Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Laura is now classified as film noir but when new was considered a cultured
thriller that mixed obsessive love with a strong sense of violent menace. Enormously popular, it
was slowly superceded over the years by its own soundtrack song by David Raksin. The film
certainly put stage director and previously unpromising film director Otto Preminger on the
map - for the most part it's directed like a fine watch, with nary a wasted gesture and some
scenes visualized with an expressive precision rare in films from 1944.
Laura is still a gem. The title character is repeatedly described as a head-turning,
inspirational beauty, and the phenomenally attractive Gene Tierney fits the bill to a tee. One
can easily imagine any of the male characters killing to possess her, but who could possibly
kill such a vision?
Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been murdered, and no-nonsense detective Mark
McPherson (Dana Andrews) has his hands full with suspects. The fussy, supercilious radio
personality Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) tells the story of how he 'discovered' Laura in an
Ad agency. He nurtured her career, developed her taste for fine things and introduced her to
all the right people. Among the wrong people Laura met is the listless Shelby Carpenter (Vincent
Price), a womanizer with a dishonest past who claims he was to be married to Laura. There's also
the rich woman who keeps Shelby, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). Going over the meagre clues and
trying to sort out the conflicting yammering of these upscale folk, Mark spends a lot of time
in Laura's apartment and finds himself falling in love with her portrait hanging over the
Laura is a favorite that can be re-experienced every few years or so because there's little to
it besides detective interviews and dialogue scenes; exact plot details are easy to forget. It's the
mood that's unforgettable, the dreamy romantic spell cast by David Raksin's music from the very first
scene. The perfectly confected story presents Laura Hunt only in the past tense, in flashbacks
filtered through the egotistical mind of the insufferable Waldo Lydecker. Yet tough/gentle detective
Mark McPherson falls in love with the illusion anyway.
Otto Preminger's direction makes use of long takes and a prowling camera to offset what is actually
a very simple screenplay, most of which would work as a radio show. The three or four suspects deflect
suspicion or try to implicate each other. We see things from the detective's point of view as he regards
the pricey art objects in Lydecker's apartment (a shot of him poking into a glass cabinet is ribbed in
The Band Wagon) or glides
back and forth in Laura's flat, always circling back to her portrait.
Vincent Price's portrayal of the ethically-challenged Shelby Carpenter is more amusing today
because of his association with horror roles - we just don't expect him to play a suave ladies' man.
Judith Anderson didn't fare as well in Hollywood pix as she did on stage and makes a pretty pathetic
contrast with Ms. Tierney, even if she realizes that she'll only be able to hook Shelby on the rebound.
The rest of the supporting cast mostly stays out of the way, except for Laura's devoted maid Bessie
(Dorothy Adams). She rearranges and falsifies evidence but is still indulged by detective Mark McPherson.
Most of Laura's social details haven't dated too badly, but modern audiences always laugh when
McPherson scares Bessie half to death with a revelation in Laura's kitchen. The poor woman is ready to
have a heart attack, and officially doesn't even work there any more, but just a couple of seconds later
McPherson suggests she whip up some breakfast for them and lamely walks away!
Just as George Sander's Addison DeWitt is a main attraction in
All About Eve, Clifton Webb's Waldo
Lydecker grabs all the attention with his contemptuous attitude toward most everything in the film. He's
the one with the zinger lines, especially the one when he claims to be a sensitive man because he'd be
deeply troubled if his neighbor's children were devoured by wolves. His ardor for Laura notwithstanding,
he also seems to be 'coded' as a gay character, and the film flirts with scenes such as the one where he
receives McPherson in a bathtub rigged with a typewriter, and even asks him for a towel. His small talk
is dominated by frequent allusions to violent behavior, threatening Shelby or offering to crack the skull
of a copyboy who crowds his style.
Even if he's funny, average audiences are surely meant to dislike Lydecker. He's a pompous egghead and uses
his advantages in unfair ways; it's always those snooty city folk like Lydecker and Carpenter who get the
classy women like Laura. So we're automatically rooting for the quiet and amused McPherson, who knows just
how to rile Lydecker with his silly handheld baseball puzzle. McPherson never loses control of himself under
provocation, and as the Alpha male puts both lotharios in their place. The only exception is when Mark
purposely provokes Shelby, so as to be able to sucker-punch him. Laura shows a clear preference for
two-fisted he-men over intellectual dandies and creampuff gigolos.
