Sunday, June 30, 2019

LAURA (1944)

Twentieth Century Fox, 87m 6s, 88m 9s

"...she had something about her, that girl."
—Waldo Lydecker

Produced and directed by the prolific Otto Preminger, LAURA delivers a substantive mystery above its film noir substratum. The adaptation of Vera Caspary's novel was the first major commercial success for the famously ill-tempered filmmaker Preminger. In a year that included DOUBLE INDEMNITY, MURDER, MY SWEET, PHANTOM LADY and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, LAURA remains one of the standout film noirs of 1944, and over the years has become the subject of effusive critical analysis. Rich with evocative dialog and impressive visual schemes, the Preminger feature offers a spirited clash between the cultured upper class and the no-nonsense working class.

LAURA is set in New York City, though it was filmed on a soundstage, which was the norm for Hollywood movies at that time. Homicide Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is on the trail of the person who shot Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), an undeniably beautiful young woman who was admired—and desired—by many. Prime suspects begin with well-known columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb making his screen debut in sound film), an urbane but contemptuous personality who spent many platonic evenings with Laura. Of perhaps equal interest is a bit of a player named Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), an enigmatic fellow who planned to marry Laura. The two major suspects harbor intense dislike for each other, and understandably so, since each suitor hoped to win Laura's affection. It is made clear there were other men who had designs on Laura. When it comes to attractive, elegant women, such men always exist.

Though Laura Hunt is not by any stretch of the imagination a good example of a film noir femme fatale, her ability to command the attention of all the major male characters is noteworthy. So commendable were Laura's many positive attributes in life, she continues to maintain an uncanny power over people after her death. The film uses a flashback structure to reveal her social ascent, as recalled by the egocentric Waldo, who must admit he only tweaked what already was present in her character. He explains some of her appeal and potential for upward mobility to be genetic ("innate breeding," "authentic magnetism"). Laura goes from anonymous working girl at a large advertising agency to a woman of considerable creative control, especially for that time in American history. In a montage sequence, Waldo's protégé rapidly climbs the career ladder, seemingly at ease in all business and social situations. Her large portrait in her home celebrates this idea. The framed portrait of the idealized woman, whose real-life inspiration proves more complex than her likeness, would become a recurring theme in the film noir, and in fact was also a key element to the same year's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW.

The most influential portrait of film noir

In contrast with the lifestyle of high social standing embodied by Laura and her many friends is the working class idealism represented by the detective who is determined to bring in her killer. In the film's opening sequence at Waldo Lydecker's apartment, Mark McPherson could not be any more the opposite of Waldo and the columnist's acerbic tongue. Mark smirks in amusement at Waldo's wall of decorative masks, which perhaps are meant to conceal the sullen countenance of their owner. Mark has no use for such artifacts. Repeatedly he relies on a pocket baseball game to keep himself even-keeled, much the way many of us habitually call upon a smartphone to achieve the same purpose today. In the course of his investigation, Mark becomes yet another man with a keen interest in Laura. The worth of Laura is endorsed by her grief-stricken maid Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams, skilled at playing domestic types). Like Mark, the loyal servant Bessie honors the dignity of working class people as she instinctually guards the reputation of her beloved employer. Bessie even continues to work for Laura after having learned of her death. "I'm paid up for the week and I'm working, regardless," she comments.

The crucial sequence to establish footing on a noir path occurs after Mark has become frustrated with the case. In the midst of a torrential downpour, often used to signify some type of transition in the noir setting, Mark returns to Laura's apartment one evening. He studies her portrait. He invades her bedroom, smells her perfume and inspects her dresser drawer and closet. In recognition that he is not behaving in any sort of professional capacity, he pours himself a drink and studies Laura's portrait again. It is a creepy sequence, as pointed out directly by Waldo, always about when a man may have designs on Laura. Waldo has learned Mark placed a bid on the portrait that has captivated the detective. Indeed when Waldo accuses Mark of falling for a corpse, the writer definitely has a point! But on another level, Mark gradually falling for the murder victim emphasizes her pedigree. He may have been struck by the painting of her likeness (who wouldn't be?), but it is the detail he learns about her character that affirms his true feelings for her.

