For this edition Shadows of Film Noir, we take a look at Otto Preminger's Laura, produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1944. It was a glossy, high-class production that was well regarded, and it was a hit, even though it was not one of the year's top grossers. It won an Oscar for its black-and-white cinematography, and received nominations for directing, screenplay, art direction, and supporting actor. Since then, it has come to be known as one of Preminger's greatest films, along with Anatomy of a Murder (1959). It's an odd combination of class and back-alley emotions, all coming together in a bizarre, brilliant way.
What It's About
Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a beautiful advertising executive. His first stop is powerful newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who first appears in his bathtub, perched at his typewriter (which rests on a kind of marble shelf across the tub). Lydecker tells the story of how he came to meet and befriend Laura -- with flashbacks -- and accompanies McPherson on his other interviews. He meets Laura's would-be fiancé, the milquetoast Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura's wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and her housekeeper, Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams). The more McPherson learns about Laura, the more he begins to obsess over her, not helped by a haunting portrait that hangs in her apartment. He falls asleep beneath the portrait and awakes to a startling new twist in the case.
Behind the Scenes
By 1944, Otto Preminger had directed several films of no notability, and he had turned to producing. Daryl F. Zanuck hired him to produce Laura, with Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mark of Zorro) directing. When Zanuck disliked the early footage, Preminger blamed Mamoulian, fired him, and took over. It became his foot in the door, and the beginning of a much-celebrated (and sometimes notorious) career that lasted for four decades. Three writers, Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt are credited with adapting Vera Caspary's novel, though Pauline Kael asserts that it was Hoffenstein that "saved it." Other sources cite Ring Lardner Jr. as an uncredited contributor. The movie has some delightfully witty dialogue, mostly coming from Lydecker, which is unusual for a film noir. But the movie is perhaps more famous for its score by David Raksin, as well as the popular theme song, instantly recognizable over the opening credits.
The extraordinarily beautiful Gene Tierney was about 24 at the time, and some critics complained that she was not strong enough for the role. She had been in some major films already, such as Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James (1940), John Ford's Tobacco Road (1941), Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (1943), but it wouldn't be until the following year that she would find her footing in the full-color noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945). She worked with Preminger again on three more films. Clifton Webb was nominated for an Oscar for this role, and though he was nominated twice more, for The Razor's Edge (1946) and Sitting Pretty (1948), this remains his best-known role.
Dana Andrews went on to star in arguably the biggest movie of the 1940s, The Best Years of Our Lives, but is perhaps best remembered as a lyric in the song "Science Fiction Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the 1950s, he appeared in some top-quality B movies like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Night of the Demon (1957). He was president of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1963 to 1965, struggled with alcoholism, retired from acting, and died in 1992. Vincent Price played numerous roles like this one. His smarmy nature quickly pigeonholed him as a milquetoast or a cuckold, a kind of weak suitor of the female lead that would eventually lose out to the hero. But a few years later, all that would change with his role in House of Wax (1953). He became one of the screen's most famous horror icons, and is today the best known of all the actors in this film.
The Lure of the Underworld
Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. Sometimes detective stories, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946), get lumped in with film noir since they feature characters descending into the underworld. Usually these detectives are just doing their job, rather than suckered in through some personal weakness, although they sometimes get sidetracked by a beautiful dame. Overall, Laura is more of a murder mystery, but what makes it a noir is the detective's eventual obsession with the dead girl. His obsession does not destroy him, but the very hint of it is dark enough that it at least starts him down the wrong road.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. Laura is an interesting character, weak in some ways and powerful in others, but I don't think she's a traditional femme fatale. She's clearly powerful enough to seduce any man she pleases, and she uses her seductive power when and where she sees fit. She's also slightly mysterious, and her behavior is suspicious from time to time. But in the end, she appears to be a girl with low self-esteem who allows herself to be manipulated by more powerful, or at least more convincing, men.
Many films noir were shot on the cheap, and the black-and-white cinematography and stark lighting were a way to cut costs and save time. Laura is notable for its lush, Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography, which uses eye-level wall lights to give dark rooms a sense of menace, without being too harsh. (Faces are illuminated, but ceilings and floors remain dark.) It's a very rich-looking film, usually taking place in well-furnished apartments filled with interesting knick-knacks. It's definitely not your traditional noir. However, one of my favorite touches is how the streetwise McPherson character clashes with the posh surroundings, such as the way he roughly removes a treasure from a shelf in Lydecker's home, or the way he plays with a little wooden toy baseball game he carries with him.
"Dames are always pulling a switch on you." - McPherson
"I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." - Lydecker
"I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don't come with me this instant I shall run amok." - Lydecker
What Was Said
"When a murder mystery possessing as much sustained suspense, good acting and caustically brittle dialogue as Laura, which opened yesterday at the Roxy, comes along it might seem a little like carping to suggest that it could have been even better." - Thomas M. Pryor, New York Times
"The film's deceptively leisurely pace at the start, and its light, careless air, only heighten the suspense without the audience being conscious of the buildup. What they are aware of as they follow the story [from the novel by Vera Caspary] is the skill in the telling. Situations neatly dovetail and are always credible. Developments, surprising as they come, are logical. The dialog is honest, real and adult." - Variety
"That Laura continues to weave a spell -- and it does -- is a tribute to style over sanity." - Roger Ebert
"Everybody's favorite chic murder mystery." - Pauline Kael
"Although Laura was clearly Preminger's most satisfying achievement in terms of sheer pleasure, it was also an albatross around his neck in that, like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, Preminger was thought not to have lived up to the promise of Laura." - Andrew Sarris
[Special note: It's also a huge favorite of Cinematical managing editor Scott Weinberg. In case those other film critics didn't convince you.]