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David Raksin's Music for 'Laura' (1944)

An Informal Essay Analysis of the Themes and Film Music of 'Laura'


Background on the Composer

David Raksin was musically trained in America, his father was the conductor at Philadelphia’s Metropolitan, and Raksin himself started in Hollywood as a staff musician. (Kalinak 159). He arranged “Modern Times” and then worked at Universal Studios and in a team of musicians on “B films,” specializing in main titles, montages and battles sequences (Kalinak 159). Raksin’s specialty was horror films and Laura was his first “A film" (Kalinak 160).

Raksin’s harmonic structures are more impressionistic and post impressionistic as opposed to romantic or late romantic, as was the norm for composers in Hollywood at the time (Kalinak 160). His texture tended to be more contrapuntal or fugal rather than chordal, usually using smaller ensembles, as we hear in Laura (Kalinak 160). Dominance of strings, and the concept of melody (both heard in Laura) is not characteristic of Raksin’s music which is comprised more of jazz-brass, woodwinds, percussion (Kalinak 160).

Theme Score

The popularity of “Laura Theme” gave rise to the concept of the “theme score,” where a film is scored with a single musical theme rather than multiple themes or leitmotivs (Kalinak 170).

The use of single theme as opposed to leitmotifs is “to provide coherence for a string of dicontinuous musical cues” (Kalinak 170). Theme score also served to clarify and comment on the image track (Kalinak 170).

Raksin’s “Laura Theme” functions very similarly to leitmotifs in a classical score. Its appears to accompany both Laura’s literal appearance, certain moments when other characters are discussing her, or when her portrait is shown and more attention is needed to be drawn to it (Kalinak 170). Different musical elements such as instrumentation, tempo, rhythm, harmony, and dynamics, function to develop the theme to clarify visual content and comment on image track (Kalinak 171).

Orchestration Functioning in the Place of Leitmotivs

Raksin uses different expressive techniques (mainly instrumentation) to give different meaning to the main theme (Kalinak 171):

The use of French Horns characterizes Mark McPherson the “tough guy” (Kalinak 171).

Examples

[00:01:10] "Laura Theme" returns but much quieter and in the horns.

[00:46:30] Ominous sustain leading into "Laura Theme," ambient in horns when McPherson is sitting about to nap. Stops when he falls asleep.

[01:15:48] New scene—Mark rings the doorbell, and it blends with the low tones of the non diagetic orchestral score: low solo brass or bassoon, then more instruments joining as he walks in. Very low and ominous. Ringing of the bell on the clock adds to the audio narrative of the scene.

[00:41:40] New theme is introduce as McPherson enters the building in brass section. Music continues and a variation of "Laura Theme is stated."

The use of piccolo, bassoon and other distinctive instruments and usual combinations is meant to characterize Waldo Lydecker as an odd character (Kalinak 171).

Example

[00:02:12] When Waldo is introduces, there is a high, variation of the "Laura Theme."

The “Laura Theme” played by the string sections characterized Laura as the romantic (Kalinak 171). “Through rhythm and tempo, Raksin can use Laura’s theme to suggest both Laura’s spirit (a rhythmically arresting variation that accompanie her first meeting with Lydecker) and her naiveté (a waltz variation entitles the “Tierney Waltz,” which accompanies her ill-fated attempt to secure Lydecker’s endorsement for a pen). Later, Raksin arranges a variation with beguine rhythm to set the mood for a sophisticated cocktail party.” (Kalinak 171)

“Filmic text encompasses two divergent characterizations of Laura at this point. The music adds another.” (Kalinak 169). All three men offer a characterization of Laura. Mark maintains that she is a “dame,” citing his negative experience with women, to whom he was comparing Laura to. Waldo stresses that she was vibrant and warm, as he had always admired her charm. When Mark turns on the record player, sixteen violins are heard carrying the melody of her theme (Kalinak 170). At this point, Shelby offers his commentary on Laura’s character by referring to the music as sweet, which she liked and he applied the same characterization of the music to her.

Representation of Laura’s Sexuality

Laura’s romantic music was born because Raksin want to compose a score that relfected Laura’s character as a sensitive romantic (Kalinak 166). He had to challenge musical convention for representing female sexuality.

Initally, Preminger wanted to use a popular jazz song—“Summertime” or “Sophisticated Lady”—as the main theme to represent Laura (Kalinack 167). The importance of Jazz is that it is a symbol for “otherness” in classical score and Preminger wanted to bring out the unusual nature of Laura’s sexuality (Kalinak 167). However, Raksin rejected the songs [quote-plus 167-4] (Kalinack 167).

Examples of the Romantic Themes

[00:00:15] The opening shot of Laura’s portrait and credits is accompanied by the "Laura Theme" in full orchestra, which makes it sound like a romantic grand gesture because of the strings.

[00:13:10] When Mark, Shelby and Waldo are in Laura’s apartment, the "Laura Theme" returns, but it’s diagetic because McPherson plays the record. All three men comment on the music. Done by [00:13:32]

[00:15:17] In the restaurant, Laura Theme returns again and once again diagetic. It is performed by the band at the restaurant. Becomes non diagetic when the flashback to Laura and Waldo meeting begins. Loud and defined when she’s walking but backs off when she is speaking to him. The same music continues playing but the actual "Laura Theme" stops and the B section of the “piece” is playing.

Waldo’s Narration

“Another source of ambiguity is Lydecker’s structuring voiceover which opens the film, but fails to close it.” (Kalinak 166) Waldo’s broadcast about famous love stories in the final scene could be considered a form of narration. In this way we can view his narration as framing his life in relation to Laura. In his broadcast that is heard, diagetically, he discussing famous lovers and brings up key themes and words such as death, tragedy, love, etc. In a way it foreshadows his own death because he is referring to the concept of a lover who cannot live without their counterpart. Granted, Laura’s and Waldo’s relationship is not necessarily romantic, but nonetheless Waldo did have strong feelings of love towards Laura; to the point of going so far as to say that he wanted her all to himself. The broadcast can also function similarly to the music score because it comments on the narrative of the scene and adds a layer of emotional depth, he is talking about love, death, grief and life. It is followed again by the Laura Theme, despite the fact that Laura is in immediate danger, but the music is to further drive home that the crime the Waldo is attempting to commit is purely out of love for her.

Sources

Preminger, Otto, director. Laura. 20th Century Fox.

Kalinak, Katherine. “Not Exactly Classical but Sweet,” Settling the Score. pp. 159-183.

Saada, Nicholas. “The Noir Style in Hollywood,” in Film Noir: Reader 4. pp. 175-189.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in the Audience Studies Reader,133-142.

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