Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Laura (1944)

Director: Otto Preminger                                 Writer: Jay Dratler & Betty Reinhardt
Film Score: David Raksin                                Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price

This is the first of Otto Preminger’s films featuring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. The second was Where the Sidewalk Ends in 1950, and while an interesting film is not nearly the iconic movie that this one is. Laura is odd in many ways. It is often cited as one of the classic examples of film noir, and yet the first half has very little of the usual features of those kinds of films. Much of it takes place during the daytime, and almost none of it on the streets. There’s no real sense of chiaroscuro lighting and no real femme fatale in the story. And yet film noir fans have always claimed it for their own. But it’s easy to see why, as the film is so incredibly good. The one inescapable noir aspect throughout is an overwhelming sense of obsession in the film, by both Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb, and to a lesser extent Vincent Price. And this obsession is only magnified by David Raksin’s impressive score. The film is based on a serialized story by Vera Caspary called “Ring Twice for Laura.” She had been approached by Otto Preminger who offered to work on adapting it as a Broadway play with her, but she decided to produce the play on her own. Unable to attract a major star, however, she couldn’t get financing and settled on expanding it to novel form, then promptly sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox and it wound up in Preminger’s lap anyway after Rouben Mamoulian botched the first attempt to film the story.

The opening credits begin over the omnipresent portrait of Gene Tierney as the title character, accompanied by David Raksin’s inspired song of the same name. The story begins in the home of Clifton Webb, a supercilious newspaper columnist who is writing something of an obituary for the recently murdered Tierney. Dana Andrews, as a police detective, interviews him briefly while Webb is in the tub and then the columnist invites himself along as he goes to question the other witnesses. One of those is Judith Anderson who was in love with Tierney’s fiancé, Vincent Price, who just happens to be in her apartment when they get there. Webb is convinced that Tierney was never going to marry him, and Price makes himself look even guiltier by trying to plant the key to her country cabin in her apartment. At a restaurant that night Webb gives Andrews the whole backstory on Tierney. Fiver years earlier she was a struggling advertising flunky who suffered Webb’s withering wrath when she tried to get his endorsement for a fountain pen campaign. But eventually he had the idea of turning her into a woman of culture like Pygmalion, and as soon as he succeeded she began casting about for someone more to her liking than the shriveled up Webb. The fact that she chooses Price just about drives Webb to distraction, and eventually both he and Andrews become convinced that there’s something more to the relationship than either of them knows.

After interviewing all the witnesses, Andrews can’t help wandering around her empty apartment, and before long he becomes obsessed with Tierney. But almost everyone is a suspect, Webb because he was spurned, Price because he may have been as well, and Anderson because she wanted Price for herself. There’s so much to like about this film it’s difficult to know where to start. Gene Tierney may be the star of the picture, but Clifton Webb absolutely steals the show. It’s really his film from start to finish, and many of the lines he is given are priceless. But in fact, focusing too much on Webb is a shame because of how good Dana Andrews is. He does a stellar job because his character keeps almost everything to himself, never letting on the way he is connecting all of the information he gathers in what seems like offhand questions most of the time. Because of his seemingly distracted manner, it pulls the killer into his trap. His mannerisms when he is thinking about Tierney, and especially when Webb accurately accuses him of being in love with her, are absolutely masterful. This is an early role for Vincent Price, before he became associated with horror pictures. His obviously phony claims of innocence are undercut by his behavior and for modern audiences his later filmic associations only help him in the role. Judith Anderson, is also terrific as the rich widow who can’t seem to get her hooks into the slippery Price, except when he needs her money.

Andrews’ obsession with the dead Tierney is the primary feature of the film, and it is reinforced by Preminger’s camera as it lovingly looks at every object in her apartment. It’s also reinforced by the other main character in the film: the music. David Raksin’s theme is heard in almost every variation there is, from jazz to classical, on a record player and in a restaurant. It’s the thing throughout the first half of the film that keeps Tierney present, in spirit if not the flesh. That and the clock. Preminger himself seems obsessed by the twin grandfather clocks in Tierney’s and Webb’s apartments, and never lets a moment go by to center them in the shot, but the payoff in the final, closing image of the film makes it all worth it. The second half of the film is probably most like noir when the action moves out to Tierney’s country house at night in the rain and Price turns out to me much more than he pretends. Back in the city the entire climax takes place at night, too, with some nice high-contrast lighting by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle who won an Academy Award for his work. Otto Preminger was honored with a best director nomination, as was Webb for his performance, but the most glaring omission that year was that David Raksin was overlooked for his score, especially considering that no less than twenty nominations were given out in that category with two each going to Max Steiner and Miklós Rózsa. Though it’s more of a mystery than film noir, Laura is an incredibly satisfying film that certainly deserves its classic status.

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