Sunday, 10 February 2019

CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE (2019)

Now available in the UK on the Screenbound label, Crucible Of The Vampire is director/writer/editor Iain Ross-McNamee’s second full-length feature. It cleverly utilises the topography of a bucolic Shropshire landscape as well as the history behind the manor house used as the film’s primary shooting location, in order to evoke beautifully the golden era of British horror. But the film is a transparently low budget affair, so brilliantly steeped in a mix of the early‘70s folk horror tropes of Tigon British and the racy lesbian vampire action that writer Tudor Gates made a cornerstone of Hammer Films’ Karnstein Trilogy  -- The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Twins of Evil (1972) -- during the same period, that it really is a mystery why Ross-McNamee also allows proceedings to deteriorate, towards the end, into a mire of cheapo CGI digital effects and choreographed fight scenes. Such tactics quickly ruin the genteel air of old school charm that defines the diffident sort of British exploitation it was presumably intending to mimic the tone of in the earlier portions of the picture, only to replace it with a crude low budget aesthetic that’s a dime-a-dozen everywhere else you look in indie horror circles. Nevertheless, before we reach that final act when it goes slightly off the rails, there’s plenty else here for aficionados of 1970s Brit horror to recognise and doubtless appreciate.

The story itself will seem instantly familiar, being entirely built from tropes and narrative strands that appear countless times throughout the genre and are central to many of David McGillivray’s screenplays for British horror movie directors such as Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. Ross-McNamee and his two co-writers, Darren Lake and John Wolskel, do a particularly convincing job in the first half of the movie of channelling their interest in Hammer’s ‘70s vampire output and the ‘Big Three’ associated with the Folk Horror subgenre, into what essentially becomes a re-working of Warren’s Satan’s Slave, from 1976 -- with witchcraft, necromancy, a dysfunctional family with a dodgy history and an attractive innocent who is led unsuspectingly into a carefully prepared trap set by devilish forces. This gets combined with an awareness of the methods of construction of supernatural tales by the likes of M.R James and Arthur Machen, which are often uncanny historical palimpsests that reveal their concealed layers through an exploration of architectural and landscape history.  


The film begins in a traditional fashion for this genre, in this case with a black-and-white 1649 prologue in which John Stearne, the main associate of the real-life Civil War-era Witchfinder Mathew Hopkins, hangs an old peasant called Ezekiel Fletcher (played by Brian Croucher of Blake’s 7 fame) from an Oak tree in the Shropshire woodland for the crime of necromancy. His next act is to break into two pieces the cauldron suspected of being used by Ezekiel for his sorcery. Ezekiel’s dead daughter had been seen roaming Jacob’s Wood at night, which is more than enough reason for finding the old boy guilty on the spot without further examination of the issue. Three-hundred-and-fifty years later, though, and one half of what has subsequently become known as the Stearne Cauldron now rests in the University Museum of a young assistant curator called Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch). Conscious that the owners might be attempting to scam the university to pay for repairs, her supervisor sends her to a Shropshire manor house being renovated by a family who claims to have uncovered the other half of the cauldron in their basement while preparing to lay a new gas pipe. It is Isabelle’s job to examine the artefact and decide whether or not the claim is genuine.

