I've seen Otto Preminger's “Laura” three or four times, but the
identity of the murderer doesn't spring quickly to mind. That's not because the
guilty person is forgettable but because the identity is so arbitrary: It is
notnecessarythat the murderer be the murderer.
Three or four other characters would have done as well, and indeed if it were
not for Walter Winchell we would have another ending altogether. More about
Film noir is known for its convoluted plots and arbitrary
twists, but even in a genre that gave us “The Maltese Falcon,” this takes some
kind of prize. “Laura” (1944) 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 isreturnedto 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.
“Laura” continues to weave a spell -- and it does -- is a tribute to style over
sanity. No doubt the famous musical theme by David Raksin has something to do
with it: The music lends a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it
plays under, and it plays under a lot. There is also Clifton Webb's narration,
measured, precise, a little mad: “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 were the only human being
left in New York. For Laura's horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker,
was the only one who really knew her.”
is Clifton Webb's performance as Waldo Lydecker that stands at the heart of the
film, with Vincent Price, as Laura's fiancee Shelby Carpenter, nibbling at the
edges like an eager spaniel. Both actors, and Judith Anderson as a neurotic
friend, create characters who have no reality except their own, which is good
enough for them. The hero and heroine, on the other hand, are cardboard. Gene
Tierney, as Laura, is gorgeous, has perfect features, looks great in the
stills, but never seems emotionally involved; her work in “Leave Her to Heaven”
(1945) is stronger, deeper, more convincing. Dana Andrews, as Detective Mark
McPherson, stands straight, chain-smokes, speaks in a monotone, and reminded
the studio head Daryl F. Zanuck of “an agreeable schoolboy.” As actors, Tierney
and Andrews basically play eyewitnesses to scene-stealing by Webb and Price.
was Clifton Webb's first big starring role and his first movie role of any kind
since 1930. He was a stage actor who refused the studio's demand for a screen
test; Otto Preminger, who began by producing the film and ended by directing
it, in desperation filmed Webb on a Broadway stage and showed that to Zanuck. “He
doesn't walk, he flies,” an underling told Zanuck, but Webb, who had a mannered
camp style, impressed Zanuck and got the role. Vincent Price creates an accent
somewhere between Kentucky and Transylvania for his character, who is tall and
healthy and inspires Waldo Lydecker to complain to Laura: “With you, a lean
strong body is the measure of a man.”
is lean but not strong. Webb was 55 when he played the role, Tierney 24. A
similar age difference was no problem for Bogart and Bacall, but between Webb
and Tierney it must be said there is not the slightest suggestion of chemistry.
He is a bachelor critic and columnist (said to be modeled after Alexander
Wolcott), and the first time we see him he is sitting in his bathtub, typing.
This is after Laura's body has been found murdered with shotgun blasts, and the
detective comes to question her closest friend.
scene develops with more undercurrents than surface, as McPherson enters the
bathroom, glances at Lydecker, seems faintly amused. Then Lydecker swings the
typewriter shelf away, so that it shields his nudity from the camera but not
from the detective. Waldo stands up, off screen, and a reaction shot shows
McPherson glancing down as Lydecker asks him to pass a bathrobe. Every time I
see the movie, I wonder what Preminger is trying to accomplish with this scene.
There is no suggestion that Lydecker is attracted to McPherson, and yet it
seems odd to greet a police detective in the nude.
is Laura's svengali. In flashbacks, we follow the progress of their
relationship. He snubs her in the Algonquin dining room, then apologizes,
becomes her friend, and takes over her life, chooses her clothes, redoes her
hair, introduces her to the right people, promotes her in his column. They
spend every night together out on the town, except Tuesdays and Fridays, when
Waldo cooks for her at home. Then other men enter the picture, and leave again
as Waldo blasts them in his column. Big, dumb Shelby with his lean, strong body
is the latest and most serious threat. Considering this Waldo-Shelby-Laura love
triangle, it occurs to me that the only way to make it psychologically sound
would be to change Laura into a boy.
movie basically consists of well-dressed rich people standing in luxury flats
and talking to a cop. The passion is unevenly distributed. Shelby and Laura
never seem to have much heat between them. Waldo is possessive of Laura, but
never touches her. Ann Treadwell (Anderson), a society dame, lusts for Shelby
but has to tell him or he'd never know. And Detective McPherson develops a
crush on the dead woman. There is an extraordinary scene where he enters her
apartment at night, looks through her letters, touches her dresses, sniffs her
perfume, pours himself a drink from her bottle and sits down beneath her
enormous portrait, which is placed immodestly above her own fireplace. It's
like a date with a ghost.
investigation and his ultimate revelations are handled in an offhand way, for a
1940s crime picture. He is forever leading people to believe they're going to
be charged, and then backing off. Lydecker asks to tag along as the cop
interviews suspects; murder is his “favorite crime,” and “I like to study their
reactions.” Astonishingly, McPherson lets him. This is useful from a screenplay
point of view, since otherwise McPherson would be mostly alone.
of these absurdities and improbabilities somehow do not diminish the film's
appeal. They may even add to it. Some of the lines have become unintentionally
funny, James Naremore writes inMore
than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts,”Where
'Laura' is concerned, the camp effect is at least partly intended--any movie that
puts Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson and Vincent Price in the same drawing room
is inviting a mood of fey theatricality.”
story of Preminger's struggle to get the movie made has become Hollywood
legend. As he tells it in his autobiography, Zanuck saw him as a producer, not
a director, and assigned Rouben Mamoulian to the piece. When the early rushes
were a disaster, Preminger stepped in, reshot many scenes, replaced the sets,
and fought for the screenplay. Zanuck insisted that another ending be shot; the
film was screened for Zanuck and his pal Walter Winchell, a real gossip
columnist, who said he didn't understand the ending. So Zanuck let Preminger
have his ending back, and while the business involving the shotgun in the
antique clock may be somewhat labored, the whole film is of a piece: contrived,
artificial, mannered, and yet achieving a kind of perfection in its balance
between low motives and high style. What makes the movie great, perhaps, is the
casting. The materials of a B-grade crime potboiler are redeemed by Waldo
Lydecker, walking through every scene as if afraid to step in something.