It's not hard to imagine that Otto Preminger's 1944 film Laura might be the only film noir many people remember seeing. It is, after all, cited as one of the earliest films in the genre – one of its biggest hits, referred to constantly in histories of noir cinema. Years ago, when 20th Century Fox began reissuing a DVD series of noir classics from its archives, Laura was the debut title. And yet, except for a few trivial commonalities, it's barely a film noir at all.
Its source, a bestselling novel by Vera Caspary, was a very literary crime story set in New York society, among people who have drawing rooms and servants and country homes. The closest thing to hardboiled is the ostensible protagonist, Mark McPherson, a NYPD detective assigned to investigate the murder of Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive, just days before her wedding. The Laura of the title is an independent woman but hardly a femme fatale who lures Mark or anyone else to their doom – very unlike Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Gloria Grahame in nearly anything.
Released during World War Two, it doesn't even have access to the morally murky, post-traumatic world after the war, when the losers and cast-offs who populate noir films were more obviously desperate in the context of general economic prosperity that increased year after year. The detective is the man out of his element, at odds with the well-dressed people he's investigating, looking for the killer.
What Laura does have, however, is a curdled air of perversity that makes itself felt in just a few scenes, starting with the one where Mark (Dana Andrews) pays a visit on one of the prime suspects, an effete and immensely successful columnist and radio personality named Waldo Lydecker, Laura's sometime suitor, patron and elegist.
A smirk plays across Andrews' face as he kills time inspecting the antiques, bric a brac and curiosities that fill Lydecker's apartment – the sort of fussy, over decorated place that used to get called "piss-elegant."
"It's lavish but I call it home," Lydecker tells him archly while working at his typewriter, Marat-like, in a huge marble bathtub.
Lydecker is played by Clifton Webb as a very upmarket version of the powerful syndicated columnist Walter Winchell, who would also be the model for Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, over a decade later. As described by Caspary in her book, Lydecker was a large, fleshy man, more like Monty Woolley's Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942), a character based on Alexander Woollcott, another celebrity columnist. Woolley was, in fact, once set to play Waldo, but Preminger insisted on casting Webb, an actor who had spent most of his career on Broadway after a brief career in silent films.
Slight and epicene, Webb is very much the opposite of Andrew's gruff, masculine McPherson - a fussy dandy and a snob who nevertheless attaches himself to the detective as he goes about his first day on the case, paying a visit on Laura's fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and her aunt Ann (Judith Anderson), who does a very poor job hiding her affections for Carpenter. The two men wind up having dinner at a little Italian place.
"This was our table," Waldo tells Mark. "Laura's and mine."
More than one reviewer has pointed out that this feels like a date – the end of a day of courtship that began with Waldo asking Mark to toss him his robe as he stepped out of the bath. To modern eyes it's hard to miss, but I don't want to underestimate contemporary audiences who might have picked up on the situation, albeit with less of a sense of self-congratulation.
For the first third of the film we only see Laura in flashback, and mostly in Waldo's recollections of her as a gauche but ambitious young woman who forces herself on him at lunch in the Algonquin Hotel, hoping to get him to endorse a fountain pen. ("I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill, dipped in venom," he tells her, dismissively.) Stung by her parting remark, he relents, endorses the pen, and becomes her Svengali, teaching her how to dress and eat while her talent – along with his celebrity and his connections, it's implied – sees her rise to the top of her field.
Mark discovers early on that nobody is telling him the whole truth, and that no matter how hard he tries the solution to Laura's murder isn't coming into focus. The detective begins spending more time in Laura's apartment – you have to wonder about the integrity of the crime scene the way everyone makes themselves at home there – while contemplating a ravishing oil portrait of Laura on the wall above the fireplace.
His interest in Laura becomes acute, and Waldo is the first to point out that his fascination with the dead woman looks more than a little obsessive, and likely to land him in a nuthouse.
"I don't think they ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse," he tells him.
When trying to describe just what makes Laura such a perverse story, most people go for the easy explanation – Mark's morbid infatuation with a dead woman, or at least her portrait. "Morbid infatuation" is the closest to a suitable description for it, since necrophilia is really a bit too strong, and not entirely accurate. It would be years, in any case, before we'd start making mainstream films about necrophilia – a small genre in which I can say, with mixed pride, that Canada was a pioneer.
