Dir:- Otto Preminger
Starr:- Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Ann Treadwell, Dorothy Adams
Otto Preminger was one of Hollywood’s great cinematic stylists. During a white-hot period of creativity in the 1950’s he directed some of the most visually sophisticated and thematically varied films of his lengthy career. Starting with Where the Sidewalk Ends (which saw him reunite with Laura stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney) and going right through to Exodus (the all-star 1960 adaptation of Leon Uris’s novel on the origins of the Israeli state) he had a unparallelled run of fourteen critically acclaimed and commercially successful releases, developing a strong working relationship with the great British actor David Niven, along the way. As a director Preminger was thematically difficult to pin down, skipping genres frequently without any obvious diminution in his abilities. The most striking characteristic of almost every film Preminger undertook was the smooth, clean shots with which they all were scrupulously composed, which lends the movies a quality that hasn’t dated at all, even if fashion and mannerisms might have. Perhaps the most impressive films of this period were three adaptations. The first was his all-black version of Bizet’s opera Carmen, adapted from a musical by Oscar Hammerstein entitled Carmen Jones. This was followed by his immense work with Frank Sinatra on the Nelson Algren adaptation The Man with the Golden Arm (on the highly controversial subject of heroin addiction). Finally, there was the Technicolor tragedy of his 1958 adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s youthful novella Bonjour Tristesse, which saw his finest work with David Niven.
A decade prior to these great films Preminger crafted three exceptionally strong film noir masterpieces, all of which featured either Dana Andrews or Gene Tierney, or, as in the case of Laura, both. Of the three films Laura is generally considered the strongest work, then Fallen Angel, and finally Whirlpool. Laura was a genuine labour of love for Preminger, who had to fight tooth and nail with legendary studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck (of 20th Century Fox) to even be allowed to direct the film. This feud between Zanuck and Preminger dated back to their work together on the big-budget 1938 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. As a result of this on-going spat Zanuck interfered regularly in the Laura shoot, showing an initial disdain for the casting of homosexual theatre actor Clifton Webb and rejecting Preminger’s original cut of the movie (only to be persuaded of its merits by critic Walter Winchell). Remarkably, despite all of these background problems Laura became the defining feature of Preminger’s career, earning him his first Oscar nomination and doing the kind of box-office that guaranteed a lengthy contract within the old studio system.
What was continually remarkable about Preminger’s work was the way in which he made unusual casting decisions that almost always paid off. Preminger came from a theatrical background and throughout his film career he would frequently return to his first love, the stage. As a result of this, he frequently had access to actors that were off the major film studio radars at the time. He also had an eye for conflicting styles of acting, frequently placing flamboyant performers alongside more restrained and minimalist actors. In Laura he cast Dana Andrews, one of Hollywood’s hard, terse men, alongside the overt camp of stage actor Clifton Webb and the youthful flamboyance of Vincent Price. All these men were left revolving around the magnetic and understated charms of Gene Tierney’s aloof turn in the title role. It is partly this curious mixture of acting styles that continues to make Laura such a fascinating picture.
Webb, as the clearly not entirely sane columnist Waldo Lydecker, uses wit and a caustic form of urbane charm to float above the hoi-polloi. It is Laura’s flagrant disregard for status, etiquette and civility that first impresses Lydecker, having had his luncheon gate-crashed by the deliberately ditzy young copywriter. The early scenes between Lydecker and Dana Andrews’ private eye Mark McPherson are some of the most unusual in all of noir cinema, as the straight-talking and hyper-masculine McPherson is teased and toyed with by the naked and bathing Lydecker. Similarly, the young Vincent Price as the social climber Shelby Carpenter, has a strange, and strained, relationship with the much older Judith Anderson (the Australian actress who was so memorable as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca) as the society dame Ann Treadwell.
