1944 / Best Director

Film #602: Laura (1944)

It’s interesting taking certain snapshots of films from various periods of directors’ career and noticing the differences between the two movies. Whilst our last movie, Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, saw the director deal with big ticket themes, his other film in this leg of the blog couldn’t be more different. Whilst I found to be The Cardinal to be bright but extremely overlong and lacking in a charismatic lead turn; Laura was dark, brooding, snappy and contained a talented ensemble of performers who bounced off each other perfectly. It’s odd then to think that the film version of Laura could have been very different seeing as the feud between Preminger and 20th Century Fox boss Daryl F Zanuck threatened to ruin the film.

Laura began life as a stage play by Vera Casparay where it caught the eye of Preminger who wanted to rewrite it significantly in order for it to work on the big screen. However she rejected his changes and instead adapted her play into a book to which Fox eventually bought the rights with the interim head of Fox studios installing Preminger to adapt the book and direct the film. However, upon returning from military duty, Zanuck fired Preminger as director and retained him as a producer before he was ultimately rehired after problems on set with new director Rouben Mamoulian. The story of the film centres around the heroine of the title; an advertising executive who has been murdered just before the events of the movie occur. For the first half of the film we follow Mark McPherson; a detective who is tasked with solving the murder and interviews those who knew Laura best. Amongst those are her would-be fiancee Shelby Carpenter, her loyal maid Bessie and her socialite aunt Ann Treadwell. However the most intriguing of Laura’s acquaintances is Waldo Lydecker; a slightly twee newspaper columnist who took Laura under his wing and introduced her into certain circles of society. With Laura’s almost haunting portrait looming large over the film, McPherson starts to become more obsessed with Laura and at one night is disturbed at his home by the woman herself. Although I initially thought this was a dream sequence, brought on by the detective’s increased obsession with the murder victim, it was in fact revealed that Laura was alive and the murder victim was in fact Shelby’s lover Diane Redfern. The final act of the film then sees Laura and McPherson working together to reveal who killed Diane and in true film noir style they hold her party at her apartment where they point numerous fingers at the main characters before the ultimate denouement.

I feel that Laura’s simplicity lies in the fact that it has a minimal amount of characters and an easy to understand murder investigation at its heart. The high society setting was one of the first elements of the story that attracted Preminger to Laura and indeed he makes full use of it during the film. All the primary characters are splendidly dressed throughout the film with Laura’s apartment being beautifully furnished with items such as an antique clock which becomes a vital prop in the film’s final reveal. The film’s production design received a nomination and I feel it probably deserved to win due to the fact that Laura looked fantastic. One of the initial stumbling blocks between Preminger and Casparay was enhancing the importance of Lydecker; who ultimately is revealed to be the murderer. I do feel that having a charismatic character at the centre of the film helps add to the intrigue as does lessening the appearances of the title character during the first half of the film. I can’t imagine anyone but Clifton Webb playing Lydecker; as he breathes life into the columnist making every body movement and facial expression count to let the audience get to know the character. However, Webb’s effeminate nature counted against him and initially the producers wanted to cast an actor who the audience would’ve figured out to be the killer straight away. But, by putting the over-the-top but unthreatening Webb in the role of Lydecker allowed the audience to point blame in the direction of the more obvious perpetrator in Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter. Thankfully Preminger returned to the film to salvage it and turned into the tight, thrilling ride that it finally became.

Of the cast, it was only Webb who was nominated for an Oscar which is a shame as I felt both Price and Dana Andrews were good in their roles as Carpenter and McPherson respectively. Meanwhile Gene Tierney anchored the film as the charismatic lead character who inspired different emotions in every man she came into contact with. Laura did end up with a number of nominations at the 1944 ceremony including director, screenplay, production design whilst also winning in the cinematography category thanks to Joesph LaShelle’s intense photography on the movie. One element that I enjoyed about Laura that the academy didn’t recognise was David Raksin’s gripping score which grabbed me straight away and perfectly enhanced the drama throughout. I feel the main reason Laura didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination was because there were two other films in that category which were quite similar namely Gaslight and Double Indemnity. Although I love Double Indemnity I felt that Laura was a superior film to Gaslight and that it definitely deserved inclusion in Oscar’s top category however I will reserve my ultimate judgement until I watch the other Best Director movie from 1944.

Next up though we return to the 1960s for another movie I have absolutely no idea about at all.

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