Laura (1944) Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson. Directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt. Based on the novel Laura by Vera Caspary. Produced by Otto Preminger Run Time: 88 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Film Noir, Mystery
Any time I have a chance to see a classic film noir, I will take it. I had heard a lot about this film, though until recently I had never seen it. Put that down to too many films and too little time. While Otto Preminger is not one of my favorite directors, I do respect his work. Laura was a bit of a watershed film for him, setting him up for his peak years that were to follow its release.
The film opens with narration by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an eccentirc New York columnist who talks about the weekend Laura Hunt died. Police lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) has come to interview him as part of the murder investigation. Waldo is a well-known close friend of the deceased and a bit of an eccentric as he meets with Mark while he’s in the bathtub. Waldo knows Mark from his heroic battles with gangsters. And it is Waldo’s writing that has brought Mark to see him. Seems Waldo once wrote about a murder committed by a shotgun loaded with buckshot, the same way Laura had been killed.
|Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is interviewed by detective |
Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) while he's taking a bath.
Telling Mark that he’s interest in writing about the murder, he is allowed to tag along on the investigation. First stop is Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). Mark is interested in Treadwell’s relationship with Laura’s fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). While she claims never to have given him money, Mark has evidence that says otherwise.
|Lydecker accompanies Mark when he interviews Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson)|
Turns out that Shelby, a charming Southern gentleman, is already there, having come to Ann’s to escape the press and police. Shelby says that he and Laura were to be married later that week, but Waldo insists Laura had cancelled their dinner on Friday night so she could go to her country home to decide if she wanted to go through with the wedding.
When Mark asks if Shelby has a key to her country home, he says he doesn’t and accompanies the detective and Waldo to her apartment to look for it. The apartment is dominated by a large portrait of Laura. There Shelby “finds” the key in a drawer that had already been inventoried by the police. Shelby admits he didn’t want to give him the key in front of Waldo, who accuses Shelby of the murder.
Later, Waldo takes Mark to the restaurant he and Laura frequented and recalls how he met her five years earlier. He was having lunch at the Algonquin when he is approached by Laura, an eager young employee of an advertising agency. Laura wants Waldo to endorse a pen for her company, and is hurt and disillusioned when he rudely dismisses her, telling her his lunch was more important than her career. But he wasn’t able to get her out of his mind and goes to see Laura at the agency, where he apologizes and agrees to the endorsement. They become friends, and under Waldo's tutelage, Laura rises in her profession, starting her own successful agency and moving up in society, but always at his side. She became as synonymous with Waldo Lydecker as his cane. Two nights a week, Tuesday and Friday, the two stay in and listen to Waldo’s music and listen to his reports.
Although their relationship is purely platonic, Waldo is jealous of any suitors, and uses both his column and his influence over her to keep any rivals for her affections at bay. One night, at one of Ann's parties, Laura meets Shelby, who confesses that his family has been bankrupt for years. Laura gives him a job at her advertising agency, and next we see them they are romantically involved.
|Laura (Gene Tierney) meets Shelby (Vincent Price) at one of Aunt Ann's parties.|
Waldo has Shelby investigated and informs Laura that her fiancé is seeing one of her models, Diane Redfern. Laura is furious at Waldo's interference and dismisses the accusations until he produces a gold cigarette case that she gave Shelby, saying he retrieved it after Diane pawned it. He infers that Shelby is also seeing her aunt and she feels compelled to find out. She is furious about seeing them together and gives Shelby back the cigarette case. Back in the restaurant, Waldo tells Mark that Laura had lunch with Diane the day of her death and had planned to go to her country home for a few days, cancelling their usual Friday night together.
|In one of the more famous shots in the film, Mark is obviously obsessed with a woman he thinks is dead.|
Mark, who is growing obsessed with Laura, returns to the apartment the next night and continues searching through her personal effects. Waldo stops in and says he knows Mark has secretly put in a bid for Laura's portrait, and chides him for falling in love with a corpse. After Waldo leaves, Mark falls asleep under the portrait. He awakens to the sound of someone entering the room, and looks up to see Laura standing before him. Laura, who has been isolated in the country, is stunned when Mark shows her a newspaper story about her "murder." She claims the radio in her country home wasn’t working. Laura then discovers one of Diane's dresses in her closet, and Mark concludes that the murder victim, whose face was damaged beyond recognition, was actually Diane. Mark questions Laura, brightening when she says she had decided not to marry Shelby, and instructs her not to leave the apartment or use the phone.
|Laura returns home from the country to find Mark sleeping in her apartment.|
But as soon as Mark leaves, Laura calls Shelby, unaware that the police have tapped her phone. Shelby and Laura meet briefly, and Mark follows Shelby to Laura's country home, where he finds him removing a shotgun from a rack. Shelby claims that he had brought Diane to Laura's apartment to talk, but when Diane answered the door and was shot to death, he panicked and fled. As Mark escorts him out, he checks the radio and is disappointed to find that it works.