Of the main cast of characters Lydecker is very much a Svengali figure. Having engineered Laura’s career trajectory, he also tries to insinuate himself into McPherson’s investigation at every possible opportunity. Arrogantly sure of his capacities to charm, manipulate and ultimately outwit any rival, his one weakness is his obsessive desire for control over the life of Laura. As the narrator of the movie Lydecker shows all of the verbal facility of a writer, but his word selection and his tone are increasingly overwrought and eventually crazed. Despite emitting a contemptuous air of superiority and control in almost all of his early scenes, Lydecker’s cool detachment gradually unravels as McPherson refuses to reveal his well-guarded hand.
Throughout the movie McPherson roves through various wealthy interior locales, populated by all manner of decadent objet d’art, cryptically quizzing the three main suspects (Lydecker, Carpenter and Treadwell) involved in the death of Laura. McPherson can be viewed as an early blueprint for Peter Falk’s highly successful TV detective Columbo, as so often his investigations seem to be leading nowhere. In fact McPherson frequently seems to be conducting the investigation for his own amusement, as if it gives him an excuse to lounge around the luxurious livingrooms and bedrooms of the ‘better half’ of society. Whatever remarks McPherson does make seem vague almost to the point of abstraction, suggesting that he is, himself, withholding something from proceedings.
The most memorable scene in the film involves an exquisite pulled-in/pulled-out shot of McPherson drifting off to sleep in the dead woman’s apartment. The shot pulls in tight on a spirit bottle with McPherson asleep on a chair in the background. So that when the shot swiftly pulls back from the bottle, in seemingly one continuous motion, the revelation of the central part of the movie is so startling, that at first even McPherson considers it a dream. Preminger actually manages to beguile the audience by resolutely playing upon this theme of ‘enigma’. Until the conclusion of the film, the extent of Lydecker’s jealous feelings toward Laura are never fully explicated. Their relationship appears nothing more than a dependency, first of a young woman looking for career advancement through the money and influence of a sugar-daddy, then of the sugar-daddy who is unable to relinquish the reins of the phenomenon he has helped set up in the world. Carpenter’s motives and machinations are permanently obscured by his unwillingness to disassociate himself from his relationship with Treadwell. Despite professing to love and care for Laura, Carpenter always falls back upon his ambiguous commitments to Treadwell, as if he were ensnared in some kind of trap. Most enigmatic of all is the relationship that develops between the private investigator and the victim whose murder he believes he is investigating. What could seem like a poorly written mess of a murder plot, under Preminger’s direction, and with the cast he has assembled, becomes a languorously paced, but incredibly tense examination of high-class individuals involved in the lowest of low-class intrigues.
Whereas the general tendency of the times was to shoot most film noir’s in a shadowy nighttime realm, where bad things were most likely to happen, here Preminger makes the very conscious decision to shoot the majority of Laura in brightly lit and opulently furnished interior spaces. It is almost as if the ostentatiousness of these character’s domestic spaces (Lydecker writing on a typewriter from the comfort of a marble bathtub, for example) is deliberately designed to further obscure the possibility of closely scrutinising their lives and actions. As with Preminger’s very best work the magic is in this obsessive detailing of surfaces and appearances, that ultimately prove more substantial than any subtle psychological characterisation ever could. In this regard it could be suggested that Preminger has clearly exerted considerable influence upon the directorial career of Steve Soderbergh, a modern-day filmmaker with similar predilections for the meticulous creation of seemingly superficial artifice, that is deceptively moored to weightier thematic concerns.
Laura, in its exquisitely contrived execution, is the most unnoirish of noir-thrillers, that seems to revel in breaking many of the stylistic norms of the form. The ingenious ending that unfurls in a haze of half-realised suspicions, crazed revelations and elaborate contrivances, is one of the most head scratching climaxes in early Hollywood cinema, which only adds to the mystique and the allure of the film. This power to seduce is further heightened by the robust and lush musical score, created by David Raksin, that applies a powerful emotional glaze to even the most chilling of exchanges among these distant and obscure individuals. At the movie’s close, time literally has stopped for at least one individual, whilst the suggestion is that in time all things will eventually be revealed.