Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
When I was in junior high, my dad got me hooked on old movies. Film noir, mainly. Back then, TBS was a primary source for entertainment, since there weren’t 1,000 channels, Netflix, Amazon, DVDs, and so on, and so on. It was riveting stuff – gritty toughs in fedoras, glamorous dames in flowing dresses, riveting plots, amazing performances. While my friends were indulging in classics like Porky’s, I was watching forgotten gems from yesteryear. And one of the ones I loved the most was “Laura.”
Ironically, one of the top grossing movie from 1981 – my 9th grade year – was “Sharky’s Machine.” It was an interesting film, mildly enjoyable, but in retrospect, it was really a counterfeit. “Sharky’s Machine” was an overt rip-off of “Laura,” something that became clear after the first time I saw the original.
If you’ve never seen it, Laura is the story of a murder investigation, led by police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). The victim, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), had her face blown off at close range, but her perfect portrait still hangs above her fireplace. Based on that, and on the stories about Laura told to him by friends like famed radio broadcaster Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), McPherson finds himself developing feelings for the dead woman. And just in case you’ve never seen it, I won’t elaborate on the couple of twists woven into the storyline.
“Laura” is classic piece of 1940s film noir, and is so good that it has survived the past 70 years without becoming too dated. The screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt is filled with witty dialogue. (My personal favorite – Lydecker: “Will you please stop dawdling with that infernal puzzle? It’s getting on my nerves.” McPherson: “I know, but it keeps me calm.”) Otto Preminger was never better in his direction, managing a solid pace and keeping the film lively at just under 90 minutes. Everything, from dialogue, to lighting, to camera angles, to the performances themselves, keeps each minute of “Laura” fresh and inviting.
As for the performances themselves, they are the true selling point of “Laura.” In the title role, Gene Tierney is an absolute vision. Her appearance alone captures the screen every time she appears on it, but beyond that, it is also clear that by 1944, she was one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood. One of the flaws in film noir is that there was a tendency among the performers to overact. Not so with Tierney; she delivers her lines flawlessly, and that’s not especially easy with this role, as Laura Hunt is a multifaceted character. At one point, she’s an innocent advertising clerk looking to drum up new business. At another, she’s a budding society girl, being squired by Lydecker and pursued by Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). At yet another, she’s being accused of murder and conspiracy. Regardless of which angle she’s playing, Tierney casts exactly the right tone for that moment.
Opposite her is Andrews, whose portrayal of a gritty police detective is pitch perfect. Though he’s never larger-than-life, Andrews’ portrayal of McPherson still makes the cop appear shrewd and dominant in his pursuit of justice. McPherson is a classic case of a man with a hard outer shell, but a somewhat sensitive inner core. Andrews captures that perfectly.
The real gem in “Laura” is Clifton Webb, who was making his first film appearance in a “talkie.” Previously, Webb had a short silent film career, but had an extensive stage portfolio. Preminger knew that he was the right man to play Lydecker, a pompous, self-absorbed radio columnist whose greatest loves were Laura and always being correct (and probably not in that order). Preminger’s instincts were dead-on, Webb’s portrayal not only appealed to fans and critics, but also to Academy Award voters, who gave Webb a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It’s Webb’s narration, from beginning to end, that carries the viewer through the movie, even if they realize his point of view is skewed. (Classic quote: “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”)
“Laura” is free to view on Netflix and Amazon Prime. If you’re in the mood for a flawless piece of classic cinema, you won’t find a better film.
Copyright © 2015 Doug DeBolt.