Director and Producer: Otto Preminger
Screenwriters: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt
Cinematographer: Joseph La Shelle
Music: David Raksin
Studio: 20th Century Fox 1944
Main Acting: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb
Otto Preminger’s crowning achievement is one of the most elegant and dreamlike of film noirs. Made in 1944, the first year the classic cycle kicked into high gear, Laura was always a different type of noir. It didn’t reside in the dark urban sprawl of Murder My Sweet or swim in the moral murk of Double Indemnity. Here was a picture that had the sophistication of uptown New York with a MGM kind of outlook for its characters. While calling it glossy like Gaslight or Rebecca would be untrue, it has more in common with those movies than The Big Heat or Criss Cross. Its visual look is hardly filled with the standard dim and dusky design in which most have grown accustomed. There are moments where chiaroscuro lighting is present but it never lasts very long or to signify any action by the players. Camera-wise, the film mainly avoids exaggerated camera angles, consistently set up at eye-level position. The noirness of Laura comes mainly from its script. Right from the beginning, we are treated to some choice dialogue from Clifton Webb (who played socialite Waldo Lydecker):
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I was the only human being left in New York. Because of Laura’s horrible death, I was alone.”
What follows is a treaty on obsession, jealousy, and the human fallacy of personal possession.Laura is dead. Who killed her and why? A few suspects emerge. All with possible motives that Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) must slowly untangle. Our stoic protagonist is a calculating practitioner of the art of sleuth. His demeanor is reserved, his emotions hidden under a poker face veneer. He holds his cards close to the vest and never lets any secrets or clues of his thinking slip. As the investigation proceeds, we are secure in the fact that this law officer is the right man for the job. Forget that some dame got “a fox fur” from him once, his real worth was proven when he heroically arrested the gangster in the “siege of Babylon.” The cop with a silver shinbone will undoubtedly wrap up the case within the hour and be home for supper before the credits roll. Yet a curious thing begins to take shape…Mark McPherson has fallen in love with the deceased victim. He is ready to bid on her portrait in an auction. Often he sits in her empty apartment late into the night pouring himself into her personal letters. Trying to quench the love, the obsession he now feels for a beautiful corpse. Deep into the quiet evening, he closes his eyes preparing for some much-needed slumber when…either a ghost, a twin, or even the actual Laura, herself appears. Full of life and ready to satisfy his obsessive whims, we see her in the flesh for the first time. Can this be possible? Has some crazy misunderstanding occurred to our lovely advertising executive or is this all a wishful illusion?
The general vibe that Laura gives during its 89 minutes is one of a midnight dream. The pace of the film is slow and David Raskin’s incredible score conjures up all sorts of feelings we associate with sleep. It has a measured grace and vague moments of stillness. The question staring us in the face is the belief that maybe Laura isn’t alive. Perhaps from the moment McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s chair, he is dreaming the rest of the film. Not a noir nightmare, but a desirable hallucination and a turn of events that would make his waking self very happy. This theory on Preminger’s feature has long been thrown around the blogosphere. I only recently watched it through this possible viewpoint and it further elevated my love for this picture. The second half as fantasy would really tie together the plot holes that are slightly glaring from the moment Laura emerges from the grips of death. It is not needed to keep the film in a place of prominence on this countdown, but it does give the movie added heft and multiple explanations. There is even a theory that Darryl Zanuck actually wanted it all to end in a dream and Otto Preminger shot a conclusion that would have Dana Andrew wake up and declare everything a delusion (although supposedly it didn’t satisfy the filmmaker). If so, I personally prefer the open-ended approach used in the official cut. Without a clear explanation, we can fill in the desired beliefs and possibilities ourselves.
The acting throughout Laura is stellar and first rate. Every principal actor gets to shine and contend with a career best performance. Dana Andrews is his usual dependable self as the obsessed Mark McPherson. Vincent Price, early in his own respective profession, stands out as the sniffling weasel, Shelby Carpenter. As a viewer, I was surprisingly able to forget his long association with campy horror and really believed in the character he was portraying. When McPherson punches him in the stomach near the end of the dinner party, who can’t help but cheer a little. A male beauty in distress, whose mercurial flighty nature is properly conveyed and accomplished by the future typecast thespian. Gene Tierney, as beautiful as ever, also gives a towering performance. Her execution of the role of Laura is just the right mix of strong female independence and justified vulnerability. She is in a precarious position throughout the film and never slips up in the notion that she deserves no less than every male’s undivided attention. Clifton Webb, though, is the star of the show. His pompous Lydecker gets all the best lines and constantly amuses with his razor-sharp retorts and prissy wit. Playing such a strong part with effeminate ease actually also led to him being typecast in the future (Webb plays a similar character in Hathaway’s The Dark Corner with Lucille Ball).
Made early in Otto Preminger’s career, he never topped this film in my eyes. This perfect storm of casting, luck (Rouben Mamoulian was meant to direct but got fired during the early stages of filming), and studio-system serendipity led to one of the first great noirs. Once Laura haunts you with a screening, chances are you will never be the same. The portrait of Laura may not have totally captured her beauty, like Waldo intones, but this film sure does. Revisits are guaranteed…