Throughout the narrative, the effeminate man Waldo Lydecker stands in obvious contrast with the meat-and-potatoes guy Mark. Importantly, Waldo's slight frame is introduced in the bathtub, where nobody could be considered in a position of strength. The embodiment of tactlessly outspoken, snobby upper class decay, Waldo is better associated with things than people. He resides in a "lavish" apartment, adorned with monogrammed towels and lovingly decorated with "priceless" items he has accumulated. A constant annoyance to those around him, he dines alone. Even when clearly in the wrong, Waldo appears incapable of apologizing for his surly demeanor without a prompt from Laura. After he aids her transformation into a business and a social magnate, he shadows her whenever her plans do not include him, and routinely assassinates the character of any man who descends upon Laura's private life. Though Waldo cultivates Laura, she eventually turns from the conniving elder man of high culture. In one of the narrative's major turning points, Waldo is both literally and figuratively out in the cold the night he observes Laura in her home window with an artist named Jacoby (John Dexter), about whom Waldo authors a disparaging article. Later Waldo is marginalized when Laura begins to spend time with Shelby Carpenter, and ultimately Waldo aims his jealousy at Mark. Waldo accuses Laura of falling only for men who appear physically strong, in conflict with the intellectual's own frailty (which proves to be more mental than physical).

The suspicious behavior of socialite Shelby Carpenter keeps him high on Mark's list of potential murderers. Shelby is a rather disreputable man, especially as portrayed by the always guilty-looking Vincent Price. Though clearly a man of some social rank (in the past, he derived income from an estate), Shelby is unemployed when he first encounters Laura, who agrees to hire him. In a moment reserved for one of the story's heels, it is revealed Shelby pawned an expensive cigarette case he received as a gift from Laura. Insultingly, he pawned the item in the name of another woman he had been seeing during the same time he was romantically involved with Laura. Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, who portrayed the shrewish Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA [1940]) outwardly maintains great love for Shelby, even though she admits he would be capable of murder. She even tells Laura that she entertained thoughts of offing her. At various intervals, Ann and Shelby touch each other with affection. The implication is they were made for each other, though only Ann seems to have accepted the notion completely. Shelby is always on the lookout for someone else.

This standard-looking shot contains the solution to a murder mystery: 
note the position of Waldo's umbrella handle in relation to the clock

Laura's image defiantly stands between her startling return and the man investigating her

A noir image if ever there were one

Waldo framed within the context of the framed Laura, whose beauty he failed to capture.
Man's inability to contain female beauty would become closely identified with noir

In regard to film noir themes and motifs that would galvanize a burgeoning genre, the opening narration from Waldo is significant. Ultimately it is the voice of a dead man. Variations on this convention would be used again, perhaps more famously in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Although LAURA's featured murder occurs offscreen, it is especially gruesome:  a lovely woman dies from a shotgun blast to the face! The film noir movement surely pushed the envelope in terms of what would be considered acceptable violence in American cinema. The flashback device was pivotal to the genre's development, and the fact that so many noir stories begin at the end certainly adds a heightened sense of helplessness to the proceedings. Film noir suspense seldom involves the gradual reveal of some important event. Instead that event is revealed in the early going, and suspense is created in the eventual explanation of why that event occurred. The noir hallmarks of LAURA include numerous nocturnal sequences, atmospherically captured by director of photography Joseph LaShelle, who earned an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. It would be the lone victory for the 8-time Oscar nominee.

The source novel by Vera Caspary originally ran in COLLIERS from October-November 1942 as the seven-part serial "Ring Twice for Laura." The material was republished in book form the following year, and Caspary sold the film rights to Twentieth Century Fox. LAURA was adapted for the screen by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt. As the past and present intermix, the fairly complicated plot structure never confuses without reason. One wonders if everything is a dream after Mark falls asleep in Laura's apartment, only to be awakened by the reappearance of the woman whose murder he has been investigating. That convention was used in the same year's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. Caspary's source novel would be adapted later as the German made-for-TV movie LAURA (1962) directed by Franz Josef Wild, and then as an American TV movie in 1968 helmed by John Llewellyn Moxey. A Lux Radio Theatre version aired February 5, 1945, and another interpretation was presented February 1, 1954. A stage version first emerged in 1947.

The 1080P dual-layered Blu-ray edition of LAURA released in 2013 by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is absolutely loaded. As I write this review, the disc still can be had for around $10. Along with the original theatrical cut (87m 6s), there is an extended version that runs a little longer (88m 9s). The extended cut includes an expanded montage of Waldo cultivating Laura. The presentation is framed at 1.33:1, which is interesting since both IMDb and TCM list 1.37:1 as the original theatrical aspect ratio.

