ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Laura (1944) dir: Otto Preminger Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Murder and obsession
Dana Andrews plays Mark McPherson, an ace detective investigating the murder of a beautiful advertising executive named Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). The chief suspects are two men close to her: a snobby and erudite newspaper columnist named Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who is in unrequited love with her, and the handsome but sleazy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) with whom she was betrothed. The former appears to be an open book, relating the tale of their relationship in detail (in flashback) and seeming very enthusiastic in offering his assistance to McPherson in terms of getting to the bottom of the case. Carpenter, on the other hand, has a suspicious habit of not sticking to his stories.
What appears to be a simple case, however, is complicated by both McPherson’s increasingly obsessive fascination with Laura and a startling revelation which changes everything.
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A dreamlike film noir classic with outstanding central performances
Taken on a pure murder mystery level, Otto Preminger’s classic noir is, at first glance, relatively uncomplicated stuff. After all, there are only two suspects, one more immediately suspicious than the other - which means… well… if you’ve watched enough of these films then you’ll probably have guessed who carried out the act long before the climactic reveal. Mind you, there is also that surprise twist which comes around the halfway mark. Preminger handles this in a genuinely dislocatory manner by initially fooling the viewer into thinking that it’s some sort of liquor-induced fever dream on the part of Detective McPherson.
Indeed, on another level, that’s exactly what Laura is about. Dreams. Male dreams. Obsessive dreams about the central female character. Obsessive dreams that drive these men to acts of madness if they can’t possess what they desire. Yes: the whole film is chillingly relevant in the post-#MeToo era. There’s a genuinely haunting atmosphere here in the airy, lavishly-decorated apartment spaces in which it is set. The decorations of antique clocks, priceless crystal ornaments and a painstakingly vivid oil painting of its central subject convey an air of rarified romance which accurately reflects the collective male character mindset towards this central female figure.
The drama plays out via a quartet of wonderfully diverse performances. Gene Tierney plays Laura as less of a typical manipulative femme fatale type, and more as an inherently sweet woman who certainly appreciates certain qualities in the men surrounding her but never fully requites their intense love. She’s a truly radiant screen presence here and makes the viewer truly invest in her character’s considerable allure. Dana Andrews plays the typical carved-in-granite detective type from this era in his usual solid, no-nonsense fashion. Vincent Price’s formidable height is tellingly exploited in shots with the other actors here. As such, he is presented in a somewhat different light than in his later horror films. He comes across as less of an archetypal high camp villain and more the smug and shallow alpha male type whom women so often fall for, only to regret it when they discover how self-serving he is. The standout here, however, is Clifton Webb as Lydecker. His deadpan delivery of witheringly witty dialogue such as “I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” is frequently hilarious. By turns, his character is arrogant, manipulative and curiously pathetic, a balance which Webb captures with a palpably sad empathy.
Laura was clearly an influence Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958). While it’s not quite in the same league as the latter film (which, after all, is widely considered to be one of the best ever made), it’s still a subliminally gripping gem.
Runtime: 88 mins
Dir: Otto Preminger
Script: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt, Ring Lardner Jr., from a novel by Vera Caspary
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Dorothy Adams
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The monochrome image is sharp but the whites tend to be a bit too bright at times, especially early on. Still, it’s a very respectable restoration considering the film’s age.
The disc includes two versions of the film: an extended version and the original theatrical version. The latter is missing one scene (a Lydecker flashback detailing his relationship with Laura) which was apparently cut because it depicted decadent luxury in a manner which might potentially have offended Americans in service during WWII.
There are two commentary tracks here: one by Laura composer David Raksin and film professor Jeanne Basinger, and the other by film historian Rudy Behlmer. For the purposes of this review, I played the film with the Behlmer track. Unfortunately, he comes across as being rather dryly academic and conveys the feeling that he is simply reading ad verbatim from written article rather than delivering it all spontaneously.
Nonetheless, he has some interesting things to say on the original source material (it was based on a novel by Vera Caspary) and the changes which Otto Preminger brought to the filmed version. The character of Waldo Lydecker was largely based on a real-life New York newspaper critic named Alexander Woollcott. One of the film’s sets was a replica of the interior of a hotel where Woollcott was known to have dined; this was used for the scene where Laura first introduces herself to Waldo while he has lunch. While the finished film features only features narrated dialogue during Lydecker’s flashback segments, the original screenplay featured a lot more from the POV of multiple characters. The original murder weapon was a gun concealed in a walking stick. For the film, Preminger changed it to a shotgun because he discovered that the real-life ballistics of a firearm small enough to fit into a walking stick would not have been consistent with the details of the central murder.
Laura - The Radio Adaptations
Eight radio adaptations were made of the play and four are included on this disc: two Lux Radio Theater versions (from 1945 and 1954 respectively), one Screen Guild Theater version (from 1945) and one Ford Theater version (from 1948).
I decided to give the 30-minute Screen Guild version a listen. It features three of the film’s cast members: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb voice acting the same roles as before. Unfortunately, Vincent Price has been replaced by the less distinctive David Bruce. However, his role in this version is fairly brief.
It is interesting to note the differences in format between this radio version and the big screen incarnation. There is more reliance on a traditional noir detective narration from the POV of Detective Mark McPherson. Some moments have been softened, undoubtedly to make it more acceptable for a family to listen to (at the end, the culprit is arrested rather than killed like he is in the film) and there’s a half-time advertising break for Lady Esther Bridal Pink face powder.
A Tune for Laura - David Raksin remembers
Composer Raskin worked with Otto Preminger on five occasions, including Laura. He discusses his experiences of working with the man and also plays the main theme from the film on his piano.
This superb featurette includes interviews with film historians James Ursini, Alain Silver, Dr. Drew Caster and John Morgan, as well as director Carl Franklin. They reminisce about the film’s casting, characterisations, Otto Preminger’s direction, its distinctive place in the film noir cycle and the influence which it bore on later films.
The 2 minute 37 second flashback of Laura which was deleted from the original theatrical version (but is left intact in the extended version) is presented as a standalone here. It also comes with a brief Rudy Behlmer commentary which explains the reasons why it was snipped.
The other extras here are a trailer and a collector’s booklet.
Laura is a standout amongst the film noir cycle and an undeniable must for any classic movie collection.