Tuesday 25 June 2013

Laura [1944]

LAURA is a noir-ish detective thriller that was directed by Otto Preminger and originally released in November 1944.  It stars Gene Tierney as the title character, Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Judith Anderson. It's one of those films that has sustained its popularity over many years, first by virtue of being a superior piece of screen entertainment and latterly because certain critics found in it sufficient evidence to support the then fashionable psychoanalytic film theory.  In my view (or should I say 'gaze') it's a good thriller with a couple of nice twists, no more, no less.

Like Daphne Du Maurier's REBECCA, the film concerns a central female character who is dead but whose presence haunts those who knew her.  One such person, waspish newspaper columnist and radio personality Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), claims to know her better than anyone and as such is the first person detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) contacts when he takes over the investigation into her death.  Others include her on-off fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and aunt, the independently wealthy Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).  Through flashbacks we learn how Laura was given a start in the advertising industry via a product endorsement from Lydecker and then built on that start to become a successful and wealthy woman.

Gene Tierney as Laura
However, we also learn that she had a complicated love life.  Lydecker was a close friend but also a jealous companion who resented Laura's other male friends and actively to destroy their reputations through his influence.  McPherson, a charming but feckless Southerner, intended to marry Laura but possibly only for her money and may have been conducting affairs not only with Treadwell but also one of Laura's employees. So when Laura is found murdered in her lavish apartment, her face destroyed by a shotgun blast, there is no shortage of suspects for McPherson to consider.

From L to R: Clifton Webb, Vincent Price and Dana Andrews
Rather than being a true film noir, I'd call LAURA a classic Hollywood melodrama with noir-ish elements.  I don't think it's morally dark enough to qualify as noir and there isn't enough duplicity or cynicism either.  Nor is there a femme fatale, although it's certainly true that Laura, in life and death, casts a spell over those who come into contact with her.  But that's more to do with their own desires than intent on her part.

Lt McPherson awaits his first meeting with Waldo Lydecker...
Dana Andrews does make for a proper noir hero though: he's principled and tough but finds himself being drawn into a world which offers him experiences he perhaps had only dreamed of.  Will he get in over his head or will he manage to pull himself back from the brink?  That's proper noir territory.  Waldo Lydecker, on the other hand, is a very campy character, all Wildean put-downs and acidic quips; film noir is a complex genre with a number of defining characteristics but 'camp' was not one of them.

...which takes place in the bathroom
I like Clifton Webb though: he's the kind of actor who could only really have become a star in the 1940s and who doesn't really have an equivalent today.  He was well into his fifties when he made LAURA and became a star overnight but, even then, he was somewhat difficult to cast and made films only infrequently.  I haven't seen that many of his film but he's particularly good in the terrific THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS [1956].

Lydecker sits impassively as his manipulation of Laura hits top gear
Dana Andrews was one of those guys, like Glenn Ford, who was essentially a bit underwhelming, even dull. But even they found roles that suited them, Ford in westerns as the stoical everyman and Andrews in noir thrillers as the 'blank canvas' hero whose sheer ordinariness makes the delirious events which overtake them seem all the more bizarre.  As such it's not easy to pick out a favourite Andrews performance; however, I can say that my favourite film he's in is the very creepy NIGHT OF THE DEMON [1957].  Vincent Price is a favourite here at Cinema Delirium as regular readers will know and it's good to see him playing a straight role in this movie.

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