|Lydecker faints when he sees Laura alive.|
Waldo, who initially faints when he sees Laura is alive, arranges for a party to celebrate her return. At the party, she asks Shelby why he went to the cottage, and when he replies that he went to hide the shotgun, she realizes with horror that Shelby believes she is the murderer. Mark, who is being pressured by superiors to make an arrest, takes Laura into custody in front of her guests. After she’s been taken away, Ann makes her play for Shelby. After questioning her at the police station, he is convinced of her innocence.
|Mark takes Laura in for questioning.|
After taking Laura home, Mark searches Waldo's house while he’s not home and discovers a hollow compartment in the grandfather clock, for which there is a duplicate clock in Laura’s apartment. When he kicks it in, he finds that it’s empty, but the discovery sends him back to Laura's apartment. Waldo is still at Laura's when Mark announces that her gun was not the one used in the murder.
Resentful of the growing bond between Laura and the handsome detective, Waldo insults Mark, and Laura coolly sends her old friend away. Mark examines Laura's clock, which is a duplicate of the one in Waldo's home, and finds a shotgun hidden inside with two spent shells. He tells Laura that Waldo killed Diane, thinking it was Laura, and hid the gun in the clock after Shelby ran out.
Mark tells her that he’ll have the clock taken in for evidence in the morning. After kissing Laura goodnight, he locks her in and leaves, and Laura prepares for bed, unaware that Ly has come back into the apartment through the service entrance. When Mark asks who is tailing Waldo, he’s told he hasn’t come out. Mark and his men head back up as Waldo enters Laura's room. He is about to shoot her when Mark and his men break in. Waldo is shot by the police and, as he dies, says good-bye to Laura.
Looking at the production history of this film, it’s amazing to think that it actually got made. Director Otto Preminger’s work on the story predates the film. In 1942, while looking for a stage production to direct, he became aware of a play written by Vera Caspary called Ring Twice for Laura. Preminger liked the setting of the story, but, of course, thought it needed revisions. While Caspary was open to revising the play, she and Preminger disagreed on the direction it should take. She did a rewrite with someone else, George Sklar, but ultimately could not find a producer to back the play.
|Director Otto Preminger|
Caspary turned the play into a novel, first serialized in Colliers in 1942 as Ring Twice for Laura and then published the following year as Laura. 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to the book. Meanwhile, Preminger, an Austrian born director, had made a return to Hollywood, following his banishment from 20th Century Fox by Darryl Zanuck over creative differences while filming Kidnapped (1938), an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel written by Zanuck himself.
Preminger had gone to Broadway, where he found success directing such plays and stars as Outward Bound with Laurette Taylor and Vincent Price, My Dear Children with John and Elaine Barrymore and Margin for Error. In the latter, Preminger played the part of a Nazi. Preminger also took a position teaching acting and directing at the Yale school of drama. Preminger was offered a part by Nunnally Johnson to play a Nazi in the film The Pied Piper (1942), a 20th Century Fox production. In need of money, Preminger accepted. Zanuck was already in the Army, having joined following the Pearl Harbor attack the previous year.
Thinking he was through with Hollywood, Preminger was offered a chance to reprise his Nazi role in the film version of Margin for Error (1943). But when director Ernst Lubitsch had to withdraw from the film, Preminger managed to persuade interim studio head William Goetz to let him direct. While the film did not do well with critics or movie goers, Preminger tried to line up projects while Zanuck was still on active duty.
One of the projects Preminger had lined up was Laura, which Goetz had let him produce and direct. When Zanuck returned to the studio, he had not given up on his grudge against Preminger and while he would forgive him, Zanuck didn’t want Preminger to direct the film. Rouben Mamoulian, the director of Love Me Tonight (1932) and Golden Boy (1939), was Zanuck’s choice. Mamoulian had previously directed The Mark of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941) and Rings on Her Fingers (1942) for the studio. The latter film starred Gene Tierney, who was cast as Laura.
Mamoulian and Preminger did not work well together. Mamoulian started to rewrite the script and the two clashed over casting. While Preminger had no problems with Tierney or Dana Andrews, he did object to the casting of Waldo Lydecker. Mamoulian had cast Laird Cregar, who had been previously cast as a Jack the Ripper type character in The Lodger (1944). Preminger felt casting him as Lydecker was giving away too much to the audience who already saw him as a villain. Preminger wanted Clifton Webb, who had left Hollywood in 1930 to act on stage. At the time, Webb was starring in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirits in Los Angeles. Zanuck didn’t want Webb because of his homosexuality and effeminate mannerisms. But after viewing a filmed monologue from the play, Zanuck relented.
