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LAURA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson
Director: Otto Preminger
Audio: English monaural 1.0 or stereo 2.0, Spanish 1.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Two commentary tracks, deleted scene, trailer, Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait, Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain
Length: 87 minutes
Release Date: March 15, 2005

"I shall never forget the weekend Laura died."

Film ****

Hollywood movie star Gene Tierney was a rare beauty, born into a prosperous family and refined in the finishing schools of Switzerland.  As a young debutante, Tierney gravitated towards a career in acting, making her Broadway premiere at the tender age of 19.  A supporting role in the comedy "The Male Animal" earned her sensational praise as a promising starlet that "blazes with animation."  This allure did not go unnoticed by the appreciative eye of movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who after attending one performance of "The Male Animal" quickly signed Tierney to a film contract.

In her earliest film appearances, Tierney was cast in supporting roles which capitalized upon her exotic beauty and almost feline seductiveness.  She was not destined to remain in the shadows of less charismatic actors for long, though, and a starring role as the title character in Otto Preminger's highly-regarded Laura (1944) unveiled the full-blossoming of Gene Tierney as a major movie star.  In the luminous, if brief, career that ensued, Tierney would cement her legacy as one of Hollywood's most glamorous actresses, appearing in a number of classic films during her career, such as Heaven Can Wait, Leave Her to Heaven, The Razor's Edge, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  However, she will always be most fondly-remembered as the epitome of mysterious, unattainable glamour in Laura.

Today, Laura is considered one of the classics of the Hollywood studio era.  Yet, it is also an unusual film, and its production history is at the very least as fascinating as the film itself.  Laura's original director was Rouben Mamoulian, the innovative stage director behind some of the 1930's most influential films, including the first three-color Technicolor film, Becky Sharp (1935).  Mamoulian purportedly photographed three-quarters of Laura and prepared the remaining scenes.  However, the production was taken out of his hands and given instead to Otto Preminger to complete.

Preminger was originally to have been Laura's director, but a falling-out with Fox mogul Zanuck led to Preminger's demotion, as it were, to producer status.  Nevertheless, Zanuck displayed a fickle nature after expressing some disappointment with Mamoulian's early film rushes, and with some reluctance, Zanuck re-instated Preminger as the director.  To this day, Preminger remains the "official" director of Laura.

Controversy aside, Preminger was a solid director in his own right.  His films regularly featured fluid camerawork, long takes, and superb screen composition.  Preminger had a knack for assembling excellent casts for his films and preferred an objective style of filmmaking that provided choices to discerning, intelligent audience instead of merely leading viewers along a pre-arranged line of thought.  Aside from Laura, some of Preminger's other films include Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Anatomy of a Murder, and River of No Return.  However, Laura provided Preminger not only with his first major success but also earned him his first Academy nomination for Best Direction.

Mamoulian would probably have been just as effective a director for Laura, but no doubt his staunch independence, which often led to regular clashes within the studio hierarchy, played a role in his dismissal.  While Mamoulian, for years afterwards, would hotly contest Preminger's claim that he had re-shot the entire film following Mamoulian's departure, the truth about Laura's true pedigree may never truly be known.  It has since become obscured through the shroud of time, this mystique only further enhancing the aura of romantic intrigue surrounding the film.

Laura can be described as a prime example of the film noir style.  This genre of film was influenced by the influx of German directors into America, bringing with them the expressive style of the German cinema.  The blend of this German expressionism with the Hollywood gangster picture of the 1930's would eventually give rise to the style known as film noir, with its flashbacks, rainy sequences, and night scenes emphasizing deep shadows and stylized contrasts of light and dark.  These films were characterized by their dark, pessimistic atmospheres and frequently cynical or fatalistic tone.  They usually involved the tangled machinations of the criminal underworld and were populated by flawed and disillusioned heroes as well as meretricious or dangerous femme fatales.

In this context, Laura's perverse themes and somewhat decadent nature - mixing sexuality, wit, and cruelty within a film noir setting - lend great energy and vitality to the story.  However, Laura is not just a film noir.  It might be better classified as a psychological melodrama which derives its tension from the romantic obsessions and clashes between fatally flawed characters.

As the film opens, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a beautiful advertising girl, has just been found murdered in her luxurious Park Avenue apartment.  Killed by a shotgun blast to the face, presumably in a crime of passion, Laura is identified through her clothing, and an investigation is soon launched to locate the missing murder weapon as well as the murderer.

Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to the case and begins to interrogate Laura's former colleagues.  McPherson receives much helpful advice from one Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the sententious newspaper columnist who once sponsored Laura's ascension to power.  Lydecker is aware that Laura had been engaged to Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a shiftless if handsome gold digger, but had decided to break off the engagement.  For this reason, Lydecker firmly expresses his firm belief that Shelby, the lover spurned, has somehow perpetrated Laura's murder in a fit of subsequent rage.  Carpenter is thus portrayed as a duplicitous lover with a shady past, a character unworthy of Laura's esteem, at least in Lydecker's estimate.  The columnist faults Laura for being somehow weak-minded, tending towards the lean, strong body as the measure of a man as opposed to preferring a more worthwhile specimen of human intellect, such as Lydecker himself..