Supplemental material is mostly common to the Fox DVD issued in 2005. The first audio commentary track features David Raksin, the composer who scored LAURA, and Jeanine Basinger, who for years served as the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and Founder and Curator of The Cinema Archives at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. Basinger reminds us that, like so many classic films, the LAURA we know today almost did not happen. Its life began as a B picture before it was upgraded to an A. The original concept would have been directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with John Hodiak in the role of Detective McPherson and either Hedy Lamarr or Jennifer Jones as Laura. Laird Cregar was being considered for the part of Waldo. Original director Mamoulian's wife painted a portrait of Gene Tierney that was to be used in the film, but that painting was switched to a blown-up photograph after Otto Preminger stepped in as director. Tierney was complimentary of Preminger, a filmmaker well-known for being incredibly demanding of everyone involved in one of his productions. She noted he pushed himself as hard as he pushed the cast and crew. Initially Tierney was unenthused about the role, which in her view lacked screen time. Preminger always directed with tremendous faith in the intelligence of his audience. He had filmed alternate endings, but what exactly he shot remains imprecise. According to the composer Raksin, the scene probably best remembered by noir fans almost was eliminated by David O. Selznick. Raksin convinced Selznick to allow the composer to score the sequence in which Mark appears to have fallen in love with the portrait of a woman he believes to be dead. To think this scene almost hit the cutting room floor! Raksin's other noir credits are an impressive assortment that includes FALLEN ANGEL (1945), FORCE OF EVIL (1948), WHIRLPOOL (1949), SUDDENLY (1954) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

The commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer traces LAURA through its many steps from play concept to screen classic. Per Behlmer, his recording has its basis in a chapter of his book BEHIND THE SCENES: THE MAKING OF... (1990), which was the culmination of extensive research and interviews he conducted in the 1970s. Though both commentary tracks are worthwhile, the Behlmer track is the more compelling of the two, especially in terms of the historical background of all things LAURA. Vera Caspary decided to sell the screen rights rather than endure the stress of a theatrical adaptation. Her novel was sold for $30K, and allowed Caspary to retain rights to a stage production. The story of the 1944 film adaptation is riddled with the sort of complexity that seems appropriate for the background of a seminal film noir. A screening room presentation of KIDNAPPED (1938) resulted in a dramatic falling out between director Otto Preminger and Darryl F. Zanuck, who had become VP in charge of production at Fox in 1935. So upset was Zanuck he assured Preminger that he could forget about ever directing again. Screenwriter Jay Dratler finished the first draft of LAURA in 1943, and Zanuck made a lot of notes on it. Zanuck sounded the alarm for more distinct characterizations, and was especially underwhelmed with the way Laura was drawn. He could not imagine any major actress being hungry to portray her (and Tierney was not excited about being a second choice after Jennifer Jones turned down the role). Most important, Zanuck's elaborate feedback confirmed the LAURA property would be elevated to A status. According to various accounts of the production's history, Laura was offered to director Lewis Milestone, who declined. Then John Brahm declined, as did Walter Lang before Rouben Mamoulian accepted. The production got off to a shaky start when Zanuck was disappointed with the initial work completed by Mamoulian. Going back on his threat, Zanuck removed Mamoulian and installed Preminger as director. That decision did not necessarily sit well with the actors. In fact, Dana Andrews described Preminger as too "Germanic" in his direction of people and unsuccessfully tried to get out of his contract to play Detective McPherson. Behlmer draws attention to the contribution of director of photography Joseph LaShelle, whose camera follows the action to great effect. He moves in and out of close-ups in such an effortless way traditional editing technique is limited. It does appear Mamoulian was completely excised from the project; LaShelle recalls Preminger telling him none of the Mamoulian footage would survive after reshoots. Behlmer also reviews what is known of the film's alternate conclusion.

If you are not familiar with the troubled private life of Gene Eliza Tierney already, the A&E Biography presentation "Gene Tierney:  A Shattered Portrait" (1999, 44m 9s) will break your heart. She was born November 19, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Westport, Connecticut. Her upbringing was strict as administered by Howard Sherwood Tierney, an insurance broker. At the age of 17, the young Tierney was approached by Warner Bros., but her parents did not approve. In 1939, at the age of 18, she found success on Broadway. Then in 1940, Tierney caught the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck, who got her to sign with 20th Century Fox. In an attempt to lower her speaking voice, she took up smoking, which surely factored in her death from emphysema on November 6, 1991 at the age of 70. Tierney married Oleg Cassini, a costume designer, June 1, 1941, and in 1943 she was top-billed in HEAVEN CAN WAIT. Later she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945).

