“LAURA” (1944) Review

 

“LAURA” (1944) Review

When I had first saw the 1944 murder mystery, “LAURA”, I felt inclined to read the 1943 Vera Caspary novel it was based upon. Needless to say, Caspary’s novel seemed adequate. But I found myself preferring Otto Preminger’s film adaptation a lot more. 

Surprisingly, Preminger had not been the first choice as the movie’s director. Producer William Goetz, acting as 20th Century Fox’s studio head in Darryl Zanuck’s absence, allowed Preminger to act as the film’s unit producer. When Zanuck returned to the studio, he expressed a lukewarm attitude toward the project. And he DID NOT want Preminger to act as the film’s director. Instead, Rouben Mamoulian was hired as the director. The latter proved to be a bust. Mamoulian wanted Laird Cregar, instead of Clifton Webb in the role of columnist Waldo Lyedecker. Nor did he seem to be utilizing the cast very well. In the end, Preminger convinced Zanuck and Goetz to allow him to direct the film. And the rest, as one would say, is history.

“LAURA” centered on the brutal murder of a Manhattan advertising executive named Laura Hunt. Assigned to the case, police detective Mark McPherson interviewed those close to her. They included Laura’s mentor and newspaper columnist Waldo Lyedecker; her Kentucky-born fiancé, Shelby Carpenter; Laura’s socialite aunt Ann Tredwell; and her maid, Bessie Clary. Via flashbacks and McPherson’s interviews, moviegoers learned that Laura was a warm and kind-hearted woman that also happened to be a talented advertising executive. Moviegoers also learned through her relationships with men like Waldo, Shelby and an artist named Jacoby, Laura had lousy tastes in men and friends. Everything changed when Laura appeared at her Manhattan apartment following a prolonged weekend in the country . . . very much alive. The murdered woman proved to be a model that bored a strong resemblance to Laura named Diane Redfern. And since the latter was having an affair with Shelby Carpenter, Laura became a murder suspect.

Most people would be inclined to believe that the literary source is superior to any film adaptation. I have read Caspary’s novel only once. And quite frankly, it failed to blow my mind, let alone impress me. Yet, the movie has managed to blow my mind or move every time I see it. Thanks to Preminger’s direction and the screenplay written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt; “LAURA” turned out to be a well-written mystery filled with sharp wit and a memorable plot twist. The movie could also boast some fascinating characters that were shadowed by their personal demons. Even the nearly perfect Laura seemed hampered by a particular flaw – namely bad taste in male companionship. I also have to give kudos to Preminger for injecting a rich atmosphere in a movie dominated by interior shots. “LAURA”could have easily spiraled into a filmed play without Preminger’s direction and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s photography. No one cannot even think about the movie without considering David Raskin’s score. Which is deservedly considered to be one of the best in Hollywood’s history. I have nothing against Duke Ellington and his famous piece,“Sophisticated Lady”. But I must admit that I am glad that Raskin convinced Preminger to allow him to write his own score, instead of using Ellington’s music for the movie. “LAURA” must also be one of those rare crime movies – even for those from the 1930s and 40s – that lacked any real action, save for the movie’s last explosive scene that I find haunting, even to this day.

One would be inclined to assume that I view this movie as perfect. Well, that person would be wrong. Although I consider“LAURA” to be well paced, it did threaten to drag in the minutes leading toward Laura’s so-called resurrection. Only a conversation between Lyedecker and McPherson over the latter’s “obsession with a corpse” prevented me from falling asleep. As I had stated earlier, the Laura Hunt character did seem a bit too perfect at times. Which brings me to the character of Bessie Clary, Laura’s maid. I have no problems with a movie servant being competent or profession . . . or even somewhat loyal to his or her servant. It is another matter when a servant lavishly worship the ground his or her employer walked upon. And Bessie seemed to belong to the latter category. Her worship over Laura came off as so strong that I found myself wondering if there had been a deleted scene that featured her on all fours, shining Laura’s shoes with her tongue. I mean . . . honestly! Her slavish loyalty toward Laura made me cringe so much that I almost considered becoming a Communist at one point. Many film critics and historians have commented upon Hollywood’s racism and sexism over the years. Yet, I wonder if anyone had ever considered that class bigotry reared its ugly head in many of these old movies.

Speaking of Bessie Clary, I must admit that actress Dorothy Adams did a solid job in her portrayal of Laura’s faithful maid. I especially enjoyed how she conveyed Bessie’s defiant attitude toward McPherson and other cops. It seemed a pity that screenwriters Dratler, Hoffenstein and Reinhardt seemed bent upon portraying her as an excessively loyal servant. Following her role as the sinister Mrs. Danvers in 1940’s “REBECCA”, Judith Anderson gave a more subtle performance as Laura’s socialite aunt, AnnTredwell. What I enjoyed about Anderson’s performance was that she portrayed Ann as a cool and calculating woman who was brutally honest about her love for Shelby Carpenter without being over-the-top about it. Vincent Prince became a rising star, thanks to his portrayal of Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s impoverished Kentucky-born fiancé. Waldo Lyedecker had contemptuously described Shelby as a “male beauty”. Shelby was also a “male beauty” with a nasty talent for sponging money and favors from women more fortunate than himself. And Price beautifully portrayed that unpleasant aspect of Shelby’s character with warmth, subtlety and gutless charm. He also had the fortunate luck to be given the best line in the entire movie.

Clifton Webb earned a well deserved Academy Award nomination (which he should have won) for his portrayal of the waspish and acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lyedecker. Despite his contempt for nearly everyone around him, Waldo harbored an obsessive love for Laura and Webb conveyed this beautifully. Many believe that Webb had managed to steal the picture from his fellow cast members. I would now go that far. But I do believe that he gave the movie’s best performance. But Webb was surrounded by a strong cast in which three others also became stars. And this is why I cannot give him credit for stealing the movie.

Although he had been around for a few years, Dana Andrews received his big break as Mark McPherson, the cynical police detective assigned to investigate the murdered body found in Laura’s apartment. Superficially, Andrews’ portrayed McPherson as a typical movie detective – tough, sarcastic and intelligent. But he also managed to convey McPherson’s growing obsession toward “dead” Laura without engaging in any theatrics. I doubt that very few would agree, but I have always considered Andrews to be one of the better screen actors I have ever seen – past or present. He had a gift for expressing an array of emotions with his eyes, with great ease. Even with body language, Andrews managed to convey his interest in Laura by the way his character diligently listened to the suspects’ recollections of the “victim” and the manner in which examined Laura’s apartment. Frankly, I feel that Andrews has been somewhat underappreciated as an actor.

Gene Tierney gave a warm portrayal of the title character, Laura Hunt. As I had stated earlier, her character came off as superficially perfect. I am more inclined to blame Vera Caspary and the movie’s screenwriters than the actress. Fortunately, Tierney had the talent to prevent Laura from becoming such an unbearable character. More importantly, she injected a good deal of spirit in her character . . . especially in the scenes she shared with Dana Andrews. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which she made it clear to McPherson that she was not in the habit of blindly obeying others, and when she finally expressed her annoyance at Lyedecker’s obsessive meddling.

For a murder mystery that featured very little action and a great deal of dialogue, “LAURA” still managed to be an engrossing and atmospheric story. And producer-director Otto Preminger made this possible by bringing together a superb cast with an unforgettable score written by David Raskin, Joseph LaShelle’s photography and one of the wittiest screenplays in Hollywood history. In fact, I would go as far to say that “LAURA” is probably one of the finest mystery films ever made.

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