautifully on location, and in an ordinary little café, owned by an older woman Mark helped out of a jam that one time. The two of them banter/bicker back & forth at one another in a practiced way, which delights Tierney — who wouldn’t be charmed by a man whose biggest fan likes to joust with him while serving him bowls of soup?

See this film — it’s streaming on Netflix. Better yet, give yourself a two-night double feature of both films, in order. This is film noir at its best, and tell me whether it makes you fall for Tierney’s mystery as well.

I’m writing this for the Film Noir Blogathon, put together for the benefit of preserving important film noir by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. I realize I’m late to this party — it took me a while to find an appropriate film because noir women often aren’t very interesting (and women are, after all, my thing on this blog). Lucky, then, that Otto Preminger’s Laura came to mind. Gene Tierney was at the perfect height of her perfect beauty; we believe she’s been murdered for half the film, yet somehow she becomes nearly our protagonist by the end; she wavers between possibly murderous suspect and perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy girl. Most of all, she’s a strikingly sympathetic character for female viewers because of she’s a version of a self-made woman, yet she’s got only bad choices when it comes to men. In fact, I think one of the most fascinating subjects of this great film is class — hers, theirs, and what class does in relationships between men and women.At first, Laura Hunt (Tierney) is only the murdered girl, the one remembered by the other suspects because during her life she was fought over by two men: the middle-aged, imperious, deliciously venomous columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a slippery, smooth-tongued Southern gentleman down on his luck. Fought over for good reason. Laura was smart and beautiful, came up through the ranks at her advertising agency, was beloved for her gentleness and elegance. They speak of her in reverent terms. No wonder the detective assigned to the case, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), falls a little bit in love with her himself, and falls asleep in her apartment underneath her lovely portrait — raising the question why a 22-year-old career woman in 1940s New York would have her own portrait above the fireplace. It’s such a lovely picture, however, that we don’t wonder for long.

That’s the thing, you see: Laura’s class is unclear, as she’s not exactly a self-made woman. Sure, she started out as a low-level copywriter in her firm, but it was Waldo’s mentorship, influence, and assistance in gaining attention and prestigious endorsements that led to her professional rise. He also helped decorate her apartment — even going so far as to loan her beautiful objects d’art for display, thereby imprinting her flat with his rococo/queer sense of feminine taste. In return, she showered him with appreciation, admiration, and a feminine gift for listening to him read his own columns aloud. As far as Waldo is concerned, her only shortcoming was her tendency to fall in love with men who didn’t deserve her; he wanted her to remain the ever-dedicated, supplicant woman who made him look good. As Waldo explains in a long conversation with Mark:

Laura had innate breeding, but she deferred to my judgment and taste. I selected a more attractive hairdress for her. I taught her what clothes were more becoming to her. Through me, she met everyone. The famous and the infamous. Her youth and beauty, her poise and charm of manner captivated them all. She had warmth, vitality. She had authentic magnetism. Wherever we went, she stood out: men admired her, women envied her. She became as well known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation. But Tuesday and Friday nights we stayed home, dining quietly, listening to my records. I read my articles to her. The way she listened was more eloquent than speech. These were the best nights. Then one Tuesday, she phoned and said she couldn’t come.

Shelby’s motives are even less attractive: having come into Laura’s life after her professional and social successes, he wants to ride her coattails — she’s already given him a job at the firm — and, probably, milk her for cash. In short, for Shelby Laura is a guarantor of status and income, while for Waldo she’s the perpetually grateful recipient of a hand up. Nor are we viewers confident things would be different with Mark. Waldo’s right: Mark calls women “dames” and “dolls,” laments the time a “doll in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me,” and seems partly impressed with Laura because she’s just so exotic to his gritty life. Sitting in her crazily feminine apartment he seems almost creepy, even as we forgive him his awkwardness. Who is this Laura, really, with all these different views of her?

Complicating this smoky view of the film’s central figure is its propensity to shift protagonists. At first it would appear Waldo is our man, with his snarky narration and terrific gift with one-liners (the screenplay is perfect, most of all when a good line is handed to the brilliant Clifton Webb). Mark McPherson is a laconic, unassuming character with the questionable habit of toying with a little pocket puzzle rather than look anyone in the eye. But suddenly 30 minutes in, a long shot of Mark signals that things have shifted; we start following his investigation and privileging his view of the case, especially as he thumbs through Laura’s diary and letters or interviews her devoted maid, Bessie. Yet even as we watch Mark become obsessed with the dead girl, he’s more of a mystery than a full-fledged protagonist — so when Laura reappears in her apartment demanding to know what he’s doing there, we might be ready to shift our loyalties to her. Except for the fact that if she’s not the victim, she might be the murderer.

According to old-movie and film-noir logic, it’s natural that Laura would fall in love with Mark — our damaged protagonists should always get the girl in the end. But female viewers might view this narrative progression sideways. She clearly makes more money than this down-in-the-mouth detective and lives a more glamorous life with that money. When we see her deal gracefully, effortlessly with the maid Bessie as if she’d had hired maids all her life, we get an indication not just of that “innate grace” Waldo described; but we also see that Mark shares more in common with Bessie than with Laura. With his clenched-jaw lack of conversation, he won’t just fit in to her life, which means that perhaps she’ll be the one to sacrifice it to be his wife. Or will this be yet another of her brief, unsatisfying relationships with inappropriate men? That’s the most likely scenario; we won’t arrive at the answer, of course, because the film ends too soon. But we can speculate and think about how Laura‘s shifting protagonists begs female viewers to perceive a different narrative emerging from the film. Maybe I’m reading the film anachronistically — maybe we’re supposed to see Laura as a woman who makes do with the inadequate men presented to her. But somehow I don’t think so. I think one of the reasons this film still works so well is that nagging feeling one still has at the end, even after the murder mystery has been cleared up, that there’s still more misery in store for our heroine.