Though everything on the surface seemed to be going perfectly well for Tierney, her Hollywood stardom coincided with her long battle with mental illness and manic depression. There were many events in her life that must have factored in the state of her mental health. In a failed attempt to resuscitate his business, her father stole from the Belle-Tier corporation he had set up for her. Tierney was left with nothing. She gave birth to a daughter, Antoinette Daria Cassini, who was born prematurely, deaf, partially blind and mentally challenged. Tierney was devastated to realize her stardom caused a fan with German measles to seek her out, which likely caused Tierney to contract the disease while pregnant. She blamed her fame as an actress for her daughter's fragile condition. As fate would have it, Tierney's next starring role would be in LAURA, the part for which she is best remembered.

Though Tierney would remain friends with Oleg for the rest of her life, he was unfaithful to her, and the couple would separate. In 1946 she would become romantically involved with John F. Kennedy, who would not marry her because of his political aspirations. Her romance with Prince Aly Khan in 1952 met with resistance from his father, Aga Khan III. By 1954, Tierney was having a hard time remembering her lines. At the age of 34, she collapsed due to a viral infection and began to experience hallucinations. She reluctantly agreed to electric shock therapy. At the age of 39, she married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee in 1960, but soon suffered a miscarriage. According to Tierney's daughter Christina Cassini, her mother was never the same again after repeated stays at various institutions. Tierney's former husband Oleg ends the documentary appropriately when he describes his ex-wife as, "...the unluckiest lucky girl in the world."

Gene Tierney:  perhaps the most stunning countenance in Hollywood history

Also on hand is the A&E Biography episode "Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain" (1997, 44m 3s). Described as "a modern Renaissance man," Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. (May 27, 1911 – October 25, 1993) was a lifelong collector of art. An English major at Yale, he graduated in 1933. Later he studied in Europe, where he became obsessed with the theater. After he returned to the US, at the age of 24 he starred in VICTORIA REGINA, a Broadway hit that made the cover of TIME magazine in 1936. Broadway fame led to a contract with Universal Pictures, where he played bit parts in a number of films. His movie career got a boost after he signed with Twentieth Century Fox in 1940. His talent for portraying malevolent characters was confirmed on the stage when he played Mr. Manningham in ANGEL STREET, which opened in December of 1941 and ran for a year. Audiences hissed at his character, and Price recognized he had found his calling. On the screen, Price established himself as the bad guy in DRAGONWYCK (1946), and was top-billed in SHOCK (1946), the production that proved he could play the lead. Though from a budget standpoint SHOCK was a B movie, it was screened as an A title.

By the 1950s, Price was known as much for his knowledge of art as he was for his acting. When HOUSE OF WAX (1953) reignited the horror genre, Price found himself bound to the horror category for the remainder of his career. He is well-remembered for his role in THE FLY (1958), as well as his appearances in the William Castle films HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) and THE TINGLER (1959). In the 1960s, Price starred in a series of films for American International Pictures that began with HOUSE OF USHER (1960), produced and directed by Roger Corman. Other productions based on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe followed, including PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), THE RAVEN (1963) and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964), each produced and directed by Corman. The late 1960s and early 1970s brought him three of his greatest roles in WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and THEATER OF BLOOD (1973). Beyond the world of cinema, Price made a great many television appearances, memorably as Egghead on BATMAN (1966-1967). He worked as an art spokesman for Sears-Roebuck from 1962 to 1971, when Sears offered original art for sale by artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso, and Dalí. Price was also a gourmet cook and the author of multiple cookbooks. In the late 1970s, he performed in 300 cities as Oscar Wilde in the one-man stage production DIVERSIONS AND DELIGHTS.

Price was married three times. He married Edith Barrett in 1938, and divorced her in 1948. His second wife was Mary Grant, whom Price wed in 1949. They were divorced in 1973. His third wife Coral Browne was married to Price in 1974, and remained his wife until her death from cancer in 1991. Price fathered two children:  Vincent Barrett Price, born August 30, 1940 and Mary Victoria Price, born April 27, 1962.

An archival featurette (2005, 12m 36s) covers LAURA from a film noir perspective, with film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini providing insights. I particularly enjoyed the contribution from filmmaker Carl Franklin (ONE FALSE MOVE [1992]), who does not buy into Shelby Carpenter's story about why he was in Laura's apartment with Diane Redfern. The scene that was shortened for the theatrical cut may be watched separately (2m 36s), with optional commentary by Rudy Behlmer. The theatrical trailer (2m 31s) features camera coverage not used in the final cut.