13/07/2010

Laura (1944)


"The death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world."
- Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Philosophy Of Composition' (1846)

Although Otto Preminger's near-perfect noir is ostensibly about the title character played by the flawlessly beautiful Gene Tierney, assumed murdered after a dead doppelgänger turns up in her apartment with no face, it's really more concerned with the three would-be suitors who project their fantasies onto her and with the way in which cinema itself objectifies and mythologises women, making voyeurs of us all. Waspish columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Southern gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) act as stand-ins for the audience. That means you, out there in the dark. You, who pay to watch actresses perform and sit there imaging they were yours. Preminger also has some fun at the expense of the mystery genre, deconstructing and parodying its clichés and conventions. The scene in which Andrews gathers together his suspects at a cocktail party to name the person he's going to arrest feels like a spoof of the melodramatic and old-fashioned Agatha Christie school of whodunnit crime fiction.


Of the leading men, Andrews' cop usually draws the most critical interest. McPherson is a man with a "silver shinbone" who plays with a handheld child's baseball game to concentrate his mind and keep himself calm. He develops an unhealthy obsession with Laura, whom he believes to be dead, rifling through her possessions and diaries, staring at her portrait and visiting the crime scene so often that Waldo asks him, only half-jokingly, whether he's sub-let the place. Later Lydecker warns McPherson that he'll end end up in a psychiatric ward, "I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse," he sneers. Then Mark dozes off in front of the fireplace, sleeping off the contents of a bottle of "MacGuffin" brand whiskey, only for Laura herself to walk in, as though from his dreams. Whether or not McPherson has subconscious necrophiliac tendencies, as Waldo and some of the film's more hysterical critics seem to think, the character was certainly one Los Angeles cops empathised with when they began investigating the Black Dahlia case in 1947, as the victim, Elizabeth Short, was a raven-haired vamp in the Gene Tierney mould. A particularly gory case of life imitating art.


Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter is a high society parasite who uses his matinee idol looks and Kentuckian charm to schmooze and flatter his way into Laura's New York advertising firm and then into her affections. "I approve of that hat," he purrs, later complimenting her old maid of an aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca, 1940), in similar fashion. Carpenter says he "can afford a blemish on my character but not on my clothes" and he's not kidding. Being charming is his business so he better look sharp. Ann acknowledges this when she later pleads with Laura to let her have Shelby because he is "expensive" and only she can really "afford" to keep him. The way the character is exposed without his methods ever being explicitly spelled out is elegantly done. Shelby is a manipulator, certainly, but a killer?


Which brings us to Lydecker. His calling Carpenter "a male beauty in distress" is as acute as it is savage, typical of a broadcaster and commentator who makes a "lavish" living as a character assassin. Viciously jealous of his rivals for Laura's hand, he writes such a devastating satire of Jacoby (John Dexter), the artist who painted the luminous portrait of her, that she can no longer take him seriously and stops seeing him. Webb based his prissy performance on a combination of Alexander Woollcott and Walter Winchell, the latter also inspiring Burt Lancaster's brilliant turn as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell Of Success (1957). Lydecker could have been a comic turn, a sniping effiminate who slays enemies in prose to compensate for his lack of manliness elsewhere, but the urbane Webb makes much more of him than that, using these very qualities to his advantage. His guilt is there in the first scene, when he rises from his bathtub to tell Detective McPherson, quite openly, that, "murder is my favourite crime." The cop fails to distinguish this confession from a barrage of similar witticisms and Lydecker perhaps permits himself a discrete smile off-camera. The man is a control freak who most proactively attempts to remake Laura according to his own tastes, choosing her hairstyle and clothes and filling her home with his own ornaments. He is Professor Henry Higgins with a shotgun hidden inside the grandfather clock, ready just in case a new challenger should come calling. Well, the Second Amendment does give him the right to bear arms and he certainly considers Laura his property and is willing to defend her at any cost. "Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love."

And what of the girl herself? We never get to find out who the real Laura is. Gene Tierney is only seen in flashback for the first half of the film, playing the sunny but ambitious career girl who dares approach Lydecker in a restaurant, in a story we may not be able to trust anyway as it told by Waldo, an extremely unreliable narrator. She accepts his overtures, exploits his influence, lies to him and finally cheats with Jacoby before carrying on with Carpenter, or so Lydecker says. Hardly trustworthy behaviour but then how can we even be sure that's the way it went down? When she does make her entrance in the present, Laura is evasive and deceptive, ignoring Mark's instructions to stay indoors and see nobody and vague about the details of her absence. McPherson, in love with her, still can't be sure of this mystery girl while her own maid, Bessie (Dorothy Adams), thinks she's a ghost. She may not be altogether wrong. A happy ending? Who knows?

Laura came about after Otto Premiger had made a botched attempt to stage Vera Caspary's 1941 script, Ring Twice For Laura, on Broadway. He then proceeded to pester Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck into purchasing the rights to the novel Caspary had turned it into two years later. Zanuck though preferred Rouben Mamoulian to direct but fired him early on. Producer Preminger then took over directing duties as well, retaining the portrait Mamoulian's fiancée had painted of Tierney - oils over an existing photograph - and had cinematographer Joseph LaShelle light it with an eerie, expressionistic glow. Appropriately for a film with Laura's gothic preoccupations, it has had quite an afterlife through David Raksin's dreamy theme, which was given lyrics by Johnny Mercer in 1945 and became a huge hit. There were also two versions of the film broadcast by the Lux Radio Theater, one in 1945 with Andrews, Tierney and Price and one in 1954 with Tierney and Victor Mature as McPherson. A further adaptation for the Screen Guild Theater (episode 236) saw Andrews, Tierney and Webb reprising their roles. Price would be reunited with Tierney two years later in Dragonwyck and with Andrews in 1956's While The City Sleeps. Andrews would make two further appearances for Preminger in Fallen Angel (1945) and 1950's Where The Sidewalk Ends, where he was reunited him with Tierney, whom Preminger had also used in Whirlpool (1949).

2 comments:

  1. nice review.

    i just watched Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, in which the word "panties" is used for the first time in a movie.

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  2. Ha ha! Well I guess there has to be a first time for everything! I've seen Anatomy of a Murder - what a great piece of work. Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott are awesome in that movie. Glad you're enjoying the site Joe - I've just been watching the first series of Twin Peaks and it struck me how much David Lynch and Mark Frost were influenced by Preminger's 'Laura'. There's even a veterinarian character named "Lydecker".

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