Here’s a thought for you. How is it that they still make tame romantic comedies like they did in the 40’s and 50’s, but they don’t make tame mysteries of that era? Perhaps that’s a disingenuous comparison since writers in either genre don’t come near the same level of intelligence or pace but for a few examples (I’d put David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin in that group). But I don’t just mean the dialogue. The desire for cleverness is different from the desire for ingenuity of plot and brooding of mood. In our drive towards realism, of which I do not disapprove, the mystery films made today take mental illness as their foundation. Who kills out of love or desire anymore? We’re lucky if they just kill for money or power. Where’s the romance? That’s the word. Romance. But you can find it in Laura (1944).
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” says columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). Lydecker last heard from Laura (Gene Tierney) on Friday, she said she was going into the country for the weekend to reconsider her engagement with Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). You see, Shelby was having some kind of relationship with Laura’s aunt Ann (Judith Anderson). But before she could go, she was shot in the face with a shotgun loaded with buckshot. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is on the case now and he’s got some interesting methods which generally consist of shocking his suspects and witnesses and reading their expressions for clues. Lydecker tells his story first, about how he met Laura, made her into a woman of sophistication, and how she took his lessons and made a successful life for herself in advertising. Her flaw, if she had one, was her taste in men.
I first saw Laura in 2005 and well before I was ready for her. This was my then-girlfriend’s favorite movie and the school’s film appreciation club was showing it. I had seen a lot of movies by then, but this was almost certainly the oldest and in the audience, we two were absolutely certainly the youngest. That crazy dame may have broken my heart, but she certainly had taste. I can remember it still, as the Nazis rolled into Paris, the smell of croissant and boot polish in my coffee. I was reading the letter she left me and I ended up mixing up my breakfast order. I hate croissant. I gave her one last chance. She agreed to meet me at the train station but it was over, I read it all over her face. It was clear as print. She must have spent all morning working on the grammar. But that was the kind of gal she was. I had a type and apparently it was Sans Comic. Sorry, what?
“This is beginning to assume fabulous aspects.”
Echoes of Otto Preminger’s Laura can be seen and heard in many films. You can see certain shots and plot elements that would come up in a number of Alfred Hitchcock movies like Vertigo (1958) and Dial M for Murder (1954) and I sensed the presence of Billy Wilder. It helps that I completely mistook Dana Andrews for Robert Cummings. I’m sure you’ve done that too. Laura is one of those movies, and there are a few, that I really want to watch again for the first time. Not because of the history, nothing like that, but because the story is so central to enjoying the film and I spent most of my second viewing wondering if I remembered the resolution. I did. While that memory heightens the viewing experience of Dial M for Murder and Vertigo, I don’t think I was in the right place to invest the kind of nostalgia required back in 2005. And Laura is the kind of subtle whodunit that doesn’t lend itself to nostalgia as does Hitchcock’s more frivolous tone.
There was so much I left unappreciated simply because I hadn’t seen the right movies in the right order. You really should watch Dial M for Murder and The Big Sleep (1946) first to appreciate how much comes out of Laura. It also helps to appreciate watching a movie in black and white. Laura is a very good movie, no question, but it isn’t quite good enough to overcome the aversion one might have towards that style and format. I still struggle with patronizing movies of the 40’s and 50’s because of these qualities and it takes something like Sweet Smell of Success (1957) (review) to make you realize that people were as jaded and cynical then as now. While I’m throwing out black and white recommendations I’ll add All About Eve (1950) that has a very similar character to Mr. Lydecker played by George Sanders. In fact, Sweet Smell of Success has a not dissimilar character at its heart played by Burt Lancaster.
Vincent Price is a giant!
The acting style of Laura doesn’t seem over-the-top to me. Lydecker’s language is on the over-written side, but that makes sense for a columnist. Andrews I saw recently in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Laura shows that the guy can act. It seems like faint praise to say that he could play two difference characters, but if you look around that era, Hollywood wasn’t so thick with ‘em. Gene Tierney, though, I have not seen elsewhere. There are a number of her films on the catch-up list (The Razor’s Edge (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)) and I have pretty high expectations for her. She doesn’t quite play enough fear for the role, but this is an ambiguous mystery and they rightly chose restrained ambiguity over possible misdirection. Webb plays a delightful character—I’m a sucker for wit—and gives the best performance in the film.
I’ve written about this before, so I’ll simply mention that Laura is based on a novel by Vera Caspary (with screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt) and paints a better picture of an independent, working woman than many you’ll find today. Laura’s success is facilitated by a man at the outset, so points off there, but her self-possession is unquestioned. It’s the men who are obsessed with Laura, not the other way around. Her rise in the advertising company is spoken of as an obvious outgrowth of her talents and intelligence. Her being Shelby’s boss doesn’t have a tint of controversy to it.
Buy war bonds. Or Laura on Blu-Ray (which is how I saw it).