Greetings again from the darkness. Some movies from the 1940’s remain fun to watch for mostly nostalgia reasons. Others still hold up well today and can be enjoyed for the story, script, acting and production value. Director Otto Preminger’s Laura falls easily into the latter category. This quasi-film noir, murder mystery, creepy love story is based on the novel from Vera Caspary is probably more respected today than when it was released … 5 Oscar nominations, but not one for Best Picture.
To fully appreciate the film, it helps to know the tortured back story. This was always Otto Preminger’s baby, but Daryl Zanuck initially chose a different cast, a different director and a different ending. In the end, Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder) won all of his battles – directing Gene Tierney with the ending he wanted (thanks to Walter Winchell). TCM’s Robert Osborne correctly states that the film has one of the best opening lines: “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died“. The line is spoken by narrator Waldo Lydecker (great screen name) played by the elegant Clifton Webb.
Playing out as mostly a murder investigation led by the detective (Dana Andrews), we are treated to a stream of unusual story choices and only one scene at the police station … a terrific interrogation scene. Instead, we spend the entire movie on the turf of rich, high society types. There are at least four credible murder suspects and they are strung along by a mostly monotone detective, who only flashes personality on his date night with the dead girl’s portrait (well, that’s how it plays!) and when he is messing with a pocket baseball toy.
Gene Tierney plays the titular Laura, and every time she appears on screen her startling beauty distracts us … just as it does the other characters in the film. Tierney was only 23 years old when this was filmed, and a couple years later she had a romance with young John F Kennedy (though she became a long time supporter of Richard Nixon). Her tragic personal story was the basis for Agatha Christie’s novel and movie The Mirror Crack’d. In the 1950’s a suicidal Tierney was treated with shock therapy in a sanatorium, and though she recovered, she struggled for the rest of her life. Her second husband was Houston oil man W Howard Lee, who had previously divorced actress Hedy Lamarr … another of the all-time screen beauties, who also turned down the lead role in Laura. Lucky guy.
The spirit of the movie comes courtesy of the magnificent performance of Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker. He is mesmerizing in his ability to take over every scene. This was Webb’s first “talkie” feature film – he left for the stage 15 years prior. The 30 year age difference between Waldo and Laura only works because Webb plays it as her society mentor, though it’s obvious he is obsessed.
Some of the best scenes and banter occurs with Webb and Vincent Price, who plays Laura’s fiancé. If you are only accustomed to Vincent Price in horror films, you will certainly get a kick out his odd role here as the virile, insecure fiancé. He also has some very good and uncomfortable scenes with the great Judith Anderson, who clearly lusts after the Price character.
The aforementioned portrait of Ms. Tierney was also used in 3 other films, and it’s interesting that Tierney and Andrews made 5 total films together. David Raskin’s haunting “Laura’s Theme” plays throughout the film in various fashions, and Joseph LaShelle won the film’s only Oscar – best black & white cinematography. This is certainly one of the best from the 1940’s and holds up very well today … enjoy the many facets of quality filmmaking.
**NOTE: None of the available online trailers are of acceptable quality, so I have decided not to post one