Thursday, January 16, 2014

Laura (1944)

In 1946, after WWII, French movie critics were exposed to a new wave of US crime/drama movies that were made during WWII and never made it out to Europe until then. They noticed many similarities between these movies that made them stand out from their 1930s counterparts and used the term 'film noir' to describe them. One of those movies was 'Laura' from 1944, which also included 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Murder, My Sweet'. It is one of the most stylish noirs of the 40s and is still considered a classic. This movie was the love-child of Otto Preminger ('Fallen Angel', 'The 13th Letter'), who made sure it was made and who kept a tight reign on the production, both as the movie's producer as well as, later on, its director. Joseph LaShelle ('Dangerous Crossing', 'The 13th Letter') did the cinematography and it would win him an Oscar, the only of 5 Oscar nominations this movie received. The movie's music & theme was composed by David Raksin ('Where The Sidewalk Ends', 'The Big Combo') and it would prove to be his big breakthrough.
'You better watch out, McPherson, or you'll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don't think they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.'
The movie was based on a play by Vera Caspary called 'Ring Twice For Laura'. She turned this play into a successful serial for Collier's magazine in 1942, and it was consequently published as an even more successful novel in 1943. She also adapted it again into another play, this time together with George Sklar. After the movie became a box office hit this second play would appear in theaters in 1946/1947. The adaptation into the movie's screenplay was done by Jay Dratler and Ring Lardner Jr. (one of the Hollywood Ten), with Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt helping out with the final version. Of these, only Jay Dratler is interesting from a film noir point of view, as he also (co-)wrote the story and/or screenplay for others noirs such as 'Call Northside 777' and 'The Dark Corner'. The main difference between the novel and the movie is the narration/point of view of the movie. In the novel the story is told from the point of view of all the main characters, whereas the movie simplifies this by using Waldo Lydecker as the focal point, as well as the narrator, of the movie's first half and Mark McPherson that of the second half. The screenplay was also nominated for an Oscar.

The movie starts out as an ordinary murder case. Police lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is put on the case of the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). She was found murdered in her apartment, her face maimed beyond recognition by a shotgun blast. McPherson does what every detective would do in such a case, interview Laura's close friends. In this case the circle of friends is fairly limited with only 3 persons of interest. There's the popular and haughty columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) whose tongue is razorsharp and acerbic. Lydecker took an interest in Laura when she was still working for an ad agency, and became her mentor, introducing her into the high-society circles of Manhattan and teaching her how to act and behave. Because of Lydecker's interest in Laura she also climbs the ranks of the ad agency. Then there's her aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who's a wealthy middle-aged woman and supports Laura financially. And lastly Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a dimwit born into money, who is Laura's fiancee but is also Ann's pet toy. As McPherson interviews these people, with Lydecker tagging along and giving McPherson a glimpse into Laura's past, seen from Waldo's point of view, he becomes more enthralled by her, also due to the painting of Laura that hangs over her fireplace. When he spends the night at her place, going through her things to get a feel for who she was, he falls asleep and is woken up by Laura entering her own apartment. Laura is as surprised as he is, she explains she away up-state for the weekend, to think over her impending marriage with Shelby. It is quickly established that the real murder victim is Diane Redfern, a model working at Laura's ad agency, who was Shelby's lover. But now McPherson has a new suspect, the woman from the painting he's fallen in love with, and who is also his previous murder victim, Laura...
'I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.'
As mentioned before, 'Laura' was Preminger's love-child. Initially, Robert Mamoulian ('Blood And Sand') directed 'Laura' and Lucien Ballard ('The Killing') was the cinematographer. After disputes and struggles, also with studio executive David Selznick, Mamoulian was fired. Preminger took over directing and also brought in a new cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle. Preminger also made sure that as little as possible of the material already shot by Mamoulian/Ballard was used. The now iconic portrait of Laura hanging over mantelpiece was not the one used under Mamoulian's guidance, which had an actual painting, painted by his wife. Preminger replaced it with an enlarged photograph of Gene Tierney, which was painted over to make it look like a painting.

Raksin, who was appointed as Laura's composer by Alfred Newman, the head of the music department who was too busy to take on yet another movie, felt Preminger's original choice, a Duke Ellington song, wouldn't fit the movie. He was given a weekend to come up with something better. He received a break-up letter from his girlfriend at the time, and it inspired him to write the theme to 'Laura'. The theme would be used in several variations in the movie, and become as famous as the movie itself. After the movie became a hit, Johnny Mercer was brought in to write lyrics to the theme, and this version became a hit in and of itself, it would be re-recorded/covered over 400 times.

