Sunday 4 February 2024

Laura (1944)

Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt, based on the novel by Vera Caspery
Stars: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price and Judith Anderson

Index: The First Thirty.

While we all likely remember Vincent Price from a variety of movies much later in his film career, this is the big one from his First Thirty. It wasn’t his personal favourite and it wasn’t the one that gave him the happiest memories, but it’s the best of them, The Song of Bernadette notwithstanding, and it’s one of the great and most impactful films noir of the forties.

It’s a story of obsession, a trait shared by an admirably varied set of characters, not just the inevitable gritty detective, Mark McPherson of the NYPD, who’s investigating the murder of a young advertising executive. Laura Hunt was answering the door to her apartment when a shotgun blasted her in the face and it’s his job to catch her killer.

First and most important of the obsessed is Waldo Lydecker, a newspaper columnist who believes he was the only one who really knew her. Clifton Webb is impeccable in his first role in a feature film since 1925 and he’s given an impressive amount of the best lines. He was given a deserved Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actor but lost to Barry Fitzgerald for Going My Way. That’s a tough choice right there!

Lydecker insists on joining the detective on his investigation because he’s a sucker for true crime and we’re hardly going to complain, as he’s the vicious voice of the film. He seems like he inhabits a different world to the rest of us, enough so that we meet him typing away in a bathtub in a bathroom the size of my house as McPherson questions him, as if that’s entirely appropriate. Roger Ebert pointed out that he walks through scenes “as if afraid to step in something”. To me, he seems like Jeremy Irons playing Dr. Smith from Lost in Space.

While Lydecker clearly was and continues to be obsessed with Laura Hunt, even if they had an entirely platonic relationship, he’s not the only one smitten by her. Shelby Carpenter was her fiancĂ© and McPherson quickly wonders if he was a blackmailer, even during the next set of questions, aimed at Ann Treadwell, a friend of Laura’s who found her body. She’s played with the sort of power we might expect from Judith Anderson, Oscar nominated four years earlier for Rebecca. And, while McPherson asks his questions, in waltzes Carpenter in the form of Vincent Price.

He’s a real contrast to an old, professionally cynical columnist and a tough, dedicated cop; Lydecker appropriately categorises him as “a male beauty in distress”. He’s what we’d call a gigolo, eager and calculating, but also quick to react and quick to retreat, as an opportunistic coward who doesn’t have the brains of those around him but who survives through charm.

And the third of the obsessed characters is McPherson himself, who finds that he’s falling for Laura, even if she’s dead before he arrives in the film and all he has is a painting and an array of other people’s memories. We’re able to explore them through a host of flashbacks but he has to prompt it all with his questions and the ability to do subtly creepy things like hang out in her apartment and gaze longingly at her portrait until he falls asleep.

Talking of Laura, we see a lot of her in this film, even though her murder constitutes our starting point, because so much of it unfolds in flashback. That’s one of those quintessential film noir tropes, that the title character can be dead from the outset but still get plenty to do. Gene Tierney is top billed as Laura and she has quite the story arc here. Everyone else is who they are: controlling, exploiting, longing. She’s the one character who grows.

All the primary actors are excellent, though Webb dominates proceedings with his acerbic wit. “I’m not kind,” he tells Laura. “I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.” Film noir tends to be known for its dialogue and that’s top notch this time out, much of it courtesy of Lydecker, who we quickly want to narrate other movies too, even if they aren’t films noir. Maybe they would be if his acidic words gave them voice. Jurassic Park? Home Alone? Braveheart?

As I mentioned earlier, he occupies his own world, as indeed do his fellow denizens in high society, like Carpenter and Treadwell, who live in huge mansions, employ household staff and get pretty much everything they want. Laura isn’t from that world and she pushes her way in by interrupting Lydecker while he’s dining at the Algonquin, which pisses him off royally but also intrigues him.

She wants something as thoroughly banal as his endorsement of a pen, which would launch her career as an advertiser. He refuses just out of principle, suggesting that he instead uses “a goose quill dipped in venom”, but eventually agrees and proceeds to guide her in matters of taste to grow into the sensation she became.

That strengthens the mystery substantially, because not only do we have a set of suspects, who could have murdered her for their own personal reasons, we also have an entire class of them, who could have done the deed for no better reason than she wasn’t one of them and never could be, whatever guidance Lydecker might have brought to bear.

There’s a lot to talk about in Laura and, due to the nature of much of it, I can’t do that here without spoiling the film. This is film noir, so I can happily point out that there are twists. Of course there are! What I won’t do is point out what they are. You’ll need to discover that for yourself and, if you haven’t seen Laura before, you absolutely deserve to see it with surprises intact. It’s a gem for a lot of reasons.

One of those reasons is Vincent Price, even though he gives life to the least substantial of the primary characters. It’s an interesting role for him, because it’s a contemporary one that draws from the historical ones he was given so often, hearkening back to his Duke of Clarence in Tower of London and Vital Dutour in The Song of Bernadette. Both those were weak characters who wanted to be strong characters, but were easily overshadowed by others, and it’s fair to say that Shelby Carpenter follows suit.

I’d seen all three of those films before, so it wasn’t surprising to see Price play confident and entitled but fundamentally weak. He did it well. However, it’s interesting to see just how long it took for studios to realise just what he could do with strong characters. A dozen films into his career and they hadn’t really cast him as one yet, at least not to the degree that he would become known for in his horror days. I wonder when the first will arrive.

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