Karl (Larry Rew), the owner of the house, tells Isabelle about the history to the building, which was originally built by secret Catholics during the reign of James I, then adapted and expanded during the Victorian era. When he mentions in passing how the Neo-Jacobian pile was formerly a Girls’ School, it sounds like a knowing line included in the script with the intention of it being picked up on by viewers as an obvious reference to Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire from 1971. In fact, a little light research into manor houses in the Shropshire area unearthed the film’s shooting location to be one Acton Reynald Hall: ‘a Victorian mansion incorporating parts of a building dating from early to mid-17th Century’. The building was the home of the Corbett family for generations; but they first moved there in 1644, after their former home became a Royalist garrison during the English Civil War and was destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiery. It was expanded on in the early 19th century by Shropshire architect J.H. Haycock, when the entire village of Acton Reynard, along with several farms, were demolished to make way for the surrounding park. In 1919, though, the building actually was turned into a Girls’ School, and remained one up until 1995! One of the nice things about Iain Ross-McNamee’s film is how it manages to incorporate little bits of the local history of the area into its B movie plot about sorcery, witches and vampirism. At one point Isabelle finds a diary written by a former owner of the house during the Victorian era, which prompts a flashback in the style of M.R. James, where we find out how the half of the Stearne cauldron now buried in the basement was discovered. Jeremiah Cain (Charles O’Neill) describes being led by an unearthly melody floating on the wind in the woods, to the site of the hanging of Ezekiel Fletcher, seen in the 1649 prologue.  It also leads him to the cauldron, which he then takes back to the manor, only to unleash a ghostly presence in the form of a pale, ghostly woman in a black dress who comes to be known as the Dark Lady.
By this point, Isabelle has also been experiencing similar visions of a scary ghostly woman in the night. And there are also countless other odd episodes to deal with involving the, frankly, strange inhabitants who are Isabelle’s hosts up at the mansion: Scarlet (Florence Cady), the rebellious daughter of Karl and his foreign wife Evelyn (Babette Barat), steals Isabelle’s phone and even some of her underwear. And Evelyn insists on providing Isabelle with mysterious bedtime drinks and then hanging about to make quite sure she drains the glass before leaving. These mysterious ‘tonics’ seem to prompt erotic dreams (or are they dreams?) involving white horses and the ghostly pale woman. Even a trip to the local pub results in Isabelle meeting the gardener who works on the estate (played by Neil Morrissey) who then tells her about the terrible fate of his predecessor. The former gardener’s seemingly hostile son follows her back to the mansion along a moonlit path after she leaves the pub that night (providing an opportunity for some very Hammer-like day-for-night photography) issuing incoherent warnings about what might happen to her if she stays at the mansion any longer. Karl himself also becomes more suspect, refusing to allow Isabelle to remove the cauldron from its present site in the manor’s basement and demanding that she arrange to have the museum’s half of the artefact brought out instead to Shropshire in order to find out whether or not they fit together. 

When Isabelle reveals to a barmaid at the local pub that she has just broken up with her boyfriend because he couldn’t accept her religiously derived belief that there should be no sex before marriage, it doesn’t take a genius of a viewer to figure out that Isabelle’s virginal state might have also had some ulterior Wicker Man-style role to play in her being selected to come out to the manor house in the first place. The latter thought is made rather more explicit by the exceedingly forward behaviour exhibited by Scarlet who, not content with confronting Isabelle with the knowledge that she is attempting to seduce her while wearing Isabelle’s own purloined underwear, ends up exploiting a particularly disturbing encounter Isabelle has with the Dark Lady in order to successfully initiate her into the pleasures of Sapphic love!


The plot elements and the sometimes theatrically antiquated performance styles of some of the cast members make it quite plain that Hammer’s trio of films that were very loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla are the main models for the narrative, and for the lightly eroticised style of the movie. The problem with any attempt to recreate this bygone era in the present day is that actors of the personality and stature of Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt are not around anymore to do what they so often were able to do for Hammer Films: bring a degree of prestige to the productions they worked on that elevated those films beyond their nominal worth. For instance, the role of head of household Karl is played perfectly convincingly by the performer tasked with the job here, but you can’t help noticing that his role is precisely the kind that would have at one time been played by someone like John Carson if this were a real Hammer film -- and once you see that, it immediately draws your attention to the fact that the actor taking his place can never be an adequate substitute. 

That being said, Florence Cady does make a seductive might-be-a-lesbian/might-be-a-vampire antagonist; and newcomer (and Brie Larson-look-alike) Kate Goldfinch is a suitably engaging lead, although she inevitably struggles with the inconsistency of character that is demanded of her by the script when she goes from being a naïve, out-of-her-depth academic who falls for the same ‘drugged drink’ trick twice in close succession, to an ‘arse-kicking’ superwoman, slashing throats and crushing heads with seemingly no problem whatsoever, who manages to take out a coven-full of robed cult members about to drain her of her virgin’s blood so that they can fully restore their vampire-witch queen to her full glory. Neil Morrissey receives top billing on the cover of the DVD, but in truth turns up for only a handful of scenes, mainly concerned with delivering exposition. He is also given a scene at the climax of the movie just to make it worthwhile his turning up presumably -- although his role in the events depicted is, to be honest, rather minimal. In his director and editor roles Iain Ross-McNamee makes evocative use of the exterior and interiors of Action Raynard Hall to deliver many atmospheric moments in the build-up to the easily predicted climactic reveal; and a dream-like sequence that takes place in total silence and in slow motion is directed (probably unintentionally) like an ethereal Jesus Franco fever dream -- although there’s nothing in the film that's anywhere near as pervy as what ol’ Jess would have presented us with, I’m sure.
But if you can ignore the terrible digital FX, one or two weak performances and a resolution that seems to aim for charged ambiguity but just ends up feeling slightly unsatisfactory instead, there’s still an overall old-school feel about Crucible of the Vampire that is undoubtedly attractive, and will please many fans of the classics of 1970s British horror. It does, in the end, draw many strands of influence together in a way that feels utterly natural and convincing. It’s just a shame the pay-off seems rather rote, and plays by the rules of a more modern breed of horror rather than having the courage to stick with the original low-key style it began with. Screenbound Entertainment has just released the film on dual format Blu-ray/DVD and on digital platforms after it garnered many festival plaudits and awards, so this is a film that will definitely be of interest to many, despite its flaws.                 
         

