Monday, July 28, 2008

Target #227: Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)

TSPDT placing: #320
Directed by: Otto Preminger, Rouben Mamoulian (uncredited)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

Laura. She's the talk of the town. She's enterprising, intelligent and beautiful. Men fall over themselves to get close to her, women envy her sophistication; Laura is, to paraphrase a very well-known detective, the stuff that dreams are made of. Such are her charms that she will even drive one respectable person to commit murder. Her murder. But who would want to kill Laura Hunt? Otto Preminger's nifty little 1940s thriller, Laura (1944), simultaneously evokes the spirit of hard-boiled pulp noir, an Agatha Christie murder mystery and even a little surreal fantasy. With a brief running time and an intimately-small cast, the film is perhaps closer in spirit to a traditional "countryhouse murder" tale than sprawling gangster film noir pictures like John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946). Nevertheless, stylistically, Laura is pure noir, and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, a notable favourite of Billy Wilder later in his career, expertly employs shadows and lighting to create the close, claustrophobic atmosphere that arises when one person in the room must be a cold-blooded murderer.
There is no other way to say it: Gene Tierney is absolutely ravishing. From the film's opening moments, when we glimpse her seductive figure in a hanging portrait, my heart melted; I was instantly brought under her enchanting spell. If I may adopt the vocabulary of our hard-boiled hero, she's a perfect dame! When hard-edged cop Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews, the spitting image of Steve Martin in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)) is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of the city's most coveted women (Tierney), he uncovers a bizarre romantic triangle that offers endless motives for such a heinous crime. Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an older newspaper columnist with a reputation for acid wit, originally offered Laura her big break in business, and had protectively maintained a relationship with her that surpassed love and bordered on obsession. Meanwhile, a wealthy charmer, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), had asked for Laura's hand in marriage, a proposal about which she had been non-committal. Even in death, Laura's femme fatale charm remains just as potent, and Lt. McPherson soon finds himself infatuated with her lingering spirit.

Then, of course, comes the wonderfully-surreal moment when our love-struck detective awakens to watch his murder victim walk into the room. Originally, Rouben Mamoulian {Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)} had been hired to direct the film, and his version ended with the revelation that Laura's reappearance had merely been a dream, a construction of McPherson's subconscious. When producer Otto Preminger decided to take over, he unceremoniously scrapped Mamoulian's completed footage and started over. Even without this final psychological complication, which might nevertheless have seemed a cop-out, Preminger's mystery is consistently engrossing and often fascinating. Most intriguing of all is Lydecker's relationship with Laura, and Clifton Webb's unconventional yet highly-effective casting in the role. The noted Broadway performer had not acted in a film since the silent era, but his flamboyant and foppish personality translates perfectly to the screen. Lydecker doesn't seem to actually love Laura, but rather he wishes to be her, to live vicariously through her, and for any man (other than himself) to be in Laura's life is an affront both to himself and his sexuality.

Currently my #4 film of 1944:
1) Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
2) Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
3) Gaslight (George Cukor)
4) Laura (Otto Preminger)
5) Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock)

What others have said:

"Not just another noir classic of '44, Laura almost succeeds in pulling the screen apart at the seams, if only to stitch it together again in a visibly frantic finale. The narrator's a critic, the cop a would-be necrophiliac, and the femme fatale a faceless corpse... or are they? Less investigative thriller than an investigation of that genre's conventions - voyeurism (looking at, and for, Laura), a search for solutions (not just whodunit but whodunwhat), and the race against time (clues and clocks, fantasies and flashbacks) - the plot is deliberately perfunctory, the people deliciously perverse, and the mise-en-scène radical."

"Otto Preminger's directorial debut (1944), not counting the five previous B films he refused to acknowledge and an earlier feature made in Austria. It reveals a coldly objective temperament and a masterful narrative sense, which combine to turn this standard 40s melodrama into something as haunting as its famous theme. Less a crime film than a study in levels of obsession, Laura is one of those classic works that leave their subject matter behind and live on the strength of their seductive style."

"Waldo Lydecker, who introduces himself to a detective investigating the murder of the titular Laura by stepping out of a bath like some hybrid of Smithers and Mr. Burns, acts as the piece's unreliable narrator, stalking through his scenes like a dandy in honorary high collar and spats while providing the strangest contention in a strange film: that this aging, fey, homosexual lothario was passionately in love with his ward, Laura. The picture might be the most overt iteration of film noir as a genre about emasculation ever put to celluloid, and trying to puzzle out whether Waldo's for real and chief gumshoe McPherson buys any of his honeyed hooey constitutes a good portion of what's fun and maddening in equal measure about it. That tension between what's ridiculous and what the characters take seriously makes Laura a mystery, for sure, but not for the obvious reasons."

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