(spoilers begin. If you haven't seen Laura and don't want a great surprise ruined, skip down
to the disc evaluation section)
Laura does imply that Mark McPherson is himself a borderline sick personality, and that's what makes this
classic a film noir instead of a garden-variety whodunnit. We see Mark becoming more and more
despondent about the female murder victim, until the film's most famous scene shows him falling apart in worship
of her portrait. The wordless sequence works beautifully, and might even be better if its intent weren't already
telegraphed by Lydecker's insinuation that Mark is turning into a necrophile. McPherson is a prototype for the
intensely guilty Scotty Ferguson of Hitchcocks's Vertigo. 1
Yes, Laura shows up alive, throwing McPherson into a regular fit of joy - there's a slight crook at the edge
of his mouth where a smile should be. But we've been watching Andrews' expressive face very closely, and it's
more than enough of a reaction. From then on in Mark pursues the real killer (after learning who the real
victim is) with a different objective - he has to win Laura as well. Little flashes of smiles cross his face
every time he thinks an obstacle between them has been lifted.
Laura's remarkable return from the dead is somewhat similar to the later Vertigo, or perhaps an inversion
of the story structure of Psycho. The film has lulled us into the finality of her death (unless we've seen
the trailer, which shows Laura alive and kicking with her three male suitors) and she suddenly pops up to mark the
beginning of the final act.
Gene Tierney does a fine job in Laura even though the part is rigged so that any pretty face can play
the role. The strange thing is that the living Laura turns out to be every bit as ideal as the phantom charmer
described by Waldo Lydecker. Laura is indeed an innocent sweetheart even though she accepted and encouraged Waldo's
career-enhancing help in all of those flashbacks. Lydecker claims that Laura's own talent and charm is what got her
promotions and success, but one would think a savvy 40s noir would expect us to be at least a little
Preminger's ending is expositionally just as compact as Hitchcock's
North by NorthWest, resolving several
plot threads in just a couple of shots. It's worth watching more than once. The villain is shot, the lovers
are united, the heroine expresses her sorrow for the villain and the villain his love for the heroine. And
the camera pushes in on the shattered antique clock, a poetic stand-in for the gunshot villain who appears
genteel (and sexless) but hides a double-barreled shotgun where it can't be seen. Otto Preminger later became
a master of mature, ambiguous dramas that held scenes in wide takes that appeared to allow 'reality' to
determine what happened next. But his later work can't touch the stylized economy of this ending.
Laura was nominated for a number of Oscars but won only for best Cinematography, as 1944 was the year of
(yawn) Going My Way. The title song wasn't even nominated, I imagine because lyrics were not heard on-screen.
There were twenty nominees for best dramatic scoring, but Laura wasn't among them. Somebody at Fox must have
been asleep at the switch.
Fox's DVD of Laura is the first in their Fox Film Noir line and comes with more extras than one
would expect to see on a Studio Classics release.
Rudy Behlmer wrote an excellent account of how Laura came to be that forms the basis of his commentary
on this disc. He certainly knows the subject. David Raksin and Jeanine Basinger are heard on a second commentary
track. Apparently Fox was nervous about the movie showing rich New Yorkers
eating fine meals and wooing available babes in the middle of a war with rationing. A short montage of high living
was clipped from most release prints. This disc presents it as a separate extra and also allows one to watch the
film with it restored. There seems to be an entire second encoding, because the commentary only plays on the
standard version. The package text lists this extended version as having an alternate opening. I looked at it, and
someone will have to correct me if it's different.
There are also two full-length Biography docus, one on the chaotic life and career of Gene Tierney and
a second that looks at Vincent Price, the King of Horror who was also a true Rennaisance man. A trailer for
Laura is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Two commentaries, two docus on Tierney and Price, alternate version with deleted scene, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 5, 2005
1. Believe it or not, this was
one of the scenes frequently dropped when the movie was snipped to fit into 90 minute TV slots with commercials.
We come out of a station break to see Laura opening the door and entering the apartment, with Mark's entire
miserable restlessness cut out. I believe Behlmer explains that Fox originally wanted the scene cut for the
same reason that the TV editors found they could excise it - it doesn't advance the murder mystery. The old Hollywood
rarely seemed to understand what character development is.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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