Monday, 28 January 2019

HUSH ... HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964)

Robert Aldrich’s 1962 horror thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? single-handedly spawned the psycho-biddy subgenre by successfully blurring the thin line already dividing the gossip column-generating heat of off-screen rivalries indulged at the time -- largely for publicity purposes -- by its two ageing Hollywood stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and the murderous, co-dependent animus that drives the unstable characters they play to extremes within the context of the film itself. The imaginations of movie audiences were galvanised by the histrionic performances delivered by these rival ‘Grand Dames’ of the silver screen amid the feverish atmosphere of stifled Gothic melodrama Aldrich was able to generate from Lukas Heller’s adaptation of Henry Farrell’s source novel. It was inevitable a second pairing of the veteran star actresses and the independent director would become a much sought-after commodity in the wake of the unexpected box office success and the five Academy Award nominations picked up as the fruits of their first collaboration, and so when Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) came along, 20th Century Fox must have been banking on the chance to considerably up the ante on its Warner Brothers-distributed predecessor, as Heller and Farrell sought to recombine their talents in the cause of helping Aldrich bring to the screen an unpublished sort-of semi-sequel short story (originally titled, with obvious self-awareness, Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?) that Farrell had written to be made as another one of Robert Aldrich's independent productions, but on a considerably larger budget than had been available for Baby Jane.  


For reasons now more widely understood (and which furnish a great deal of the ample background material one will find related in fascinating detail by Kat Ellinger and Glen Erickson across the two commentary tracks included with this new Masters of Cinema release), the proposed ‘rematch’ between Davis and Crawford never materialised, Crawford’s supposed health issues apparently necessitating her removal from the production. Fascinating production stills, taken during the shooting of now-missing footage shot before Crawford left the picture, and which show the actress made-up and appearing in character as Miriam Deering, do still exist and display her very different take on a role that was eventually filled by Davis’s colleague Olivia de Havilland. Instead, free of the constant circus of speculation that surrounded the relationship between these infamous Hollywood rivals, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte emerges as nothing so much as a lavish-looking Southern Gothic spin on the mini-Hitchcock thrillers that Hammer Films had been knocking out on a regular basis for some time by this point, a cycle which had started with Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay for Seth Holt’s Taste of Fear in 1961. Convoluted Gaslight mimicking narratives and endless permutations on the plot to Henri Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques are what drive most of these films, and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte turns out to be no exception, despite being much more handsomely mounted and exquisitely photographed than anything Hammer -- for all the studio’s brilliance -- could ever have hoped to replicate, even in its heyday.


With its generously sprawling 133-minute full feature length, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte has more than enough time on its hands to cover quite a few other bases as well: among them out-and-out exploitation and shock imagery. The film racked up an impressive seven Academy Award nominations. But it’s a safe bet to assume that no other Oscar-nominated film in 1964 (and not many others thereafter) featured explicit shots of limbs being bloodily lopped off with a hatchet, or a decapitated head tumbling down a spiral staircase in an antebellum-era-built Louisiana mansion: just two of the film’s main selling points amid a whole suite of gloriously torrid horror theatrics initially disguised by the film’s prestigious cast of Hollywood greats and beautifully lush Southern locations. The film is intentionally constructed from a vast mosaic of cinematic signifiers which are deployed in this case to enable it to straddle the murky grey area that separates B movie hokum from the Hollywood prestige project without ever having to come to a decision about which of these modes should ultimately get to define it. The screenplay is seemingly precision-tooled to evoke every Southern Gothic motif under the sun and, more pertinently, details of narrative, production design, art direction and even the actual casting, conjure at every turn formless ghosts that hint at many instances of Hollywood’s representation of the Deep South on film: having Bette Davis play a fading Southern Belle traumatised by an incident from the past that robbed her of her one chance at happiness might be assumed a  reference to the kinds of roles the actress played in her younger days, when she was quite often cast as characters from a similar milieu, such as in the 1938 film Jezebel, for instance; while casting Crawford’s replacement with Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland simply reminds the viewer that Davis also lost out on the role of Scarlett O’Hara to de Havilland’s co-star Vivian Lee.


