THE STORY OF A LOVE THAT BECAME THE MOST FEARFUL THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO A WOMAN!
After returning from service in World War II, the mighty Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck was reportedly furious to find that his interim replacement had allowed Otto Preminger to direct the film noir thriller Laura. Zanuck, who carried a grudge against Preminger, decided that he could only produce the picture, not direct it. Veteran filmmaker Rouben Mamoulian was hired for the job, but he and Preminger had decidedly different views on what kind of film Laura should be. The argument ended with Preminger taking over directing duties for a movie that would become his major breakthrough.
New York City police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is looking into who killed the successful advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). A particularly gruesome murder, Laura died after someone fired a shotgun in her face. McPherson begins his investigation by questioning the celebrated newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who tells him how annoying he found Laura the first time she talked to him, but also how he became enchanted by her and ended up as her mentor. Another man in Laura’s life was playboy fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) who had a complicated relationship with Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).
After tagging along during McPherson’s questioning of suspects, and his visit to Laura’s apartment, Lydecker begins to wonder if the detective isn’t becoming as infatuated with Laura as everyone else…
Short and exciting
One of the most classic film noir thrillers, Laura premiered the same year as Double Indemnity and has always been a little bit overshadowed by that film. I believe one reason must be that the former lacks truly spectacular scenes. When you remember Laura, you might be thinking about individual performances or the music, but not one special scene. Not that it really matters; this is a tightly directed little film, short and exciting, that has a superb finale where the killer’s identity is revealed.
Halfway through, the filmmakers present a jaw-dropping twist that changes everything, but not for the worse. No one has really cared much about all the improbabilities that precede it. One of the movie’s most stunning moments comes already after ten minutes where one of the chief suspects, Lydecker, gets McPherson’s permission to join him as other suspects are interrogated. There is no other reason besides entertaining audiences with Lydecker’s wit and providing a flashback sequence where he tells McPherson more about his earlier relationship with the murder victim. In other words, the mechanics behind the plot are a little too evident, but tension builds fast – and the film’s sense of humor is another disarming reason to ignore the silliness. Lydecker has become Webb’s signature role and the writers blessed him with many hilariously venomous lines; he’s become a symbol for the kind of dandy whose sexuality is never outspoken but still understood.
Just as memorable is Tierney who became forever associated with this film, the kind of woman who is neither a “doll” nor a “dame”, as Lydecker explains it to McPherson. Andrews is kind of wooden as the detective, but it’s not a problem; he’s merely representing us in the audience as he learns the truth behind Laura’s murder.
The melancholy music theme by David Raksin became a huge hit. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle brought out the full effect of what has become a classic oil painting of Laura in the film. It’s actually just a photograph of Tierney dabbed with oils… but thanks to LaShelle’s camera and lighting it’s as haunting as the character.
Laura 1944-U.S. 85 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt. Novel: Vera Caspary. Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle. Music: David Raksin. Cast: Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt), Dana Andrews (Mark McPherson), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Grant Mitchell.
Trivia: Hedy Lamarr was allegedly considered for the part of Laura. Remade as TV movies in 1962 and 1968, the former in West Germany.
Oscar: Best Cinematography.
Quote: “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.” (Webb)
Last word: “I saw Otto […] at Alfred Newman’s [Newman was in charge of the music department at Fox], where he told me he was going to use Duke Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady’ as the theme song and work it around the original music that I would be composing. I told him it would be wrong for the movie. We argued; we both raised our voices. He said the song would be right because ‘Laura’s a whore’. I said, ‘According to who?’ ‘Where did you get this fellow?’ Otto asked Newman. Al said to Otto, ‘Listen to Dave’. Otto did and he gave me the weekend to come up with a song to replace ‘Sophisticated Lady’. It was very generous of him. That weekend I watched the movie several times and it inspired me.” (Raksin, “Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King”)