Otto Preminger's 1944 'Laura' is a sophisticated film noir that uses a murder mystery to expose the cynical decadence beneath the decorum of its high society locale. In its themes of obsession and delusion, its closest relative is probably 'Vertigo'.
Starting just after the murder of the beautiful Laura, the story introduces as likely suspects two former suitors: an acid-tongued columnist ("How singularly innocent I look this morning") and a shallow playboy ("I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes"). The investigation is led by a detective who falls under the spell of Laura's portrait.
Laura, played by Gene Tierney in perhaps her most memorable role, is the captivating centre of the film, and - without spoiling too much - the whole story pivots on her haunting image...
Interestingly, Laura was also a source of inspiration for David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks' in lending Laura Palmer her name and portrait image, as well as in some subplot parallels. (Plus, the columnist is called Waldo Lydecker, a name any TP fan will recognize in the characters of Waldo the bird and his veterinarian dr. Lydecker.)
Besides 'Farmer Giles of Ham' and 'The Smith of Wootton Major', there's the exceptional 'Leaf by Niggle'. This "purgatorial story," as he once called it, is the closest Tolkien ever got to allegory, both of (his own) artistic creation and of everyman's progress through life, death and, eventually, paradise. Stylistically too, the story is an exception, revealing a kind of compassionate Kafka whose faerie realm might well just be a dream.
Niggle is a painter, slightly lazy and of the sort "who can paint leaves better than trees." Engrossed in an overly ambitious project of painting a Tree, which evolves into an ever widening landscape, Niggle keeps putting off a long journey ahead of him. His obnoxious neighbor, Parish, continuously disturbs him in his work with pleas for help with leaking roofs and a sickly wife.
Soon - too soon to finish his painting - Niggle is visited by an Inspector who sends him on his journey and repurposes the canvas and wood of his unfinished painting to mend his neighbor's roof. Niggle ends up in a strange place that is "more like being in a prison than in a hospital."
He had to work hard, at stated hours: at digging, carpentry, and painting boards all one plain colour. He was never allowed outside, and the windows all looked inwards. They kept him in the dark for hours at a stretch, 'to do some thinking,' they said.
After an indeterminable time, Niggle finds himself lying in the dark, hearing Voices, judging him.
'...of course, he is only a little man. He was never meant to be anything very much; and he was never very strong. Let us look at the Records. Yes. There are some favourable points, you know.'
'Perhaps,' said the First Voice; 'but very few that will really bear examination.'
'Well,' said the Second Voice, 'there are these. He was a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own. He took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake. But he never thought that that made him important...'
In the end, Niggle is sent on his way to a country that seems strangely familiar...
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch.
Niggle becomes a gardener in the land he once envisioned and tried to paint, and Parish soon arrives to help him. Together they work the land and create, indeed, a paradise. While back in his former life a scrap of Niggle's painting has survived and ends up in a museum:
...and for a long time 'Leaf by Niggle' hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes. But eventually the Museum was burnt down, and the leaf, and Niggle, were entirely forgotten in his old country.
Old bag of bones, can you not recognize
You lord and master, here before your eyes?
You scare-crow, what shall hold my sentence back,
That blots you out, you and your monkey-pack?
See you the scarlet jerkin, and not tremble?
Too blind the cockerel's feather to perceive?
When have you known my countenance dissemble?
Or must I wear my title on my sleeve?
My Lord, forgive me, if I weren't genteel!
I missed the signs; I see no cloven heel,
And where, pray, be your jet-black raven-pair?
Well, for this once, your lack of etiquette
Shall be excused; because, to be quite fair,
Much water's passed the bridges since we met.
Society's improved at every level,
And culture spreads now, even to the Devil.
Gone is the spook that filled the North with awe,
Out-moded are the horns, and tail and claw.
Touching the foot, with which I can't dispense,
My social circle might well take offense;
And so, like many fashionable lads,
I falsify my calves by using pads.
Out of my wits I am, with the surprise,
To see Squire Satan here before my eyes.
That name, good woman, you will please omit!
But why? That's nought to make a body quail.
True, it is almost turned to fairy-tale,
And yet mankind has failed to benefit -
The Evil One is banned: evils prevail.
Call me Lord Marquis, then our trade is good;
I am a cavalier, like all the rest,
So cast no doubt upon my gentle blood,
Behold, my coat-of-arms - this for a crest!
(He makes an indecent gesture.)
For some more of July's quirkily naive perspective, check her blog (now closed; kept through most of 2005 when her film toured the world).