Saturday, March 21, 2020


LAURA (1944)

Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt based on the novel by Vera Caspary

For some reason, Otto Preminger's "Laura" doesn't get recalled as fondly these days. I'm not sure exactly why; I remember first watching it in a film noir class I took and was blown away by it, despite the fact that most of the movie doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Actually that's not true, it actually does make logical sense when you finally realize how the murder played out, but the investigation is definitely questionable from a police procedural perspective. What kind of Detective is Lt. McPherson (Dana Andrews)? He seems to be willing to allow all the suspects practically join him on the investigation. Only once does he actually go to the station and bring in a suspect, and even then, he doesn't. He's almost as suspicious a character as everybody else in the film, and everybody else in the movie spends the film acting like murder suspects.

I guess that's kinda what throws people about "Laura", it the one film noir that quite fit in with the more typical tonal notes of the genre. This one is actually almost more camp and comedic then it is hard-boiled and rugged. I mean, any other movie where the suspects are constantly allowed to accompany the investigating officer to the next interview, or the crime scene, well, you'd be making more fun of it. I think the movie is aware of it's absurdity. For one thing, the movie's got one of the best casts you could come up with for a movie like this, at least among the main characters; you'd think John Waters time-traveled to the forties to cast this.

The titular "Laura" (Gene Tierney) is the victim of the shot blast to the face in her home one Saturday night under suspicious circumstances. We're introduced to her first through a painting which haunts over her room. Originally, there actually was a painting made of Tierney from Azadia Newman, who was the wife of the film's original director, Rouben Mamoulian, (Mamoulian, another old-time Hollywood director that doesn't get talked much about now, but was actually pretty influential in his time, especially for use of tracking shots.) but when Preminger took over the directing, he got rid of that painting and used a blowup photograph of Tierney that he then had them paint over. That's something that would probably be recognized now, but in black-and-white I think he gets away with it. In fact, in hindsight, this movie is unusually overly-produced from a crafts point-of-view.

In fact, the whole movie is almost as famous for the behind-the-scenes bizarreness. The movie was shot several times with each director and Darryl Zanuck even brought in his friend Walter Winchell to go over several cuts and edits and rewrites of the movie to make sure it was to his liking. This is a bit strange, but it does explain why the movie begins with narration from our the Winchellesque character Waldo Lydecker (Oscar-nominee Clifton Webb) who claims to be the only person who really knew the deceased.

"I shall never forget the day Laura died..." his narration opens the film. Not his only lie, it'll turn out, but everybody's lying about something. Lydecker is introduced while typing in the bathroom as McPherson comes in to question him. In a flashback we also see how Laura talked Waldo into endorsing a product for a campaign she was working on when she was just barely 20 years old. Since then, he's been a devoted confidant, even if his acerbic wit and venomess pen can get those she knows in trouble with whoever he doesn't care for. In this case, it's her fiance Shelby (Vincent Price) who came from a lower class then Laura's circles, notable for his choice in alcohol and his possible lack of recognizing classical music pieces. Also, apparently Laura was having second thoughts about the engagement, especially as their friend Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, who was Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca", so she's been known for being in movies about women in paintings) apparently had a crush on Shelby.

While she has a thing for Shelby, everybody else seems to be falling in love with Laura, into the Detective who, even on off-hours haunts her home as the on-call standby officer guarding the place during late night stakeouts. Dana Andrews is a bit of forgotten movie star now, but was a stern and quiet everyman and was in a decent amount of big films including "The Ox-Bow Incident" and "The Best Years of Our Lives", but he's most known for this performance. So is Gene Tierney for that matter; she never thought much of this performance of hers, despite being the one she's most famous for, and I kinda get that. I'm told that she goes through 27 different costume changes through the movie, which would indicate that she enters and leaves the scene at least that many times, and yet she feels like she's barely in the movie. Except for the flashback sequence from Waldo's recollection, we don't even see her 'til halfway through the movie, outside of the movie. (Which shocked the fuck out of me when I saw this film, up until then, this would've just been a typical barebones film noir of the time.) Oh sorry, SPOILERS on the 80-year-film, she's not dead! She is a suspect in a murder.

