Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in Laura.
Laura is a fine example of 1940's film noir. Released in 1944, directed by Otto Preminger, and featuring a very successful title song written by David Raksin and Johnny Mercer, Laura is a classic movie in every sense of the word.
The story involves the murder of a beautiful New York advertising executive and the men in her life who suddenly find themselves suspects. Gene Tierney was absolutely gorgeous. She perfectly embodies the character of Laura. The portrait of her that hangs in her apartment plays a big part in the movie. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) begins falling in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating.
Clifton Webb was Oscar nominated for his role as Waldo Lydecker. This character was based on the acerbic critic Alexander Woollcott (he was a popular “type" in those days, Monty Woolley played Sheridan Whiteside, another version of Woollcott in 1942's The Man Who Came to Dinner and All About Eve's Addison DeWitt was also said to have been based on him). He spouts lines like, "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." And, "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention."
Laura clocks in at under an-hour-and-a-half. The pacing is brilliant and the story features some surprising twists. Still the murderer is apparent long before the conclusion. The supporting cast includes a rather melodramatic Vincent Price and the wonderful stage actress Judith Anderson.
The men in the movie are all given fairly well-rounded personalities. It is only the enigmatic Laura that we are never allowed to really know. Whether this was just bad screenwriting or an intentional device used by the director, I don't know, but it works. Each man sees reflected in Laura what they desire her to be.
Now Clifton Webb was pretty well known to be gay, which in itself was pretty remarkable for the time period. It is very easy to read his character as gay. Does he really lust for Laura or does he want to live vicariously through her? He does seem smitten with Dana Andrews. And what's up with his bath scene at the beginning of the movie? Anyway, it gives the movie an interesting subtext that might not have existed if another actor had played the role.
Laura is another “must see" for any movie buff.
Gene Tierney posing for Laura
Waldo was obviously a gay character. When Andrews asks Webb if he was in love with Laura, Webb responds vaguely that she made him want to be a better person. The bath tub scene is an obvious hint of his sexuality. He invites Andrews into his bathroom instead of getting dressed first. Note that he asks Andrews to hand him a wash cloth that he never even uses. Andrews throws the cloth into the tub from a distance. Both men were sending the other a message. If that were not enough, look at how cold and rude Waldo was when, in a flashback, he met Laura. A straight man would have been much more forgiving of such a gorgeous woman interrupting a lunch he was having alone.
You want more evidence? Look at the scene cut from the original version but restored in 1990. After Laura and Webb become friends, he tells her how to wear her hair and picks out her clothes to make her look more fashionable. Webb narrates during a makeover montage, “Laura had innate breeding, but she deferred to my judgment and taste. I selected a more attractive hairdress for her. I taught her what clothes were more becoming to her.” If that is not a gay stereotype, I do not know what is.
Laura begins with Webb narrating, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died…” We then meet Dana Andrews playing Mark, a detective who questions those who knew Laura and through flashbacks we get to meet her. He begins to piece together what happened to the lovely young Laura and, as Patrick wrote, begins to fall in love with the image presented to him of a woman he has never met.
Mark is a typical tough 1940s detective. “I suspect nobody and everybody. I am strictly trying to get at the truth.” Like all of those Humphrey Bogart characters, Mark is an apparent loner with an empty heart waiting to be filled by a woman’s love. The film's best scene is when he sits alone in Laura’s apartment having a drink, while he stares up at her painting. Dana Andrews had a 45 year acting career but it was only between 1944-1946 that his star shown so bright.
Gene Tierney’s career practically mimicked Andrews. It lasted almost as long and the height of her career was nearly as short. The role of Laura reminded me of Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1947). Both films are based around a strong female lead using her charm to get her way. Both roles were played by breathtakingly beautiful actresses who make mush out of men. Gene Tierney had a face like no other. Those lips, eyes and cheek bones look as if they were kissed by God himself. With the exception of Hayworth, no other actress form the 1940s ever looked so good.
Patrick, I do not think Laura remaining mostly an enigma was a result of poor writing but, as you wrote, a reflection of how each man saw her. I think Waldo was living through her, as you suggested. Shelby was just after a good time. Only Mark truly felt a genuine attraction for her.
Laura is a classic and for good reason. With such innovative writing, a great cast and, as Patrick noted, a lean running time, this is one of the best films of its time.
Photos © Copyright Twentieth Century Fox (1944)