The film begins with a 1927-set prologue that initially plays like a stage-bound scene from some sultry Tennessee Williams play or other: two characters on a single set confronting each other over the heavy oak desk in the study of formidable Louisiana plantation owner 'Big' Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) on a hot summer night in New Orleans, strains of jazz discernible in the distance from a party that’s in full swing elsewhere in and around the colonnaded mansion and its oak-studded grounds. Baby Jane star Buono’s interlocutor is the young Bruce Dern -- here in an early role following a brief appearance in Hitchcock’s Marnie the year before – who is tasked by the screenplay with the plot-instigating duty of getting himself blackmailed and then becoming an instant murder victim, whose death thereafter haunts the central character for the rest of the film. His name is John Mayhew: the married lover of Hollis’s young daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis). The couple had been planning to elope together on this very night, but their plans have just been exposed and thwarted after Mayhew’s wife Jewel (Mary Astor) somehow got wind of it and told Charlotte’s father. Under pressure from the overbearing patriarch, Mayhew later that night breaks off the elopement with Charlotte in the summer house, leaving her heartbroken. Not long after he is dispatched in the grisly fashion already alluded to. The young Charlotte Hollis, the lower portion of her party dress stained red with her lover’s blood, then wanders semi-comatose into the crowded ballroom of the Hollis mansion, confronting her father and all his guests with this menstrual symbol of the family shame.


Did she kill Mayhew or was the deed done by her overbearing father? Thirty-five years later and the locals of Hollisport continue to debate the macabre legend which has grown up around the lurid events that took place in the home of the reclusive Charlotte Hollis all those years ago. The ageing occupant now lives on the site of the former plantation like the Miss Havisham of Baton Rouge: quite alone apart from her dishevelled housekeeper Velma (Agnes Moorehead) who devotedly tends to her needs and sees off any troublesome trespassers. Pining for her dead love, Charlotte Hollis is believed by most to be mad; children might dare each other to sneak into the old mansion at night, but those who attempt such a feat are liable to find not an axe murderer but only a disorientated old lady in white, still clutching at a box that just might contain the head of her dead lover … or perhaps, maybe, it's the music box Mayhew gifted her thirty years ago, that plays the song he wrote for them both. There is the common suspicion within the community, though, that Charlotte herself was Mayhew’s murderer, and that she has been protected from punishment all these years by her late father’s influence and power, which still seems to exert itself from beyond the grave even now.



The fabulous location exteriors used for Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte play an instrumental role in imbuing the film with the requisite sense of faded historical grandeur, crucial in conveying the latent idea that sins of the past once obscured by these stately residues of a supposedly more genteel age are only now being exposed to light again, as the past crumbles or is forgotten. The plantation owners of the 18th and 19th centuries built their grand homes with those imposing upper balconies and columned porticos, in a neo-classical Greek Revival style intending to associate themselves with the great splendours of a former European civilisation. But the history the architecture of the Antebellum now represents to most of us is, of course, also marked by a darker side: the fact that its beauty was founded on the prevalence of slavery as a tool for economic dominance and social oppression. Charlotte Hollis lives in an anachronistic museum commemorating the historic brutality of this ‘golden’ age once presided over by her late father and his immediate ancestors, and given actual form in the historically preserved location of the 1840s plantation house Houmas House in Burnside, Louisiana that was used for the exteriors -- one of the grandest of its design. In the present day, Charlotte has herself practically become a ghost from this vanished age. Never having come to terms with the belief that her father was responsible for John Mayhew’s murder, she remains frozen in the shock and grief of that immediate moment from all these years ago, only being spurred into action when her family home is threatened with demolition to make way for a new highway. Even more ambiguous a commentary on the shadow of the past is a scene that comes halfway through the film, in which the kindly insurance investigator who takes pity on Charlotte, Harry Wills (Cecil Kellaway), takes tea in the grounds of the house owned by Charlotte’s great rival, the ageing Jewel Mayhew (Mary Astor), and talks with her about that fateful night many years ago when Jewel’s philandering husband was decapitated in the summer house at the Hollis mansion. Aldrich uses as the backdrop to their talk the picturesque sight of a canopied oak allée from the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana: a location so exquisitely designed to fit a romantic view of the past one would almost have assumed it to be a matte-painted background created specifically for the purpose of conveying that impression. The film is all about the prevalence of masks, and the most deceptive mask is the mask of nostalgia: it cloaks all manner of ills in the soothing afterglow of best intentions and whitewashed motives.      


