Monday, April 24, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Laura" (1944)

"I don't know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything."
                                                            --Shelby Carpenter

I think I should adopt that quote as my new motto. Recently asked to contribute a piece of wisdom I've learned through my career, I offered: "Everyone will disappoint you eventually. So try not to take it personally." Maybe I can meld the two together.

A warm-and-fuzzy guy I am not, and neither is Otto Preminger's 1944 film noir, "Laura." It's a movie with a distinctly pessimistic view of humanity that is photographed with an aching, shadowy beauty. Roger Ebert, in his retrospective column, said the film achieves "a kind of perfection in its balance between low motives and high style."

Joseph LaShelle won the cinematography Oscar that year, beating out "Double Indemnity," "Lifeboat" and "Gaslight," among others. Luckily, unlike some other classic films "Laura" has been wonderfully preserved with a high-quality video transfer.

Some have complained about the impenetrability of the story, but I found it pretty easy to follow. The film also got an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay -- along with art direction, supporting actor and director -- based upon the 1943 novel by Vera Caspary. Though, as with a lot of film noir, the convolutions of the plot are less important than the emotions and individual moments.

"Laura" has an audacious premise that's essentially the upside-down version of "Psycho." Instead of the leading lady dying 30 minutes into the movie, here the dead titular woman shows up very much alive around that same time frame. Successful advertising businesswoman Laura Hunt (Gene Tierny) is presumed dead after a woman's body is found in her apartment, wearing her negligee with a face blown apart by two shotgun blasts.

Dana Andrews plays Mark McPherson, the laconic police detective assigned to the case who becomes increasingly obsessed with the victim. "Falling in love with a dead woman," or something like it, is the key line of dialogue mirrored several times in the movie, and on the posters and other promotional materials for the film.

The actual romance between Andrews and Tierny is pretty much kaput from the get-go, with them only exchanging one quick smooch as he's leaving her apartment that feels more Dagwood and Blondie than cascading waves of True Love. But jealousy is more the movie's true subject.

Essentially, "Laura" is a love quadrangle, in which three men vie against each other for her affection. Laura had been engaged to a ne'er-do-well scamp, Shelby Carpenter, a strapping Kentuckian who came from money, lost it all, and now relies on the kindness -- and handouts -- of others.

Hilariously, he is played by Vincent Price, and it is repeatedly commented upon that Shelby is a male bimbo who skates by on his good looks and sex appeal. Price tries on a molasses accent and gives it all a good go, but the notion of his playing a gigolo just doesn't comport with his subsequent screen persona. Plus, he just plain looks weird without his signature pencil mustache.

McPherson takes an instant dislike to Shelby, of course, and places him in the crosshairs as the main suspect.

The fourth leg of the love party is Waldo Lydecker, a pompous and effete newspaper columnist played by Clifton Webb, who scored the film's only acting Oscar nomination. It's a little unclear what his column is about; attacking anyone who pisses him off, as near as I can figure. He's richer than Crassus, spends all his time having lunches and socializing, and also records literary lectures for the radio.

More celebrity than journalist, Waldo first meets Laura when she's a junior adwoman who approaches him at lunch to offer $5,000 to endorse their client's new line of pens. (That's almost 70 grand in today's dollars, folks.) He snootily refuses and goes out of his way to embarrass her in front of high society diners.

"I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom!" he sneers. (Sneering is pretty much Waldo's default setting.)

But then Waldo remembers that Laura is a hot young thing, so he seeks her out to apologize, takes the pen deal, introduces her to some important people and launches her career. They're frequent, ostensibly platonic friends, though it seems clear to everyone in the world but Laura that Waldo pines for her.

It goes without saying Waldo absolutely loathes Shelby, and does everything in his power to break up Laura's engagement to him. Later, he turns his ire upon the intrepid lawman when he starts to get moony-eyed staring at the large portrait of Laura that hangs over her mantelpiece. When you're the man who has everything, Waldo finally admits, being denied the one thing you most desire can push you over the edge.

(And if that's not enough of a spoiler on who the murderer is revealed to be, I don't know what could be.)

"Laura" is pretty well bookended by a small sphere of locations and characters. It has the feel of a theatrical adaptation, and indeed Caspary originally drafted it as a play. Other than those characters I've mentioned, there's really only Bessie, the neurotic maid played by Dorothy Adams, and Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell, Laura's wealthy socialite aunt.

Diane Redfern, the actual dead woman, doesn't even merit a credit in the film (and I haven't been able to find one for the actress who plays her on the usual movie sites). She was a model in Laura's firm who was carrying on an affair with Shelby; he brought her over to his fiancee's apartment while Laura was spending a quiet weekend away.

Ann has been writing checks to Shelby, and hungers to have him for himself. He's a weakling and a coward, she admits, but she wants him for what he is -- whereas her niece sees him as she wishes him to be. A physical affair is strongly implied.

Just so we're clear: that means Shelby has been carrying on with Laura, her aunt and the model. King cad, indeed.

The preproduction/shooting of "Laura" was a complete disaster. Preminger was original slated to just produce because of lingering enmity with a studio honcho. They actually began rolling cameras under another director, who got his wife to produce the famous fireplace painting. Preminger had him sacked and replaced with himself, and even got another painter to as the final insult.

How very Waldo of him!

Other than Webb, the performances don't really stand out from the material. Andrews is pretty flat, and not terribly believable as a streetwise gumshoe. Too handsome, too middle America. (Someone should have seriously considered swapping his role with Vincent Price's.)

Tierny's character is supposed to be very intelligent and personally driven, but we don't get a sense of that from the performance. Despite being a figure well ahead of her time -- a rich and savvy businesswoman who doesn't need a man to complete her -- Laura is rather mousy, reserved and reactive to the men around her.

She's the object, not the subject of the film.

"Laura" is a rather untidy movie, but it makes the most of its strengths and turns some of its weaknesses into assets. It's truly Waldo's story, the tale of a fussy, prissy man who places himself above everyone else, the self-appointed chessmaster who's continually vexed when the pieces won't move around as he directs.

Otto Preminger could probably relate.

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