The distributor Criterion (which has released a newly restored, high-definition digital DVD) promised me that this film “is an enduring classic that showcases [Ernst Lubitsch’s] trademark blend of wit, urbanity, and grace.”  I am prone to believe such promises, as I would sit down this very moment and watch “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), “Ninotchka” (1939), or “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) and other Lubitsch films despite having already seen them many times.  But “Heaven Can Wait” somehow manages to take a great cast (Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette) and a great story and make it boring and surprisingly misogynistic for the otherwise women-friendly Lubitsch.  Why did his famous touch disappear during the making of this film?

It was actually studio PR people who invented the phrase “the Lubitsch touch” to convert him into a brand name, but critics ever since have sought to define it satisfactorily.  I’m inclined to agree with Andrew Sarris, who explains that “a poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch” (American Cinema).  Certainly those elements are present in “Heaven Can Wait,” which begins with an aged Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) presenting himself to a dapper Devil at the entrance to hell (who knew it would be an über-stylish 1940s office?).  Unconvinced that Henry truly belongs in hell, the Devil demands that he tell the story of his life to prove wrongdoing.  So Henry begins:  “Perhaps the best way to tell you the story of my life is to tell you about the women in my life.”  Ameche conveys precisely that light mix of humor and poignancy that makes me love Lubitsch films — and I was prepared to be hooked.

But I think it’s precisely that premise that burdens the film, for it must somehow convince us to like and sympathize with Henry while also observing him behaving very badly with women — most dangerously with the screen sweetheart, Gene Tierney.  Not to mention the fact that the film meanders tediously through a lot of back story.  Through an overly long series of vignettes, we learn that Henry has been pampered by women from his earliest years, and by his 20s has become a rake.  It seems to take ages before Ameche appears as the twenty-something Henry and even longer for Tierney to arrive onscreen as Martha, the heiress of a midwestern slaughterhouse fortune.  Henry falls for her after overhearing her lying to her mother on the phone and sneaking off to buy a copy of How to Please Your Husband.  Problem is, she’s due to be married to Henry’s goody-goody cousin, Albert.  None of us is surprised when Henry sweeps her off her feet (literally) and they elope, because Ameche is great — not just handsome in that lovely broad-faced Wisconsin way, but possessed of a modest gravitas that contributes mightily to the light melancholy of the Lubitsch touch.

But it’s at this point that Henry’s motives become muddy and the film takes on a distractingly misogynistic tinge.  We skip ahead ten years to find him a loving husband and father, but also prone to petty sexual peccadillos, which the story labors to assure us mean nothing serious.  It matters to Martha that her husband cheats on her, however, and she runs away from him — only to have him persuade her that he’s newly determined to be loyal.  Tierney is too good at conveying both her sense of betrayal and her hope that he can reform, such that when she reluctantly allows herself to be convinced it felt to me like a form of spousal abuse.  Considering that I’m ordinarily prepared to deal with the sexism of 1940s films, I was surprised to find myself truly annoyed with this plot turn; it just doesn’t work.  From there the story leaps ahead in time again and again, each time struggling to balance his personal appeal with his significant failings (vanity, jealousy, and so on).  Each one of those leaps ahead in time makes Henry’s character (and the whole point of the film) less clear — and it made me start to wish that the Devil really would condemn him to eternal damnation.  (He doesn’t.)

With the core of the story dissolving and only vague indications of the protagonist’s motives, we might expect the effervescent Gene Tierney to hold up the film.  I could look at her all day — with that oddly determined set of her mouth, which seemed to signal a pragmatism that seems disconcerting in a face otherwise so perfect for Hollywood.  “Heaven Can Wait” was the first film in which she received top billing, and it would be less than a year before she would appear in the classic “Laura” (1944) opposite Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb.  But despite her top billing here, Lubitsch didn’t urge us to fall in love with her the way he caressed Greta Garbo in every shot of “Ninotchka.”  Even worse, as her character arrives in middle age, the film’s hair and makeup people transformed Tierney into an absurd creation.  Because I don’t know how to create screen caps I can’t show you the awful grey-haired up-do they forced her to wear (and I can’t find an image online), so you’ll have to trust me that it makes you wonder what she did on the set to deserve it.  It’s especially cruel after letting her shine in shots like this, decked out in those blue and lavender numbers that show off her pale blue eyes.

“Heaven Can Wait” always feels as if the story and poor editing choices are pulling the movie down from the heights it might otherwise have achieved with this cast and director.  But I’m not deterred from trying to see all his other lesser-known films.  But at this point I’m not going to rush into seeing “The Smiling Lieutenant” and “One Hour With You” — films from his early ’30s foray into musicals.  Instead, with the news that HBO is producing a new version of “Mildred Pierce” starring Kate Winslet, I’m getting in the mood to see the original Joan Crawford melodrama again.  Now that’s how to make a difficult character sympathetic.