While the historical authenticity of the exterior locations allows the film to become infused with an atmosphere of stately decay and moral ambiguity, the studio-created interiors and the way they are staged, dressed and shot by Aldrich and his repertory company of regular crew members, attest to the continued potency of Gothic horror and its macabre genre offshoots. Art director William Glasgow and cinematographer Joseph Biroc are primarily responsible for creating the rich velvety high-end noir atmosphere enveloping the ornate décor of Hollis House, while costume designer Norma Koch puts the older Bette Davis in platted pigtails and flowing nightgowns to emphasise how the character of Charlotte is trapped in her youthful past even as she plays out the role of a traditional Gothic heroine. Davis gives another committed full-throttle performance that holds nothing back: she may not get to be as demonstrably evil-hearted as she was in Baby Jane but a good portion of the film requires her to inhabit various stages of insanity as visitations and hallucinations of severed heads bouncing down the staircase and-the-like begin tormenting her one by one, as does some ghostly harpsichord music that plays in the night and an encounter with faceless guests in a dreamlike slow-mo ballroom sequence recalling her last night with Mayhew. Frank De Vol’s music once again strikes a fine balance between saccharine irony and sweeping melodrama, particularly on the title song (a rival to Baby Jane’s I’ve Written A Letter to Daddy) which serves multiple roles in the film: one minute functioning as the creepy music box motif associated with Charlotte, and the next as an eerie harpsichord air to signify her final descent into madness. It later also transformed itself chameleon-like into a pop hit of the day for Patti "(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window" Page!


Davis’s florid performance is complemented by an equally robust comic turn from Agnes Moorehead, as muttering maid Velma. A fine character actress who at the time would have been best-known for playing Samantha’s mother Endora on the TV series Bewitched, Moorehead's career stretched back to the 1930s when she did a stint with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe, performing alongside Joseph Cotten, who now joins her again in this film for a smallish role as Charlotte’s doctor, Drew Bayliss. As the former lover of Miriam Deering, Cotten delivers the required levels of sliminess in a role originally slated to have him play most of his scenes opposite Crawford but which eventually saw him working with Olivia de Havilland instead. The couple’s relationship dates back to the time of John Mayhew’s murder in 1927. Bayliss broke it off back then with Miriam because of the scandal associated with the Hollis name in the wake of Mayhew’s death -- meaning Miriam is returning to a site that holds painful memories not just for cousin Charlotte but for her too. Those memories are made all the more tangible when Miriam comes back to Hollisport at the request of her cousin after years living a metropolitan life in the big city. Charlotte wants her to help in the fight to oppose the building of the highway on the site of the Hollis mansion, but Miriam returns to find that, forty years later, her old lover Bayliss is still the acting family physician. While everyone else appears to be trapped in an emotional time warp by the events of forty years ago, Miriam comes across as a stable, level-headed person who is being forced into confronting the tumult of her past against her will. But of course, this being a Gothic-themed thriller, with all the twists and turns that entails, the truth of the matter proves to be a great deal more complicated. Olivia de Havilland is probably a much better casting choice in that regard than Joan Crawford would have been, since she initially exudes an air of normalcy that makes her a viewer identification figure from early on in the movie: a witness to the madness, eccentricities and abnormalities of all the other characters, and a good steady foil to the exaggerated flightiness of Davis’s character. As the plot unfolds, a harder edge emerges to her Miriam Deering and one of the film’s major strengths lies in the way de Havilland manages her character’s transition from apparently innocent bystander to the prime instigator of some pretty fiendish events. The plot itself might not contain anything truly surprising, and is pretty much boilerplate thriller material but de Havilland gives a fully rounded performance that holds the attention throughout, while Aldrich manages to sell a whole plethora of deranged, surrealistic sequences in the second half that makes the ride entertaining even if we’re never truly in any doubt as to the eventual destination.


Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte was always a handsome-looking film, and it finally gets a fitting 1080p HD presentation for this UK Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment as part of The Masters of Cinema series. A 22-minute archive ‘making of’ featurette contains all the basic background production facts on the film, and Bruce Dern provides a nice 13-minute interview in which he recalls his interactions with Bette Davis on set and behind the scenes. There’s also a brief 5-minute contemporary set report narrated by Joseph Cotten. But the two stand-out commentaries are the main centrepieces of the extras package included here: Kat Ellinger once again proves her worth with a well-researched track that takes a thoughtful look at, among other things, Robert Aldrich’s relationship with the ‘women’s picture’ and the cross-over he forged with noir and Southern Gothic. Meanwhile, Glenn Erickson provides a more traditional overview, concentrating on biographical info about the main cast and crew members. Both contributors tackle the Joan and Bette feud and the drama of Crawford’s replacement by de Havilland, each managing to bring an individual take to the business without contradicting the other on the basic facts. Trailers and TV spots are included, and this Blu-ray only release also comes with the traditional collector’s booklet, this one featuring a new essay by Lee Gambin illustrated with some fascinating archival imagery.


Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a gorgeously overwrought piece of Gothic melodrama and a fine example of the mid-sixties ‘twist in the tail’ thriller. It has some great performances from usually side-lined older actresses, while the likes of Joseph Cotten, George Kennedy and Cecil Kellaway are this time relegated to supporting roles. Aldrich gave what could have been considered relatively trivial by-the-numbers material his full directorial attention, creating a lush spectacle of Gothic madness that delves into all manner of twisted psychological unpleasantness with a wilful glee. The cast of Hollywood greats at its centre seems to have been more than happy to follow Aldrich wherever he may lead them, in what has turned out to be a much-overlooked gem of the genre.    

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Blu-ray Review: LAURA (1944)

The 1944 Hollywood movie Laura plays for the most part as if it were a conscious postmodern deconstruction of film noir character types and motifs despite the fact that the term "film noir" did not become available for use until years after this acknowledged classic of the subgenre had been released. This is surely the biggest consequence of the fact that the  source novel and the subsequent play on which the film was originally based were the work of a female writer, Vera Caspary, who was obviously aware of the 1930s tradition of hardboiled fiction by male writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler -- the key literary influences and sources of what came to be known as film noir  -- yet was herself drawing more upon a template established by the popular "Sensation Literature" of the middle of the 19th century in work by writers such as Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood. With Laura, Caspery, much like her near-contemporary Daphne Du Maurier whose Rebecca is a clear reference point, was attempting to unpick, in a particularly acute way, many of the gender roles that underpin this area of fiction, using a reformulation of the devices previously employed by writers of great Victorian popular literature.

Sensation Literature narratives often revolved around strong independent-minded female characters who pose a challenge to the gendered patriarchal domestic institutions that greased the gears of Victorian society. These narratives frequently relied on unexpected, rug-pulling twists devised to force the reader to reassess former prejudices as apparently ‘respectable’ characters are revealed to harbour dark destructive secrets that fester at the heart of English suburban society. The genre also produced, in Collins’ The Moonstone, a novel widely considered to be the first detective story in English literature.


The 1943 novel of Laura, as initially conceived by Caspary, relies on multiple narrators each providing their own unique and individual perspective on events, and thus raising the spectre of the unreliable narrator: a mainstay of the Sensation genre. The film, though, in structurally simplifying much of this, actually creates yet more ambiguity. The title character becomes, in the first half of the film, an unobtainable male fetish object accessed only through the many distorted reflections produced by second-hand accounts of her brilliance that emphasise only their vainglorious narrator’s projection of an idealised form of femininity: a quality the film itself echoes with a mise-en-scène shot through a gauzy, romantic high-gloss sheen. 

It’s noticeable that 20th Century Fox, recently back under the control of Darryl Zanuck after his period of leave for army service, envisioned Laura as an A-List project almost from the start: there is no skimping on glamour and prestige in any area of the production, as is highlighted by the film’s five Academy Award nominations. Production design, cinematography and costuming are all rendered with exquisite elegance, in presentation of the milieu of the sophisticated Manhattan smart set providing the film’s decorative backdrop and shrouding the entire production in an entrancing, dreamy aura that’s quite at odds with the more usual gritty style associated with the crime, mystery and investigative genres. Laura is an ingenious murder mystery presented to audiences in the form of a refined woman’s picture of the same period: its sophisticated cast performances highlight at every turn the involved nature of the twisted character relationships that propel the narrative, as opposed to the approach taken by a contemporary film such as Mildred Pierce (1945) for instance, which was a relationship drama and character study in its original form that had these elements simplified for the screen so that murder and noir trappings could be added to the adaptation for commercial reasons.

