Sunday, September 18, 2011


This isn't the first time I have seen Otto Preminger's Laura, but this is the type of film that benefits from second viewings.  Most of the time, that means that a movie is a "grower," that it gets better with repetition.  I don't know if that's true with Laura.  There are some interesting artistic things going on with the story and direction that benefit from examination, certainly, but there is a more important reason for re-watching this film: you might need to battle your common sense to enjoy this one.

Laura begins with the titular character (Gene Tierney) dead.  Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) is on the case, but that doesn't necessarily make him the main character.  No, the film opens with narration from Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a renowned newspaper columnist and Laura's socialite Svengali.  Apparently, Laura was a sweetheart of a girl that Lydecker took under his wing and transformed into a Someone Important.  While Lydecker never (on camera, anyway) hinted at any romance between them, he was intensely jealous of any man who entered Laura's life; he would trash his opponents in print if he could not sway Laura with wit or logic.  Nevertheless, Laura became enamored with Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a fairly simple fellow with an aristocratic name, but not much money.  According to Shelby, the pair had become engaged...although Lydecker argues that Laura's death coincides with when she was going to break up with Shelby.  Laura's aunt, Anne (Judith Anderson) also seems to have had a romantic interest in Shelby, which is more than a little creepy.  All three paint a picture of Laura as an angel on Earth, but someone killed her --- with a shotgun blast to the face, for that matter --- so you would think that Detective McPherson's hands would be full.  They are, but things get more complicated when Laura shows up, alive and well...
"I give up.  Where's Waldo?"

I would like to start by admitting that I have a bit of a crush on Gene Tierney.  Sure, this is only the second movie I have seen her in, but I'm a pretty big fan.  Sadly, she's surprisingly bland in Laura.  She spends the first half of the movie dead and the second half being simply pleasant; I was hoping she would flaunt what enamored Lydecker, Shelby, and (perhaps) Detective McPherson, but no such luck.  In this film, she's just a pretty face.  Similarly, Dana Andrews gives a fairly boring performance as the hard-boiled detective.  He's not particularly charismatic, tough, or smart; the only things that make him stand out are his truly bizarre methods.  While Tierney and Andrews are undoubtedly the lead actors in Laura, the film belongs to Clifton Webb, and not just because the script allows him to narrate the opening (although that's always a good hint).  Webb is ridiculously entertaining as the surprisingly jealous, and yet very fey, opinion-maker.  You can argue that his character is a bit campy, but you would be doing him a disservice by qualifying it as "a bit."  Vincent Price was actually pretty good, too, in a fairly slimy role --- I'm still surprised when I see him act in non-horror movies, with his distinctive voice toned-down.
"...and though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver, for no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller...."

Otto Preminger is a director who I have not studied extensively, but have enjoyed what I have seen so far.  Preminger may not have the directorial intent of Hitchcock, but he can be very crafty with the right story.  With Laura, Premniger abandons the common notion of explaining the idiosyncrasies of the plot and instead focuses on the overall tone of the film.  On the one hand, Laura is a ridiculously stupid movie.  And yet, with Preminger's masterful direction, the film seems mysterious and dreamlike.  This is the third time I have watched Laura (twice in a row, this time around), and I'm still not entirely sure what Preminger was intending with his direction.  Nevertheless, this is an arresting story that leaves intelligent viewers with many unresolved questions.
Like, for instance, who hangs a portrait of themselves in their own apartment?

Those questions are pretty important to Laura's legacy, though.  Film noirs are not renowned for their plausible plots, but this story sticks out as one of the least likely to happen.  First of all, Laura is not a femme fatale.  While that is not necessary for a noir, it is surprising that Laura doesn't even hint at having a dangerous edge to her.  More importantly (to me, anyway), is the likelihood of any moderately likable woman having a big-ass portrait of herself as the centerpiece of her own living room.
"...just in case you forgot whose fireplace it was"
I don't mean to argue that having your own portrait in your home, as the only featured piece of artwork, is obscene, kind of is.  I've seen dumber self-tributes, but Laura's portrait might be the least modest I have seen since Jackass: The Movie.
I hate Jackass, but I laugh every time I see this tattoo

I can't review this film without delving into what makes it so ridiculous, but that also requires a SPOILER ALERT: Laura could very easily be partially a fantasy movie.  Gene Tierney doesn't appear outside of flashbacks until after Dana Andrews falls asleep thinking about Laura.  She is far too perfect to be a normal human being; while she doesn't always do the smart thing, Andrews is always able to easily decode her reasoning and solve  it.  For the record, though, I don't have any solid evidence that any of this is a dream sequence, aside from McPherson being asleep when the truly odd stuff began.  .  That doesn't even get into the questionable methods of Detective McPherson, though.  He allows suspects to accompany him on his rounds of questioning.  He pays absolutely no attention to now-standard CSI standards; this man hasn't seen a crime scene he hasn't soiled.  Don't even get me started on how he finds the murder weapon, examines it, and then carefully puts it back where he found it, with the intention of bringing it in as evidence in the morning.  McPherson also toys with his suspects, leading them to believe that he is going to arrest them and then stopping short.  There doesn't appear to be a greater master plan in play here; McPherson just seems to be a rude fellow.
"You're all under arrest.  Or not.  Maybe you're just dicks."
Despite these flaws, I actually enjoyed Laura.  Preminger's direction isn't spectacular, but I liked the tone of the film (aided by the score) and Clifton Webb's performance makes even the least likely things seem plausible.  Is this realistic?  Oh, God, no.  Even considering Clifton Webb as a heterosexual was laugh-out-loud ridiculous in 1944.  Is it entertaining?  I think that is undeniable.

The inclusion of Vincent Price in this film made me nostalgic for his part in the immortal Michael Jackson song, "Thriller."  When I was a child, I had dozens of nightmares featuring Michael Jackson turning into a monster and chasing me though the woods; when I finally saw the video for "Thriller" on a countdown of classic music videos fifteen years later, I realized that my fear stemmed from seeing this music video at a very young age.  For the record, though, I would like to point out that I was afraid of Michael Jackson years before it became trendy.

1 comment:

  1. brian youve got to stop stealing a march on my noirathon! we saw this last night (for the second time) and im still undecided on it. as you were.

    youre right about Webb stealing the movie but Andrews is also superb. there's a fun story around Selznick not wanting to allow Preminger to cast Webb because he was openly gay but bowing to preminger's masterly vision after seeing him audition.

    i was amazed by the switch half way through and how its not a more famous movie considering the reason psycho is famous and all.