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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 Enormously popular, it was superceded over the years by its own score, David Raksin's haunting title melody. The film put stage director and previously unpromising film director Otto Preminger on the map - it's assembled for the most part like a fine watch. There's nary a wasted gesture and some scenes are 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 is a favorite that can be re-experienced every few years or so because there's little to it other than detective interviews and dialogue scenes; exact plot details are easy to forget. Its unforgettable mood is a 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. 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 share 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 Minnelli's The Band Wagon) and 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 the crime scene 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 Sanders' Addison DeWitt is a main attraction in All About Eve, Clifton Webb's Waldo Lydecker grabs all the attention with his contemptuous attitude. He's the one with the zinger lines, as 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 gay, 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 and 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 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 would be even 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 is 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 smiles flash across 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 to be playable by any pretty face. 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 suspicious.
Preminger's ending is the expositional equal of 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 dispatched, the lovers are united, the heroine expresses her sorrow for the villain and the villain his love for the heroine. The camera pushes in on the shattered antique clock, which, like the villain, appears genteel (and sexless) but hides a double-barreled shotgun as a guilty secret. 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 its 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. 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 wartime 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,
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 the importance of character development.