Dana Andrews plays his stock noir character for the first time here, the understated, calm tough guy. In this case, he uses a small toy to keep himself composed. Andrews has the perfect face and voice for this kind of character, and he does a solid job. The same goes for Gene Tierney. She was one of the classic unattainable beauties of the era along with actresses like Jeanne Crain and Hedy Lamarr. Hedy Lamarr was actually offered the role of Laura but she declined, feeling there was too little screentime for her character (and thus, more importantly, herself). Tierney was not the most gifted actress, but she does a good job here. She does have the easiest role in this movie however, looking pretty is the main thing about Laura, but Tierney could do looking pretty better than almost anybody.
'Murder is my favorite crime. I write about it regularly, and I know you'll have to visit everyone on your list of suspects. I'd like to study their reactions.'
'You're on the list yourself, you know.'
'Good. To have overlooked me would have been a pointed insult.'
Something Tierney lacks in this movie however is chemistry with Clifton Webb, when they're supposed to be very close, lovers even... Which is maybe not too surprising and not entirely her fault when he was over twice her age in real life, not to mention very, very homosexual and effeminate, which he carried over in his portrayal of Lydecker. Webb had been in a few silent movies and had appeared in a talkie in 1930 before going back to the theater again, where he thrived. Laird Cregar had originally been cast, and even announced, for the part of Waldo Lydecker (his big frame was a much better fit for the character as described in the book) who was supposedly based in no small part on the real life vitriolic columnist Alexander Woollcott. Preminger however wanted Webb and his natural grandiose way of acting and wow, he is almost perfect here, taking over the screen in every scene he's in. It won him an Oscar nomination. His Lydecker is an arrogant debonair man whose only purpose in life seems to be to degrade everybody around him, either verbally or in his columns, except Laura who he obsesses over. His columns are so well-read he has the power to destroy somebody's reputation purely through his writing, and he has no qualms in doing so, as he does with an early rival for Laura's affection. Clifton Webb is a good enough reason to watch this movie.

Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter also has some rather gay-ish undertones, but more importantly, Price uses a strange Southern accent (Shelby's from Kentucky) and an almost weasel-like way of acting to make Shelby come off as both creepy and spineless at the same time. Shelby is almost broke and butters up both Ann and Laura, as there's money where they are, or in their vicinity at least. Shelby's character is best defined during the party scene where McPherson announces he'll reveal who the killer is. As he approaches Laura and tells her she's coming with him for questioning, Shelby stands up for her. But when McPherson gives him a punch in the stomach and marches off with Laura, Ann is quick to comfort him and Shelby switches allegiance again, back to Ann. Ann Treadwell is a wealthy cougar who loves nothing more than to attend parties and wrap Shelby around her finger, played very well by Judith Anderson. As she tells Laura, Shelby is much better suited with her than with Laura: 'We belong together because we're both weak and can't seem to help it.'

Besides the 5 main characters, there is a nice role for Bessie, Laura's loyal maid, played by Dorothy Adams. As she tells Mark McPherson when they first meet, she was brought up to spit at cops. When McPherson casually replies she can do whatever she feels like doing and that he's only interested in finding Laura's killer, she warms up to him. Bessie's role is small but she comes across as a very real and caring character, and whenever she is in a scene, the room lights up.

Otto Preminger would direct Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews in several noir(-ish) movies afterwards as well, 1945's 'Fallen Angel' (Andrews), 1947's 'Daisy Kenyon' (Andrews), 1949's 'Whirlpool' (Tierney) and 1950's 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' (Tierney & Andrews). David Raksin would be composer on all of these movies, except 'Where The Sidewalk Ends'.
'Good-bye, Laura... Good-bye, my love.'
What sets this movie apart from other 40s noirs, and especially the early formative noirs, is that this noir is set in the upper class of 40s Manhattan, and bears very little of the grittiness usually associated with noirs. It is also a highly stylish movie, reflected in the elaborate sets and very modern and classy wardrobes for Laura Hunt and Ann Treadwell. The interior art direction would earn an Oscar nomination. LaShelle's cinematography is exquisite here. It's not the type of look you would normally associate with film noir, with its characteristic chiaroscuro lighting, but he does use shadows very effectively whenever necessary. Where 'Laura' is decidedly noir is in the characters, Waldo, Shelby and Ann are all predators and in the twisty and perverse plot. If you do decide to check out this movie, please do yourself a favor and get the Fox Film Noir DVD version, it's got 2 extremely informative commentary tracks, not to mention that the image quality is outstanding. 'Laura' is a classic noir and while it's not a personal fave, it is a really good and effective noir which stands up really well to repeat viewings. Recommended.


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