A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

Laura is a clever spin on Pygmalion, with a Henry Higgins called Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) whose protégée is an Eliza Doolittle called Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). It's also a spin on the classical myth of Pygmalion, who fell in love with the statue of Galatea he had sculpted, bringing her to life. This Pygmalion is a detective, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who falls in love with the portrait of Laura, who he thinks has been murdered, and is startled when she walks through the door, very much alive. Maybe this classical underpinning explains why Laura has become such an enduring classic, but probably it really has to do with a story so well-scripted, by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt from a novel by Vera Caspary, well-acted by Webb, Tierney, and Andrews, along with Vincent Price as the decadent Shelby Carpenter and Judith Anderson as the predatory Ann Treadwell, and most of all, directed with the right attention to its slyly nasty tone by Otto Preminger, one of the most underrated of Hollywood directors of the 1940s and '50s. Like such acerbic films as The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Laura is full of characters one would be well advised to steer clear of in real life, but who make for tremendous entertainment when viewed on a screen from a safe distance. It makes a feint at a conventional happily romantic ending, with Laura supposedly going off with McPherson, but do we really believe it? Laura Hunt has shown dubious taste in men -- whom McPherson characterizes as "a remarkable collection of dopes"-- including the desiccated fop Waldo and the smarmy kept man Shelby. So it's hard to believe the social butterfly Lydecker has created is going to settle down happily with a man who, as Waldo says once, fell in love with her when she was a corpse and apparently has never had a relationship with a woman other than the "doll in Washington Heights who once got a fox fur outta" him. Laura is notable, too, for its deft evasions of the Production Code, including Laura's hinted-at out-of-wedlock liaisons, which are at the same time undercut by the suggestions that Waldo and Shelby are gay -- another Code taboo. (Shelby, for example, has an exceptional interest in women's hats, including one of Laura's and the one of Ann's that he calls "completely wonderful.") This shouldn't surprise us, as Preminger went on to be one of the most aggressive Code-breakers, challenging its sexual taboos in The Moon Is Blue (1953) and its strictures on the depiction of drug use in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and giving the enforcers fits with Anatomy of a Murder (1959). In addition to the contributions to Laura's classic status already mentioned, there is also the familiar score by David Raksin. (Johnny Mercer added lyrics to its main theme after the film was released, creating the song  "Laura.") And Joseph LaShelle won a Oscar for the film's cinematography.

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