Aug. 24, 2010
Laura (1944)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Gene Tierney

What it's about. A heralded film noir murder mystery set in New York City. Young hottie and successful businesswoman Gene Tierney is the victim, and police detective Dana Andrews has three major suspects: pompous radio broadcaster and newspaper columnist Clifton Webb, suave ladies' man and sometime con artist Vincent Price, and wealthy, aging, and sour-faced Judith Anderson.

Webb was in love with Tierney, Anderson is in love with Price, and Price was attempting to marry Tierney for her money and position. Andrews ignores Anderson, appears bemused by the conceited and mendacious Webb, and suspects Price, whose character he clearly disapproves of. Price and (especially) Webb underestimate Andrews, who is more perceptive than he appears. A major plot twist occurs midway, and of course there are further twists near the film's resolution.

How others will see it. Laura was a box office success, and was admired by contemporary critics. It was nominated for five Oscars, winning for its black and white cinematography. Webb's preening performance was nominated, as were the screenwriters and director. Its influence is confirmed by its eventual addition to the National Film Registry.

Interestingly, the score received no nominations, even though the Laura theme was heralded and several versions of it (including one by Frank Sinatra) became hits. Preminger had initially wanted the Duke Ellington Orchestra to record music for the film, but that would have to wait until 1959 and Anatomy of a Murder. Ellington's own version of the Laura theme is on their 1956 Bethelem LP, Duke Ellington Presents.

The user ratings are extremely high except from viewers under 18, who likely find Andrews boring and wonder why Price (if they are familiar with him at all) doesn't break into his trademarked insane laughter. Women over 45 give the film a remarkable 8.8 out of 10, presumably pleased at the happy ending. Everybody gets what they really want: Andrews gets beautiful Tierney, Anderson gets Price back, Price gets Anderson's money, Tierney gets the flesh and blood man she secretly pines for (it's a movie), and Webb gets a dramatic sendoff that will keep him a household name forever.

How I felt about it. It is not an original observation to note that Laura's two suitors appear to be homosexuals. Although Laura was ravishing, neither have a sexual interest in her. Webb looks forward to an endless series of Tuesday and Thursday night private dinners and poetry readings, while Price wants the ideal hostess and escort to the social engagements he cherishes.

Only Andrews loves Tierney as a woman, and thus we are supposed to be on his side, that of the handsome hero with a baritone voice and an indifference to genteel society. He represents "real men" everywhere, unlike Webb and Price, both of whom are fops.

Yet I suspect than many viewers sympathize with Clifton Webb. He is the only character, aside from the possibly disturbed maid, Dorothy Adams, that demonstrates an emotional attachment to Laura. We also feel sorry for him because what he wants, Laura, is ultimately unattainable. She is decades younger than him, and inevitably wants more from a man than a well-delivered bon mot, which is all that Webb can provide once his connections have been played.

So, Webb is actually pathetic, something that Andrews sees immediately. His celebrity and arrogance are a guise to conceal his status as a lovesick fool. But the ending doesn't satisfy. Webb isn't the kind of man to plot revenge with a shotgun. He would be the first to endorse the hoary maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword. One can see Webb writing a snarky column about the checkered past of Vincent Price. However, physical violence ought to be beneath him.

Thus, the movie would have a better, and more surprising, ending if Judith Anderson had been the killer. The icy villainess from Rebecca would have made a fine cold-blooded murderer. And her motive, to regain Price, made sense.

But the real hero of Laura isn't any of the memorable characters. The hero is producer/director Otto Preminger, who knew enough to fire the initial director, Rouben Mamoulian, and scrap his footage. He transformed Vera Caspary's novel into morality tale about the decadence of the good life. Laura, the prize, is won not by the acerbic wit or the blueblood wannabe, but by the hard-working flatfoot who has never opened a copy of Variety.