And then, there is Laura's aunt, Anne (Judith Anderson), too.  Another victim of Carpenter's charms, Anne recognizes his shortcomings and character flaws, but she still cannot resist him: "He's no good, but he's what I want.  We belong together because we're both weak and can't seem to help it."  Perhaps it is her wealth that particularly attracts Carpenter to Anne as well, although at one point, Anne admits that her infatuation with Carpenter would not exclude murder, if that were to be a prerequisite for winning his undivided affections.

We are introduced to Laura through flashbacks, mostly from Lydecker's point-of-view.  The columnist describes her in a vibrant and nostalgic light, recalling how a young and doe-eyed Laura at first acquired his endorsement for her company's product and then later his companionship.  Lydecker's remarks are at times apologetic and wistfully reminiscent, for he was clearly devoted to Laura to the end and perhaps even a bit protective of her.

As the investigation proceeds, McPherson too gradually becomes emotionally attached with the spectre of Laura.  Her haunting vestiges, glimmered from his conversations with Lydecker, Carpenter, and Laura's aunt, begin to occupy his waking thoughts.  A full-sized portrait of Laura in her own apartment captures his admiration, and McPherson spends a superfluous amount of time in Laura's apartment, rummaging slowly through her possessions and clothing, searching absent-mindedly for clues.

The film's three central male characters are thus flawed.  Waldo Lydecker suffers from insufferable hubris and even justly admits, "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified.  I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention."  Shelby Carpenter, on the other hand, is exposed as a pathological liar.  Caught red-handed repeatedly throughout the film, he simply shrugs his flaws aside in a glib manner: "I'm a natural-born suspect just because I'm not the conventional type."  Carpenter may be weak and hardly ingenuous, but he is adept at emotional manipulation, regularly endearing the sympathy of women to him.  Detective McPherson is a streetwise tough guy with an earthen quality and for whom any woman is just a "doll" or a "dame" and for whom conflicts of interest are as easily solved by a fist to the stomach as by the word of the law.  Yet, McPherson's hardened outwardly demeanor begins to slowly erode away the more time he spends among Laura's possessions, reading her love letters or smelling her perfume bottles.  McPherson's obsession with Laura ultimately surpasses the bounds of his investigation and begins to border upon necrophilia.

Even Laura herself may not be the angelic, pure beauty as portrayed by Lydecker or seen in his remembrances.  Since much of what we initially learn about Laura comes from Lydecker, there is the distinct possibility that his memories are seen through a rosy haze or that perhaps they obscure deeper truths.  Nevertheless, Laura Hunter remains one of the film noir genre's quintessential femme fatales.  Although not particularly manipulative or deceitful, Laura still extends considerable influence "from the grave," affecting the lives of the spellbound men who formerly knew her well and even an obsessed detective who did not.

While Gene Tierney was undoubtedly the star attraction for Laura, she had a marvelous supporting cast as well.  Clifton Webb was a Broadway song-and-dance man, once contracted to become MGM's answer to RKO's musical star Fred Astaire.  That plan came to naught, and his against-type casting as the acerbic Waldo Lydecker would actually be his first sound movie role, one for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar, too.  Vincent Price, then a period drama actor, offers one of his finer non-horror performances as the weak yet infuriatingly elusive Carpenter.  Dana Andrews may be best-remembered today as the lovelorn cop McPherson, although he was quite solid in The Ox-Bow Incident and The Best Years of Our Lives.  Dame Judith Anderson was a supremely-gifted stage actress whose intermittent film roles usually encompassed unsympathetic, sometimes sinister characters.  She was immortalized as the sinister housekeeper in Hitchcock's Rebecca and brings a comparatively classy and refined touch to her performance in Laura.

Supported by such a fine cast, all the remaining ingredients coalesce in Laura into that indescribable, nebulous entity that is the essence of true movie magic.  With a crisp and sparkling Oscar-nominated screenplay, a lush and memorable score, and evocative cinematography, not to mention Preminger's great direction, Laura has stood the test of time as one of Hollywood's finest examples of romantic film noir.  The film not only catapulted Gene Tierney to the heights of her career, but it also signaled the emergence of Otto Preminger and composer David Raksin as major talents within the film community.

Ultimately, the identity of Laura's killer is almost irrelevant.  Laura herself is the very embodiment of the perfect woman, the unattainable ideal that only truly exists in dreams or memories.  So, even death cannot diminish her immortal beauty.  The film's haunting theme of unrequited, obsessive love even beyond the grave is perhaps only matched by Hitchcock's Vertigo.  And just like that masterpiece, Laura is a film for the ages.

BONUS TRIVIA:  David Selznick protegee Jennifer Jones was originally to have played Laura Hunter.  Conversely, George Sanders, who was considered for the role of Lydecker, would later portray the columnist Lydecker in a 1950's television production.

