Tuesday, August 28

Laura: Favorite Movie #29

1944 Film Noir
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Otto Preminger

Gene Tierney
Dana Andrews
Clifton Webb
Vincent Price
Judith Anderson

You know how when a famous actor dies, included in between the first and last names is often the name of the actor's most famous film?  Something like Gene (Singin' in the Rain) Kelly or Natalie (West Side Story) Wood comes to mind.  Unquestionably it was Gene (Laura) Tierney.  She clearly was Laura, a character who needed to be beautiful, a bit remote and classy.  

This gorgeous 1940's 20th Century Fox contract actress rarely went after a part.   She was usually more content to simply do what was assigned to her and studio chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck wanted her for Laura.  Initially she saw nothing special about the role and felt she was chosen because she came cheaper than some others, namely Jennifer Jones who had turned the part down.  Not being first choice dampened Tierney's spirits a bit.  But Zanuck assured her the role would change her career and that she would be forever identified with the role.  Guess those predictions were why he was the head honcho.

My old pal, film noir, is my favorite genre of all time, and Laura is one of the top five film noir to ever hit the screen.  When I first sat down to take note of my 50 favorite films, whatever they would be, I recall Laura being the first one I wrote.

I have read biographies or autobiographies of all five stars and two on Preminger.  I think in almost all cases, there was a chapter called Laura.  Its path to the screen was not full of roses unless we consider the thorns.  Otto Preminger was the producer and for Zanuck that meant things would not proceed smoothly. 

Director Rouben Mamoulian was chosen and he immediately did not care for Clifton Webb in the key role of Waldo Lydecker.  He wanted a Fox contract actor, Laird Cregar, but Preminger was insistent that Webb remain in the part.  Mamoulian was not terribly supportive of the project.  He felt it was little more than a "B" movie even though Zanuck expressly decreed it was to be an "A" picture. Soon problems escalated to the point that Mamoulian was fired and Zanuck ordered Preminger to take over the directorial reins.

Preminger had a prickly relationship with novelist Vera Caspary who wrote the popular book.  Her enmity was likely more due to the fact that Preminger changed some key things about the plot.  Once Preminger's presence on the set became daily and his autocratic nature was at full speed, he immediately barked that he didn't like the way the production had gone so far.  In front of the rest of the company he expressed displeasure with Judith Anderson's acting.  (She must have come around because I thought she was quite good.)  Luckily for all, he became quite enamored of making the film, partly, it has been said, because it was about the Manhattan milieu of which he was so fond.

The suspenseful story involves the murder of Laura, a beautiful, young, professional  woman, who was killed with a shotgun blast in her apartment.  While investigating the murder and spending a lot of time in the woman's apartment, a detective, sitting in a comfortable chair with a whiskey in hand, seems to fall for her while gazing up at her portrait.

One night while doing just that, Laura walks in... as if in a dream.  The detective, dozing, awakens and is understandably stunned.  Laura, too, is astounded when she hears the story of her demise.  Soon it is discovered another woman was visiting the apartment and it was she who was dispatched.  Laura quickly goes from murder victim to murder suspect.   It's great fun to watch the story unfold and it has an ending to, um, well, die for.

It's a small story, efficiently told, with a minimum of characters.  Others are a man who hopes to marry Laura, her aunt who, in fact, loves the man Laura may marry, and most importantly Waldo Lydecker.  He is a fey, homosexual columnist, imperious and jaded.  He is outrageously controlling of Laura, regarding himself as her Svengali, her chaste lover.  He had become destructive and jealous over feelings of losing her to a rival.

Webb, a gay man himself, brought his entire arsenal to the role.  His haughty manners, clipped speech and arrogant stance are marvels to behold.  He was very, very deserving of his Academy Award nomination.

Price and Anderson, both also gay in real life, filled in their heterosexual parts with a certain charm and alacrity reminiscent of those fixtures of New York's beau monde.  Price who spent this part of his career being an also-ran for the affections of his leading lady never once impressed me in any film as a randy hetero.  I usually found myself amused at his awkward behavior.  But his casting was perfect because much of Laura is about things not being the way you think they are.   

Mark, the detective, beautifully played by Dana Andrews, stands alone in his butchness.  He is the voice of reason, a man's man, a no-nonsense, hardened cop who comes across two men, either of whom could be the murderer, one an effete snob and one a superior-acting boob.  Showing off the contrasts and similarities among these three men is also part of the uniqueness of this film.

Surrounding Tierney, l to r, Andrews, Price, Webb

At the center of it all is Tierney at the height of her youthful beauty and allure.  The actress chosen for the title role had to possess a beauty blazing enough to capture the hearts of three suitors.   Zanuck famously said she was "undeniably the most beautiful woman in movie history."  Whether that aligns with your assessment, she was sheer perfection in the part.  There is no doubt why she is referred to as Gene (Laura) Tierney.

An Oscar was nabbed by cameraman Joe LaShelle for his moody black and white photography, particularly giving the appropriate shadings and psychological climate to Laura's apartment and its furnishings, staircases, doors and outside hallways.   

We cannot dash off without a comment about the theme song, also called Laura.  Everyone wanted a song that promoted the idea of something mysterious and haunting.  Long after the film was over, Preminger and others wanted audiences to be blown away by a lovely score.  Several already popular songs were considered but eventually David Raksin wrote the music to Laura, which went on to be recorded by hundreds of artists, became a jazz staple and was played on pianos in many a smoky bar.   The prolific Johnny Mercer came along and put words to the haunting melody.  

Before you sign off, take a moment to enjoy the trailer of Laura.  And if you haven't seen the entire film, please do.


1 comment:

  1. Your video clips are a great addition to the blog.