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Film Review: Laura 




 (1944, Directed by Otto Preminger)

Reviewed by Hadley Hury

The whole of this glossy semi-noir classic, adapted from a Vera Caspary novel, is even more intriguing than the sum of its parts, but one of the chief factors for its continuing esteem is the casting.

Gene Tierney, who plays the title role, is among that small coterie of actresses with faces for whom black-and-white cinematography would, if for no other reason, have to have been invented—and those dramatic angles, limpid eyes, and lustrous hair were never seen to better advantage than here in Joseph LaShelle’s elegant (and Oscar-winning) lighting and camerawork. 

Even Dana Andrews’ customarily laconic mode works well here in the role of Mark McPherson, a hard-boiled, tight-lipped police gumshoe. He’s assigned to the apparent murder of Laura Hunt, an ambitious young woman whose meteoric rise in the advertising world has been due in part to her considerable talent and even more to her having become the protégé of influential newspaper columnist, dandy, and Manhattan social arbiter Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb in the most indelible role of his long career.

After the initial credits—accompanied by David Raksin’s memorably lush “Laura’s Theme”—the film opens with one of cinema’s most famously effective establishing shots. As we listen to his voiceover, the camera panning around his posh apartment, we begin to know Lydecker even before we see him; the tone and word choice suggest arrogance, and there is something effete about the voice. “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass…the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York…I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her…”

The viewer immediately becomes embroiled in a puzzle-collage of past and present action as the background storyline and the mysteries surrounding the night in question emerge and interlock. Lydecker, the imperious snob, and McPherson, the tough-guy police detective, inevitably clash. Along the circuitous way we meet Vincent Price as a slippery playboy named Shelby Carpenter from Kentucky (yes) and his chic and slightly older paramour Ann Treadwell, played with tremendous savoir-faire by the great Judith Anderson. Shelby, long on pedigree but short of funds, is so endlessly unctuous it’s difficult to take him seriously; but that’s the character, and Price’s portrayal is a florid study in smarminess. Anderson—a celebrated stage actor best known in film as “Rebecca’s” Mrs. Danvers—brilliantly underplays her jaded society matron who has plenty of money and no delusions.

As the decadent and egomaniacal Lydecker, Webb is riveting; the performance earned him one of his three Oscar nominations (two supporting, one lead) and most film buffs and critics consider it one of the Academy’s more unfathomable mistakes that he did not win.

“Laura” defies exact genre classification. Though it has elements of noir—the detective, flashbacks, a missing person, mistaken identity, high contrast light and shadows, and buckets of rain—“Laura” is also at times a more traditional mystery, a romance with an eerie touch of fantasy, a showcase for glamorous mid-‘40s art direction, and even in some scenes a mordant comedy spiked with caustic drawing-room banter. Preminger’s svelte direction was Oscar-nominated, and for all its improbabilities “Laura” achieves its status as a classic because it has a unique unity; it is precisely the film’s contrivances and mannered artificiality that manage to alchemize a fairly standard potboiler into a fascinating balance of sordidness and high style.


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