Clifton Webb received the first of his three Oscar nominations for the role. He's an interesting character himself, who hadn't been in a feature film in at least a decade and a half before "Laura", mostly being known at the time as a stage actor who actually rejected Hollywood for much of his career. He ended up getting typecast for this weirdly sexless role of a old man in love with a woman less then half her age, despite his whole character having several homosexual allusions. Webb was gay and flamboyant naturally, so it wasn't going to be tempered, but that's another weird oddity of the film. Roger Ebert observed that all the love triangles drama in the movie would make more sense if Laura was a boy. He's not wrong, Webb's performance is one of my all-time favorites by the way. He's got all the best quips and he just chews the art direction out of the movie.

And this is goood art direction too; it was one of five Oscar nominations the film got, winning for the movie's cinematography, although ironically it was the movie's score by David Raksin that somehow wasn't nominated, that most people at the time took from the film. Oddly, I find the score kind of an underplayed and quiet score for most of the film; reminds me a lot of Trent Reznor's & Atticus Ross's score for "The Social Network" in how it somehow sticks out and yet much of the movie is weirdly quiet, especially for a Preminger film. Preminger doesn't have a lot of distinguishing characteristics between films, but he often had very pronounced scores, and usually quite contemporary ones for the time, "Anatomy of a Murder" or "The Man With the Golden Arm" have very infamous scores that almost play like characters themselves in the movies, but here, it's not needed.

In fact the two characters that are represented not through actors are, well, other then the girl who it turns out is actually dead, are the aforementioned, and a distinctve clock that represents Lydecker. A present that he gave to Laura, a rare copy of one that he has in his own home. That's actually my favorite storytelling aspect of the movie, one that I don't see get used as much anymore, where we associate objects with specific characters. The screenplay is credited to a few people but according to legend Ring Lardner, Jr. actually did the last uncredited rewrite on the script and you can tell."Laura" has enough great lines to compete with anything Bogart said in his great noirs or anything Billy Wilder helped write.

"Laura" been remade a few times over the years, mostly bad TV movie adaptation, even Truman Capote of all people took a shot at it once. There's been a few rumors over the years of James Ellroy purportedly penning a future remake. I'm not exactly sure why we're that interested in remaking this one. I guess some people like the obsession angles with the characters, although part of me thinks that's mostly from people who love "Vertigo" too much and look at this movie as a predecessor to it, which I guess it, but I actually find that the least interesting parts of the movie and Preminger wisely simmered those parts down as much as he can; this is where the casting helps. Vincent Pryce, for instance, was not the horror icon at the time; he was actually a good handsome up-and-coming actor and singer back then, but yeah, nowadays you can see those aspects of him that made him such a delightful presence throughout the schlock eras of horror years later.

I guess part of it is that it's somewhat forgotten. I don't ever hear this movie brought up these days; it even gets forgotten among film noir buffs a lot who are often more intrigued by the really hard-boiled stuff of that time, myself included in that group; I've got a few Raymond Chandler audiobooks I've been going through as well. Either that or some of the deeper cuts in that film noir era. "The Big Sleep", "Detour", "He Walked By Night", "Night and the City", "The Naked City"  those kind of films that in hindsight might seem more influential at large. I think that helps make Laura stand out though. It's far more unique and absurd then those movies. It's not quite a parody of film noir, which barely existed at the time, but it takes more unique chances then most of those other films did. It's such a high society, glamorous, absurd, camp, look at murder that it becomes far more difficult to pin it down then other similar films of the era.

Roger Ebert even mentions that despite seeing the movie several times, that the murderer usually evades him because of how arbitrary it is, and yeah. I mean, I always remember who did it, but the great murder-mysteries know that it doesn't matter who did it at the end, as long as we're constantly trying to get to the bottom of who did it, the murderer doesn't really matter. "Laura" might be the most arbitrary murder-mystery of all of them, and that makes it one of the absolute best.


ahmed said...
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Mike's Movie Room said...

I always loved this film. It may not be a hard-boiled Noir, but I think it holds up very well, if, for no other reason, it's so beautiful to look at. Maybe the film works better if you think of the story as a dream someone is having. A dream within a dream. Clifton Webb is terrific. So is Judith Anderson.

David Baruffi said...

That would be a cool way to look at it Michael. :)