“LAURA” ( 1944 )
Posted ~ April 19th, 2015
There are not words to describe how much I love this movie. But I’ll try to find a few that come close.
That it has a compelling plot and excellent performances? Well, those things are obvious. But it offers many other pleasures, some equally obvious, and some that reveal themselves over time on repeated viewings.
A quick synopsis just in case there are some readers who haven’t seen it: Laura Hunt, a beautiful, successful, and much-admired young woman is murdered in her New York apartment. The investigating detective finds reason to suspect several people who knew her well. They’re all of pretty questionable character. Meanwhile he starts to fall in love with her, based only on what he’s heard about her and the impression made by the gorgeous portrait of her that dominates her living room. And then…well, there’s certainly a twist.
Among the many reasons to love “Laura” :
1. The dialogue. One of the film’s readily apparent pleasures is the memorable dialogue, especially the incredibly witty lines given, appropriately, to the character of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, a Broadway star appearing in his first major film role). Waldo is a powerful columnist and radio commentator, able to exalt or trash his subjects’ reputation with a few well-chosen words. And even in casual conversation, are his words ever well-chosen. There are a few lines I love to go around quoting: “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.” And: “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.” Plus Webb’s delivery is impeccable. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role so well. He was nominated for an Oscar and deserved to win ( he lost to Barry Fitzgerald, who played a kindly priest in
“Going My Way” ). The only other movie role Webb ever had that suited his talents quite so perfectly, I think, was that of proud snob Elliott Templeton, two years later, in “The Razor’s Edge.”
Actually, something else that makes the film so brilliant is that all the dialogue is tailored to character. Waldo’s wit wouldn’t belong in the mouth of anyone else in the film. He’s the elite media celebrity, holding court in the elegant drawing rooms and high-end restaurants of upper-crust Manhattan.
But tough detective Mark McPherson ( Dana Andrews ) speaks as would be expected of a stree-twise cop, calling women “dames” and “dolls.” Laura ( Gene Tierney ) is well-bred but warm. Her aunt, Ann Treadwell ( Judith Anderson ), is well-bred but cynical. Society hanger-on Shelby Carpenter ( Vincent Price ) is obsequious. It all works, beautifully. For that we must thank screenwriters Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt (plus the uncredited Ring Lardner Jr.), who adapted Vera Caspary’s novel.
2. A strong, inde- pendent female protagonist. Peo-ple who haven’t watched much classic film often think all the women characters of the era were subju-gated to men and just wanted to snag a husband and walk off into the happily ever after. Well, some films did portray women that way. But there were many others with fully realized female characters, with professional ambitions and strong opinions. Laura Hunt is a great example of that. She’s a successful advertising executive, having worked her way up from an entry-level position. In and out of the office, she lives life on her terms: “I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will,” she tells McPherson. And she is not a repressed “old maid,” to use a term of the era, nor is she married to her job; she has an active social life and enjoys the attention of men.
OK, she has rather dubious taste in men, and there’s the fact that she’s in thrall to Waldo, her mentor. But if she had perfect judgment, there’d be no story. And then, about Waldo…
3. Gay subtext. I’m a straight lady but a fierce advocate, to use President Obama’s term, for the gay ( and lesbian and bisexual and transgender ) community. Perhaps that’s why I take a bit of pleasure in finding coded gay references in classic films, which couldn’t ad-dress such things overtly. And even if a gay person is portrayed as villainous, I somehow manage not to take it as a slam against all gay people. This is relevant to Laura…because?
Well, a dear friend of mine once said this film, “All About Eve”, and “The Red Shoes” are all concerned with a gay man who wants to control a woman and keep a straight man from having her. Waldo certainly reads as gay, at the very least, he’s effete ( not that all gay men are, of course ). And it’s been said that when he and Shelby spar, they sound like a couple of bitchy queens. How to explain Waldo’s obsession with Laura, then? Perhaps, as my friend said, it is about control. Perhaps Waldo wishes he were one of those men whose “lean, strong body” carries an appeal for Laura. Perhaps he thinks his love for her is on some higher plane, above the physical and sexual. Perhaps there is a sexual element to his feelings. A lot of people aren’t 100 percent heterosexual or homosexual. At any rate, Waldo’s complexity makes him one of the greatest characters ever to grace a movie screen.
4. The clothes and the décor. A lot of classic films have wonderful clothes, but often you can’t imagine anyone wearing them in real life or in any other era. In “Laura”, however, I’m always struck by how timeless and classic the costumes for Laura and Ann are. (I pay attention to the women’s clothing, mostly). They have simple, elegant lines. You could wear almost all of them today. The clothes were by Bonnie Cashin, who worked on several other notable 1940s films i.e. “The Snake Pit”, “Unfaithfully Yours”, “Nightmare Alley” then, not surprisingly given the real-world wearability of her movie costumes, became a successful ready-to-wear designer.
As for the décor, I would love to live in any of the film’s luxurious, tastefully appointed apartments, especially Laura’s and Ann’s; Waldo’s is a bit much (“It’s lavish, but I call it home”), although I wouldn’t say no to it. Laura’s country house in Connecticut is quite lovely too, with rustic-looking but obviously expensive furnishings. Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, and Thomas Little are credited with art direction and interior decoration, and they were nominated for an Oscar.
5. And that haunting theme song. Composer David Raksin got the assignment to do music for the movie after no less than Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann ( according to IMDB ) turned it down. And he fought with director Otto Preminger to keep his theme in the film; Preminger wanted to use a well-known popular song instead. Later, with Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, “Laura” became a pop hit itself. The melody (no lyrics are used in the movie) is the perfect moody, atmospheric piece for this stylish mystery.
Credit where it’s due: “Laura” was one of Preminger’s greatest achievements as a producer and director; it has a subtlety gravely lacking in the overblown epics that characterized his later career. (He made some other excellent movies, though, such as “Anatomy of a Murder”). He was Oscar-nominated for directing “Laura”; the screenwriters got a nomination too. “Laura”’s only Oscar, however, went to Joseph LaShelle for cinematography, an award that was well-deserved, as the film is beautifully photographed.
Now don’t you want to see “Laura”, again or for the first time? See what special pleasures you find in it.
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