Mark spends a night in Laura's apartment, helping himself to her whiskey and nodding off in an armchair in front of her portrait, only to wake up when Laura, very much alive, arrives home after a long weekend in the country – no longer the victim, but very much a suspect.
Laura is played by Gene Tierney, one of a small group of movie stars – Merle Oberon and Hedy Lamarr also come to mind – who had enigmatic, even exotic personas that made them stand out from the bombshells, glamour girls and ingénues on the studio payrolls. Tierney was a onetime debutante whose family would only agree to let her indulge her passion for acting if she pursued it on the legitimate stage; she was an almost immediate success on Broadway, and by the end of her first year onstage she was signed to a six-month contract with Columbia Pictures.
She returned to Broadway when her Columbia stint ended without a single film role, but her part in The Male Animal got Tierney signed by Darryl F. Zanuck to Fox, making her debut there alongside Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James. Tierney was appalled by seeing herself onscreen, and by her voice in particular; she took up smoking to deepen it, a decision that she'd live to regret.
No one will deny that Tierney's life was interesting, even if the actress probably wished it had been a bit more commonplace. Small roles quickly became big roles, and she met her first husband – Oleg Cassini, later a renowned fashion designer – when he was working in the costume department at Fox. Her family – her controlling father in particular – disapproved and she broke up with Cassini, but when she returned home for a visit she discovered that her father – who managed her earnings in a trust – was having an affair with a friend of her mother.
Rushing back to Hollywood she reconciled with Cassini and dissolved the trust, only to find that papa had embezzled the money. She married Cassini and became pregnant; working at the Hollywood Canteen one night she caught measles from an overeager fan, a female Marine who had broken quarantine to meet her idol. Her first daughter, Daria, was born with severe developmental handicaps, and would spend most her life institutionalized. This was the state of Tierney's life when she reluctantly agreed to be cast as Laura after Jennifer Jones, on loan from David O. Selznick Productions, started a lawsuit when she didn't show up for work on the picture.
I find it hard to imagine Laura with Jones in the title role. After watching the film many times I can't see anyone but Tierney in the part, even if there were a few actresses (Oberon, or perhaps Jeanne Crain) who would have created an interesting alternative. When she finally makes her entrance over a third of the way into the film, she has to compete with the idealized picture Waldo has described, and the fantasy of Mark's infatuation.
Tierney's unique quality was an unreadability that would be a handicap for any other actress. It would be showcased vividly a year later in Leave Her To Heaven, where Tierney plays Ellen, a jealous murderess in a shockingly dark film that was, as my friend Kathy Shaidle marvelled when she described it for her column here, the biggest box office hit at Fox for a decade.
Ellen is a woman who will do anything – really, anything – to command the attention of her new husband, so beautiful that nobody can see the darkness she's hiding. As Kathy described Tierney's Ellen, with "her aversion to motherhood, her single-mindedness and her ruthless need to win, she 'reads' as stereotypically masculine, a man trapped in a woman's body, or Robert 'Baby, I don't care' Mitchum in drag."
Tierney's Laura does little to help Mark solve what turns out to have been the murder of a model that Laura had hired and Shelby had an affair with – a young woman named Diane Redfern who we never see, and who had her face removed with a shotgun, standing in the door of Laura's apartment, wearing her negligee and mules. The only thing we ever really know about Laura is that she obviously didn't have a problem with boundaries.
Actually, that's not true – we also learn over the rest of the film that Laura had terrible taste in friends. Waldo's interest in Laura is as fervent and possessive as it's non-sexual; some viewers might find it hard to account for his hostility to Laura's various suitors except as fury at losing the best, most high status beard a closeted gay man could want.
When he discovers that Laura has begun to reciprocate Mark's feelings, he spits out "I hope you'll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly earthy relationship." Most of Webb's lines in the film drip with camp, but this outburst evokes a veritable campground.
