LAURA (1944)

  • Director: Otto Preminger
  • Writers: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt, based on the novel by Vera Caspary
  • Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Judith Anderson
  • Accolades:  2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#56), 1 Oscar (Best Cinematography – B&W). 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Otto Preminger, Best Supporting Actor – Clifton Webb, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction – B&W)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Writing about Laura is something of a challenge, as I don’t think I can do anything to better Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay on it where he called it “a tribute to style over sanity.” His description of the movie’s absurdity is all you really need to know about it as a movie:

[It] has a detective who never goes to the station; a suspect who is invited to tag along as other suspects are interrogated; a heroine who is dead for most of the film; a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual; a romantic lead who is a dull-witted Kentucky bumpkin moving in Manhattan penthouse society, and a murder weapon that is returned to its hiding place by the cop, who will “come by for it in the morning.” The only nude scene involves the jealous man and the cop.

Yet, after watching it, there is no question in my mind why Laura is beloved among film noir fans. It is all people talking to each other in fancy Manhattan apartments, but when several of those people are willing to chew to the scenery to the extent here, and given the right lines to chew over, it makes everything else work. I am not going to do you the disservice of describing much of the plot, except to say that the movie is nominally about a police detective (Dana Andrews) investigating the murder of a beautiful woman named Laura (Gene Tierney). His investigation leads him to the acidic gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s erstwhile fiance Shelby (Vincent Price, of all people, doing a very weird Kentucky accent), and a society dame played by Judith Anderson. The identity of the murderer among this crew is somewhat beside the point, as are some of the other really off-the-wall twists over the course of the 90 minutes.

The very opening scene of the movie, as Ebert mentions, involves Andrews’ straight-jawed detective coming to visit Lydecker as he sits typing while naked in the bath. Lydecker stands up to greet him, and Andrews briefly glances down as he hands Lydecker his robe. Andrews, we soon determine, is falling for a dead woman. One scene involves him entering her apartment at night, fingering her clothes, sniffing her perfume, and then sitting down beneath a giant portrait of her she has placed over her own fireplace to drink her liquor.

Lydecker, meanwhile, as played by Clifton Webb, is perhaps the greatest example (and maybe the genesis of) a very particular movie type. He is a cynical gossip columnist who is constantly biting off lines like (when offered a pen), “I never use a pen, I write with a goose quill tipped in venom.”  Lydecker invites himself along on the Detective’s initial round of questioning, the movie seemingly unable to let him be off screen for long. He informs the Detective that “murder is my favorite crime,” and this is bizarrely enough reason for him to be allowed to come along.

Webb was not a movie star before Laura, and in fact had not been in a movie at all since 1930. But his Broadway work convinced Otto Preminger to cast him in the Lydecker role, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Preminger was brought in by producer Darryl Zanuck after the initial director, Ruben Mamoulian, was fired after Zanuck saw the first rushes from shooting. Preminger’s genius ended up being in knowing where to rein the actors in and where to let them go big. He also knew when to copiously use the big, sweeping, melodramatic theme composed by Dave Raksin, over and over. The story goes that Raksin was given a weekend to compose the theme and retreated to a cabin in the woods, where he remained stuck until receiving a “Dear John” letter from his wife, which put him in the proper emotional space to write what Preminger was looking for.

I thoroughly enjoyed Laura, much more than I had expected going in. The real question, for me, becomes whether it’s just great, or so bad it’s great. Many of the lines are very funny, but I’m not sure they’re supposed to be? I suppose that it doesn’t matter. It is not a Film Noir in the sense of the Detective sitting behind a desk, drinking out of a flask, while window-shade shadows play across his face, but every modern viewer would probably classify it as one nonetheless. After all, it opens with a voiceover that includes the phrase, “A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass.” Combine that arch tone with a murder mystery in the 1940s, and that’s the reference a modern viewer is going to have. That said, I don’t think that just because you love The Maltese Falcon, you’ll love this movie, or vice versa. Honestly I think there might be a higher correlation with liking Schitt’s Creek, or some other modern TV comedies. Except, of course, Laura would insist up and down that it is not a comedy.

Yet it is hardly a stretch to say that everyone involved in Laura knew it was camp, and played it that way. With this cast, it was probably inevitable, though it was present from the writing stage, and the difference between Mamoulian and Preminger seems to be knowing when to let the camp go and when not to. In one flashback, Lydecker tells Laura that “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.” And so I find myself highly recommending you check Laura out for yourself, I have a feeling most of you will have a pretty good time. Ebert closes his essay with, “The materials of a B-grade crime potboiler are redeemed by Waldo Lydecker, walking through every scene as if afraid to step in something.”

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