A police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating.
1944 was the year film noir began to dominate the US box office, but whereas Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) set the standard for femme fatales in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is not the same sort of conniving vamp at all. And although she’s the catalyst for the deceit and jealousy bubbling under the surface in Otto Preminger’s Laura, she’s a more unwitting cause. The story only begins when detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) arrives to investigate her murder, and we get to know her from the witness statements of the suspects he interviews.
Their testimonies paint a vivid word-portrait of a vivacious, alluring, seemingly innocent young woman. The impression is borne out by the ethereal portrait (painted by an ex-suitor and therefore possible perpetrator) that hangs over the mantlepiece in Laura’s apartment. Then we get to meet her in extended, rather complex flashbacks. Flashbacks are commonly used in film noir and here, director Preminger is always conscious of whose point of view is being represented and how they may put their own spin on how things happened. Just because we see something in a flashback, does that mean it really happened that way?
We’re presented with three main suspects: the first is newspaper columnist and radio presenter Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who’d been a kind of Pygmalion-style mentor to Laura. We first meet him typing-up her story, whilst he languishes naked in a bathtub trying to stay cool during a New York heatwave. He’s sharp-tongued, acerbic, and quick-witted. The second suspect is Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s playboy fiancé who comes across as more of a bumbling buffoon, albeit with charm and a criminal record. He met Laura through a maiden aunt of hers, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who’s been his ‘sponsor’ and is clearly a competitor for his affections, which makes her a third plausible perpetrator.
There are other contenders to consider as the plot unfolds. Although Laura seems to have been a fair-minded and likeable person, there’s no shortage of secondary suspects waiting in the wings, though the only motives appear to stem from the obsession, rivalry, and jealousy she inspired in others. Those darker human drives are common ingredients in noir thrillers, but more usually they are intentionally inspired by the femme fatale. As McPherson digs deeper he, too, begins to fall under the late Laura’s thrall and the film starts to feel more like a romantic ghost story than the gumshoe crime drama we started out with…
If the viewer’s managed to avoid spoilers over the 75 years since its release, Laura offers up one huge surprise almost precisely at the mid-point of the tightly scripted 88-minute duration. Nearly all the presumptions built up during the first half, by deft misdirection and plenty of red herrings, are turned on their head in a disconcerting shift of perception. This shock revelation is conveyed so matter-of-factly, almost underplayed, but immediately one must reassess all the apparent motivations of the principal characters in light of this new evidence. A twist that placed the film at number four in the American Film Institute’s Top 10 mystery movies of all time.
I can’t really say any more, just in case anyone reading is coming fresh to this story. And it would be nice to think of a new audience discovering this 1940s classic. In many ways, it’s quite modern and engrossing even if it might be a tad dialogue-heavy by modern standards. But that dialogue is cleverly crafted and keeps things fast-moving with a series of well-paced revelations. The ensemble scenes are dynamically staged, making much of the ways each character looks at another, their covert glances or seemingly staged reactions saying just as much as the words they choose. That’s why the screenplay was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award.
The production of Laura suffered very troubled beginnings—rife with professional rivalry, studio politics, fallings-out, contractual wrangling, cast and crew re-shuffles, and disgruntled writers… not to mention World War II! Otto Preminger initiated the project when he saw a draft of Vera Caspary’s unfinished play Ring Twice for Laura, which he then set about adapting with the author, who didn’t like what he wanted to do with her story and decided to develop it for the stage instead. Despite some interest in the lead role from Marlene Dietrich, no producer picked up on the stage version and Caspary began adapting her ideas into two novels. It was these manuscripts that 20th Century Fox later bought the rights to.
Otto Preminger was back at the helm and brought in a formidable writing team of Jay Dratler—a novelist and literary translator who’d go on to win an Oscar and an Edgar for his screenplay of Call Northside 777 (1948); the poet and screenwriter Sam Hoffenstein, who had a hand in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Phantom of the Opera (1943); and Elizabeth Reinhardt, who had written screenplays in Spanish and recently joined the 20th Century Fox stable. This time he had learnt from experience and neglected to include the original author, Vera Caspary, in the process.
Preminger was all set to get the production underway when Fox studios tycoon Darryl F. Zanuck returned from his tour of duty, first in London and then Africa (where he served with director John Ford). Zanuck, already a known antagonist of Preminger, immediately took him off the project, taking over as producer and hiring Rouben Mamoulian, known for directing the first Technicolor feature film to use the ‘full-colour’ three-strip process, Becky Sharp (1935).
It wasn’t long before Preminger was reinstated as producer and resumed clashing with Zanuck on creative choices, not least the casting of key roles. One change that Preminger had made to the original story was to write the character of Waldo Lydecker as being far more prominent, something which Caspary had already voiced her opposition to. B Movie tough guy Laird Cregar had been cast in the part, but Preminger wanted Clifton Webb, a respected song and dance man who hadn’t had a screen role since the silent era. He was starring in a Broadway production of Blithe Spirit at the time and Preminger used a film of his performance to convince Zanuck he was right. Clifton Webb was perfect for the part of Lydecker and the performance proved to be a template for nearly all the subsequence roles he was to play: always a mix of sharp, sarcastic, snide and suave, oh, so suave.
Webb was joined by another respected stage performer, Judith Anderson, who’d already starred in 10 films, and who’d made a lasting impression with her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), and as a ruthless Chicago gang boss in Lady Scarface (1941). She plays the cool and calculating Ann Treadwell with great restraint, underplaying the complex character who openly admits that she would be capable of murder. It’s the closest the film gets to a classic noir femme fatale. Apparently, though, her initial approach under the film’s first director had been lacking such subtlety and could be described as ‘chewing up the scenery’. This was one of the reasons that Preminger lobbied Zanuck to let him step in as director again and, eventually, Mamoulian was acrimoniously dropped.