Price's Shelby is an oily southern ne'er-do-well, a philandering sponger whose interest in Laura looks far more pecuniary than passionate – flaws that Waldo endlessly points out, Laura bafflingly ignores, and her aunt Ann is more than willing to forgive. "I'm not a nice person and neither is he," she tells Laura in the powder room at a party. Whoever killed Diane Redfern – who was with Shelby in Laura's apartment when she died – they were clearly gunning for Laura.
"No, dear, I didn't," Ann calmly tells her niece. "But I thought of it."
Anderson and Webb were gay – or as openly gay as it was possible to be in Hollywood at the time. Zanuck initially resisted Preminger in casting Webb as Waldo, arguing that nobody would buy his interest in Laura. (Nobody really did, but that never hurt the film, apparently.) Price himself was bisexual, which presents us with a trio of characters surrounding Laura played by actors pretending to be attracted to each other while fooling no one. Even if you had no access to Hollywood gossip, there's a queerness to the whole dynamic – I'll let you decide if the pun is intended – that makes the film play out in the oddest way. Nobody's motivation is readable, which is probably the most noir thing about the whole movie.
Or, as Andrews' Mark puts it to Laura, perhaps speaking for audience members who couldn't quite put their finger on what was so strange about the film – "for a charming, intelligent girl, you've certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes."
Laura might be the gayest film ever made by a Hollywood studio during the golden era – provided Charles Vidor and Columbia never made Gilda.
Daryl F. Zanuck unsurprisingly interfered in the production of the film from start to finish. He even made Preminger shoot a new ending that had turned the story into Lydecker's imagining, but when no less than Walter Winchell himself saw a screening and complained that it made no sense, he let the director restore the original ending. It was a hit, made Tierney an even bigger star, and gave Webb a third act to his career after he got an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
Laura's biggest winner, however, was composer David Raksin, who wrote the yearning title theme in a weekend after Preminger wanted to use Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady". The song plays over the title credits, out of record players and radios, and by a trio in the restaurant where Mark and Waldo have dinner. When Johnny Mercer added lyrics to "Laura", Raksin's song became a bona fide hit – a standard covered by hundreds of singers and jazz musicians from Errol Garner. Charlie Parker, Bill Evans and Spike Jones to Nat King Cole, Julie London, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. (My personal favorite is Billy Eckstine's version, from 1952.)
Laura launched Otto Preminger's career in earnest. He'd make a few more noirs (Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face) before directing big, self-consciously important films like Carmen Jones, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise & Consent, The Cardinal and In Harm's Way, then falling victim to the cultural slipstream of the '60s with Skidoo and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. He was never a minor filmmaker, but he was never painted with the auteur's brush either, and his claim to fame today is likely his two episodes playing Mr. Freeze on the '60s Batman series.
Gene Tierney's life, sadly, continued to be interesting. After fighting off the advances of Howard Hughes (he'd become a lifelong friend, helping support Tierney's daughter), she had an affair with a young navy veteran visiting Hollywood named John F. Kennedy during a separation from Cassini. After their divorce she had an affair with Prince Aly Khan, but refused to marry him when he insisted she'd have to leave her family behind.
Tierney had some great parts in the decade after Laura, from Leave Her to Heaven to The Razor's Edge to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where she'd play a woman in love with a dead man. She'd work with Preminger again on Whirlpool and Where the Sidewalk Ends. While filming The Left Hand of God with Humphrey Bogart her recurring depression began to overcome her, and she left the film industry for seven years, meeting Texas oil baron W. Howard Lee (then married to Hedy Lamarr) in 1958 and marrying him in 1960.
In the same year, her ex-husband Oleg Cassini was appointed designer for First Lady Jackie Kennedy, wife of her former flame.
She returned to acting with Preminger in Advise & Consent, but made only three more films before realizing that her role as the wife of an unfaithful man in Jean Negulesco's 1964 melodrama The Pleasure Seekers meant her days as a leading lady were over. She retired to homes in Texas and Florida and published her autobiography, Self-Portrait, in 1979; she was a widow by 1981 and died a decade later of emphysema, caused by a lifetime of the cigarettes she'd started smoking to lower her voice.
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