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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: Laura (1944)

* * * 1/2

Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

Laura is one of the most atmospheric films I’ve ever seen. It unfolds like a dream as detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) attempts to solve the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a woman who seems to enchant every man she meets – including Mark himself. It’s a film that works best if you don’t spend too much time thinking about it while you’re watching it (on the final analysis any of the potential murderers would make just as much sense as the next), but just let yourself float along with the story.

It begins with Laura already dead, brutally murdered by having a shotgun unloaded in her face. Mark makes the rounds, questioning the people who knew Laura the best, a club which includes acerbic and erudite Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), socialite Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and Laura’s fiancée, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Mark is perhaps overly devoted to the case and it isn’t long before Waldo hits on the real reason why Mark is constantly returning to the scene of the crime – he’s fallen in love with Laura, whom he’s encountered only as a corpse and from the portrait hanging in her apartment.

The idea of images is central to the film, especially the image of Laura herself. Mark is in love with the idea of Laura, and so are Waldo and Shelby. Laura’s relationships with Waldo and Shelby are characterized as a love triangle, but it’s difficult to imagine that either of these characters is really interested in Laura romantically. Shelby is a gold digger who wants Laura’s money – or any woman’s money, as it turns out – and Waldo wants to control Laura, whom he sees as a kind of protégée. Both also, perhaps, want to use Laura as a symbol of their heterosexuality. Both characters are overtly effete – Waldo, especially, who in the first scene more or less attempts to seduce Mark from his bathtub.

Images, and the creation of images, further come into play through Laura’s occupation. She’s in the advertising industry, which is how she comes to meet Waldo, and how Shelby comes to make a living for himself after she offers him a job. All three are involved in selling the idea of products, just as Waldo and Shelby are attempting to use Laura to sell the idea of their heterosexuality, and just as nearly everybody will be called upon to sell the idea of their innocence.

Laura is a really compact film, told at a brisk pace. The plot is as delightfully convoluted as those of most noir stories and the supporting cast of rogues and scoundrels is wonderfully put together. The performance by Webb is especially engaging and fun to watch, sort of like a cross between Addison DeWitt from All About Eve and Joel Cairo from The Maltese Falcon. As the two leads, Tierney and Andrews look great (the film makes great use of Tierney’s stunning facial features in an interrogation scene) playing characters who are, by design, very one-dimensional (this is a movie about images, after all). Andrews, especially, is self-consciously stiff as the straight-laced cop who takes a drink like he’s a Ken doll whose arms don’t unbend. The direction by the great Otto Preminger is simple and unintrusive, allowing the viewer to simply get sucked in to this marvellous, dream-like story.

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