It seems that Rouben Mamoulian had been approaching the film as just another B Movie, after all, that’s how many great films we now hail as classic noirs were perceived. Famously, The Maltese Falcon (1941), the directorial debut of John Huston and oft-cited as the first fully-fledged US noir had been a rush job and was dismissed by the studios as just another cheap seat filler. Now it’s recognised as a game-changer and, incidentally, ranks at number six in the American Film Institute’s top 10 mystery movies of all time, just two places behind Laura.
Vincent Price is excellent as Shelby Carpenter, who seems to be actively putting himself forward as the prime suspect. He’d already made a dozen appearances and was contracted to 20th Century Fox, but he’s still so fresh-faced despite already having played a wide variety of parts. He wouldn’t become indelibly linked with the horror genre until his run of starring roles for Roger Corman in the 1960s, and Laura was the closest he’d got to a Gothic story until his lead in Dragonwyck (1946), in which he would again star alongside Gene Tierney.
Tierney hadn’t been the first choice for Laura. The part had been offered to two other ‘dreamy-eyed’ brunettes—Hedy Lamarr and Jennifer Jones—both of whom could easily have carried the role, though the film would have turned out very differently and Gene Tierney’s central performance seems so balanced and cleverly nuanced. She’d already starred with leading man Dana Andrews in Belle Starr (1941)…
In another clever performance, Andrews gives us the blueprint for the heavy-drinking gumshoe that would become a cliché of noir. He plays his parade of suspects against one another, setting up events simply to observe their reactions, carefully noting their contradictions. As he hears more about the murder victim, he becomes more and more obsessed by her and eventually takes to the bottle in Laura’s empty apartment whilst staring up at her enchanting portrait as her palpable absence seems to become a character in itself. Undeniably handsome, Andrews has the kind of face that’s unremarkable when at rest, but capable of oscillating from boyish innocence to devious cunning. Here he expresses restrained passions and an inner turmoil that regularly threatens to surface but are held back, it would seem by the numbing effect of alcohol and a manly clenching of the jaw. Dana Andrews became Preminger’s go-to lead actor for noir detectives.
The presence and absence of Laura is underscored by a mysterious and melancholic melody from composer David Raksin, already a veteran of over 50 soundtracks. Although there isn’t a lot of music throughout Laura—Raksin claims to have written around 30-minutes total—it’s orchestral swells are used to great dramatic effect. There’s also some more subtle background mood music, all variations on “Laura’s Theme”. Just like Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight” from The Uninvited (1944)—another film where portraits of an absent woman feature prominently, so Laura’s theme went on to have a life of its own after the film. Apparently, audiences left theatres humming the tune and, in response to public demand, Raksin arranged the music into a three-minute song with Johnny Mercer providing the lyrics. “Laura”, the song, became a widely performed jazz standard with versions recorded by many musical legends including Julie London, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Nat King Cole, and around 400 others…
Laura sets-out many film noir tropes and is credited as a formative influence on the genre. It’s been called the quintessential film noir, but it’s also quite atypical with its fusion of more romantic elements and a convoluted puzzle plot in-line with a Hitchcock thriller. It does have the central crime story, a detective, a mysterious woman, jealousies, betrayals, and is dealing with the darker drives of the characters. When Preminger took over as director, he had discarded Mamoulian’s redraft of his scripts and changed Cinematographers too, bringing in Fox’s resident director of photography Joseph LaShelle.
Preminger respected LaShelle for his attention to detail and understanding of how lighting could add visual richness, often using stark shadows to create an illusion of greater depth. He could make even a simple set look bigger budget. Laura was not an expensive production and was filmed almost entirely on sets that already existed in Fox’s backlots. This use of darkness to cover up the short-comings of cheap sets is probably the main feature of what we now call Film Noir—it’s French for ‘Black’ or ‘Dark Film’. Although quite subtle in Laura because the sets are rather well-dressed, as are the players, there are scenes where shadows take on an expressionistic role of their own. LaShelle would become known as an important figure in establishing the noir aesthetic and worked with Preminger many times, including his notable noir Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), again starring Dana Andrews opposite Gene Tierney. Joseph LaShelle photographed around 100 films, but it was Laura that earned him his only Academy Award for ‘Best Black-and-White Cinematography’.
In a final bid to antagonise Preminger, or so it seems, Zanuck re-cut the finished film, even going so far as to add extra scenes at the end that changed the outcome. In his version, the entire narrative is but the dream of one of the main characters. One can only imagine how dire that idea would have turned out! “It was all just a dream…” must be the most frustrating cop-out cliché of all. Fortunately for us, test audiences were baffled and dissatisfied with Zanuck’s version and he was forced to restore Preminger’s.
Laura turned out to be more than just another B Movie and was released to mostly positive reviews. It was nominated for five Oscars in all, including ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for Clifton Webb—finally endorsing Preminger’s insistence that he’d been right for the role—‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ (despite Caspary’s gripes), and for ‘Best Black-and-White Art Direction’ and ‘Interior Decoration’, though only LaShelle got to take a statuette home with him. Back in 1999, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. So, it’s high time it had a good clean-up and was made more widely available, and thankfully that’s what Eureka Entertainment have done with their new Blu-ray release, the latest addition to their ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. Laura is as beautiful and enchanting as ever.
director: Otto Preminger.
writers: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt & (uncredited) Ring Lardner Jr. (based on the novel by Vera Caspary).
starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price & Judith Anderson.