Video **1/2

Laura is presented in its original black & white, full-frame format.  The film looks fairly decent, its Oscar-winning cinematography sparkling in the best fashion of silver screen magic and its Oscar-nominated art direction vividly capturing with the shadows and nuances of film noir.  Contrast levels are fine, with moderately sharp details.  The picture is generally clear of dust or scratch marks, although the frame jiggles from time to time.  The video transfer rate averages about 5 Mbps but jumps much higher (to 7-9 Mbps) for certain scenes.

Audio **1/2

The audio track for Laura is presented in its original English 1.0 with an alternate stereo track available.  Spanish speakers may opt for the Spanish monaural track, too.  The soundtracks, in general, offer little in the way of audio pyrotechnics but are nevertheless quite serviceable for the film.  They have also been cleaned of most pops or hisses, although occasional background noise can be heard from time to time.

Renowned composer Alfred Newman was originally given the opportunity to write the film's score.  Instead, he suggested David Raksin, whose lush, passionate score has since become legendary.  The haunting Laura theme, in particular, epitomizes the film's aura of yearning, unrequited love.  Interestingly, Preminger and Zanuck had initially considered well-established tunes for the theme, including Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," George Gershwin's "Summertime," and Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."  History has since proven that Raksin's theme, written over the course of one poignant weekend after his own wife had left him, was truly the inspired and correct choice.

Features ****

"Good-bye, Laura.  Good-bye, my love."

Laura was originally to have been a part of Fox's on-going "Studio Classics" series but was set aside instead as the first special edition installment in the new "Fox Film Noir" series.  Furthermore, this is an extended version of the film containing a previously deleted scene.  This very short sequence, involving Laura and Lydecker, can be viewed either within the context of the film or separately through the "Special Features" menu.  Film historian Rudy Behlmer provides an optional commentary briefly explaining why the scene was originally deleted.  Brief glimpses of the deleted scene can also be seen in the vintage theatrical trailer that is included on this disc.  Fortunately, Laura can still be watched without this scene at all for fans who prefer to experience the film as originally released.

To learn more about the history of the film itself, check out either of two commentary tracks included on this disc.  The first track contains comments by David Raksin, composer of the film's legendary score, and Jeanine Basinger, a film professor at Wesleyan University.  Basinger provides the bulk of the commentary and describes the careers and star quality of the film's main actors, composer, and director Otto Preminger.  She also briefly alludes to Rouben Mamoulian's relationship to the film and mentions rumors of alternate endings for the film; one such ending suggested that the film was partially a dream, while another revealed how the killer was caught in a different fashion.  One interesting bit of trivia revealed by Basinger is the whereabouts of the film's famous "portrait," actually a photograph!  As for Raksin's infrequent comments, they are generally reserved for the music and its context within the film.

The second commentary track offers thoughts and interpretations from Rudy Behlmer.  A scripted but thoroughly absorbing scholarly dissertation, this commentary traces the evolution of Laura from the stage play, the novel, and various radio and film adaptations.  Behlmer provides many quotations and plenty of production trivia tidbits.  Fans of the film will particularly enjoy this excellent commentary, especially those sections describing Preminger's involvement with the film's production and the contested situation under which he eventually replaced Rouben Mamoulian as director.

Two A&E Biography episodes are included with this release.  The first episode, Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait (44 min.), looks at the poignant life and Hollywood career of the classic film actress.  Shown are home movies of the actress in her youth, childhood photographs, and numerous clips from her movie roles.  Tierney's tremendous success on the silver screen is contrasted by personal difficulties and a late-life struggle with mental illness.  Also, Tierney's most intimate tragedy, the consequences of a German measles illness upon her newborn child, is examined in this Biography special.  On a lighter note, some viewers may be surprised to learn that Tierney was once in a relationship with the young John F. Kennedy Jr. (and could have conceivably become a future First Lady!).

The second Biography episode, Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain (44 min.), pays homage to the career of the quintessential horror film icon.  Some viewers may be surprised to learn that Price had a solid career as a romantic and dramatic leading man prior to the 1960's AIP horror films that made him the Master of the Macabre.  Furthermore, Price was,  for a time, even a member of Orson Welles's legendary Mercury Theater Company.  Price's film career encompassed over one hundred films, although he was especially proud of his other interests - he was an avid art collector, an accomplished stage actor, and author of several books and hundreds of articles.  As this Biography episode notes, Vincent Price was very much a modern-day Renaissance Man.

Overall, these Biography episodes provide nostalgic summaries of the careers of Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.  While avid fans may not find an extreme wealth of new information here, for the casual viewer unfamiliar with these two actors, these Biography episodes are certainly very engrossing and absolutely worth watching.

Summary:

Laura was the breakthrough film for 1940's screen siren Gene Tierney and also for director Otto Preminger.  A romantic mystery classic of the silver screen, Laura captures the nuances of the film noir genre within a mildly psychological context.  This is truly a superb film, and Laura receives my top recommendations!

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