Filming began on April 27, 1944, but Mamoulian had trouble with the cast and it showed in the dailies. Zanuck let producer Preminger take over the directing duties. But Preminger and the cast had their own rough start. Mamoulian had informed them that Preminger was unhappy with their work, but once they figured out their working relationship they got along fine. Production ended on June 29, but Zanuck was not happy with the first cut of the film. He insisted that an ending be shot revealing that the story was all a dream by Lydecker.
The film was screened with that ending, but columnist Walter Winchell told Zanuck that he didn’t understand it and that Zanuck should change it, so the film ends the way Preminger intended.
Preminger would go onto direct some of the most controversial films of his day, movies that pushed the limits of the production code by depicting drug addiction in the Man With the Golden Arm (1955), rape in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and homosexuality in Advice & Consent (1962).
The motive in the film is interesting in that Lydecker and Laura’s relationship was obviously not romantic. The film does not come out and say Lydecker is gay, but his finicky mannerisms suggest he is, especially given the day and age the film was made. Without romance, his motive is due to the injury to his ego that Laura would choose to be in a romantic (read that physical) relationship with a man, first Shelby and then Mark McPherson, over their intellectual (platonic) one. How could his protégé choose muscle and brawn over his brain and friendship?
I have not seen many Gene Tierney films before. She proves herself to be not only beautiful, but a talented actress. While Laura may be her most famous role, she did receive a nomination for Best Actress for her role as Ellen Brent Harland the following year in Leave Her to Heaven. Laura was not her first time to share the screen with Dana Andrews, they appeared together in Tobacco Road (1941) and would so again in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).
|Gene Tierney as Laura.|
We touched briefly on Dana Andrews in our review of Ball of Fire (1941), but he was a major star in the 1940’s and 50’s, appearing in such films as The Ox-Box Incident (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), While the City Sleeps (1956), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and Zero Hour! (1957). (Zero Hour! Is probably best remembered as the basis for the comedy spoof Airplane! (1980).) Andrews was a good dramatic actor whose alcoholism derailed his career.
Before Laura I believe I had only seen Clifton Webb in a couple of films, Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and Titanic (1953). In both those roles Webb played characters not too terribly different than Waldo Lydecker, except they weren’t murderers. Laura, as mentioned above, marks his return to Hollywood. He had been in very few films in the teens and 20’s and had returned to Broadway in 1930. There he was best known for musical comedies, so his role as a murderer in Laura was casting against type.
Laura was also a big film in the career of Vincent Price, establishing him as a character actor. His association with horror and teen films would come later in his career. He got his start in Hollywood as a contract player for Universal, in Service de Luxe (1938). He would work twice more with Gene Tierney in Dragonwyck and Leave Her to Heaven, both 1946. He also appeared in several film noirs: The Web (1947), The Long Night (1947), Rogues' Regiment (1948) and The Bribe (1949). He also appeared on radio as Simon Templar in The Saint (1947-1951), a role Roger Moore would later play on television. He would appear in the 3D horror film The House of Wax (1953) from director Andre de Toth. He appeared in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps with Dana Andrews and The Ten Commandments (1956) for Cecil B. DeMille.
|Vincent Price would go on to have a career in horror films.|
Price would become known for horror thanks to films like The Fly (1958) and Fly Returns (1959), as well as a series of films for Roger Corman and American International Pictures (AIP), including House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). During this same time he was also appearing in AIP’s other big genre, beach movies: Beach Party (1963), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). He would appear in numerous other horror movies, but might best be known to some as the narrator on the Michael Jackson music video Thriller (1983), directed by John Landis. He also worked twice for Tim Burton as the narrator in Vincent (1982) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Price would die in 1993.
Judith Anderson, who played Ann Treadwell, is probably best known for her work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), for which she received an Academy nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who torments Joan Fontaine’s character throughout the film. Best known for her dramatic stage work, she won a Tony award for Best Actress in a Play for Medea (1948), she would also appear in a revival of the play in 1982 and was nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance.
All said, Laura is not without its flaws. The biggest to me is the fact that Mark left the murder weapon in place instead of bagging it as evidence and then doesn’t stay with Laura or insure her safety, which seems to be against procedure and an obvious plot device to put Laura in danger, especially when the real killer is not in custody. That seems like a lazy rookie move rather than something a seasoned veteran detective would do.
The others are more relationship based: What’s wrong with Mark’s life that he would fall romantically in love with a woman he thinks is dead? And what sort of lack of judgment does Laura, a smart and successful woman, have to have to be involved with a gold-digger like Shelby?
I’ve seen better film noirs, but I’m glad I saw this one and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it before. There are some very fine performances even if there are a few plot holes to go with them.