Laura, which can also be thought to be a crisply mounted noir precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is a film about the male gaze that exemplifies, in style and character, every domineering surface aspect of the attempt to obliterate the self-determination of its female subject. In the film, we are presented with three male leads, each of whom is shown (through being either a suspect in a woman’s murder or a detective with a hand in the investigation) to have a connection to the murdered Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). But only by the images of her they present to us and each-other do we as viewers have any access to her at all. Then, halfway through the picture – and this is the big twist or spoiler that underpins the film’s reputation, so stop reading now if you wish to remain blissfully ignorant -- we discover that Laura Hunt is not actually dead at all. She suddenly walks into the film as a living, breathing presence, at which point she goes instantly from being a potential murder victim to the chief suspect in a murder plot.


In a way, the film’s production history rehearses themes central to the narrative to an uncanny and mordantly ironic degree: Caspary, a female artist, who writes a story about a young ambitious woman whose life, work, image and very memory are fought over for interpretation by a group of men, was to find the same thing happening to the story itself when producer Otto Preminger, studio mogul Darryl Zanuck and their proposed directorial choice Rouben Mamoulian got to work on remoulding it into something that might function as a cinematic rather than a literary vehicle. Caspary clashed with Preminger early on over the decision to drop the concept of multiple narrators which underpins the novel in favour of the third-person objective ‘invisible’ narrator preferred in most Hollywood cinema. But the labyrinthine rivalries and insecurities that the project exposed between the three male creatives when they took over the reins of Caspary’s vision couldn’t be more symbolic of the clash of male egos and romantic delusions that the film they eventually crafted from the source novel depicts so piquantly.  


When Otto Preminger first identified Laura as a potential project that could be brought to the screen, he’d been working practically covertly at Twentieth Century Fox under its "caretaker" head William Goetz. Preminger had earlier been frozen out of Hollywood altogether after falling out with Fox co-founder Darryl F Zanuck in 1937, over his direction of Zanuck’s screenplay of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Unable to find work elsewhere, he’d returned to his theatre acting roots and had great success in long-running productions acting alongside, among others, Vincent Price. While Zanuck was away doing his army service, Goetz had brought Preminger back in from the cold, employing him as both actor and director on a number of B pictures at Fox. When Zanuck returned, though, and immediately started discarding all of Goetz’s films, Preminger feared for a time that his brief spell of favour had come to an impromptu end. Instead, Zanuck summoned him to a meeting where Preminger learned that he would be allowed to stay on as director of the minor war picture he was at work on at the time, but that he would only be allowed to produce Laura.

Even then, the property almost got shelved when the head of the B unit, Bernie Foy, decided on the advice of his reader that he did not like the script. It took Zanuck himself to come to the rescue when he upgraded the production to the ‘A’ unit and decided that he would also supervise it, working alongside Preminger as the production's script doctor. It was also Zanuck who voiced the need to make the characters 'real outstanding personalities', determining that in order to be successful the film had to aim to be more than just another 'blown-up whodunit'. One of Caspary’s original bugbears with Preminger was that he only wanted to make a conventional detective story, although Preminger had also sensed, correctly, that Laura Hunt’s fastidiously epicene mentor Waldo Lydecker should be made the central spoke in the narrative hub. Zanuck, meanwhile, realised that Laura should come into the story as 'a breath of spring' to contrast with the 'Park Avenue cutthroats' who otherwise populate it.


As the producer of the property, it was up to Preminger to find someone suitable to helm Laura. Successful stage and screen director Rouben Mamoulian seemed like a brilliant choice at first: he was one of cinema’s earliest and most innovative pioneers of the movie musical and of mobile camera technique (who oversaw the making of the first three-strip Technicolor movie made in Hollywood), and was seemingly a perfect fit for a film with the prestige status Zanuck’s stewardship seemed set to bestow upon the production. However, problems soon began to mount behind the scenes, principally over Preminger’s dissatisfaction with Mamoulian and Zanuck’s casting choice for the crucial role of Waldo Lydecker. They’d plumped for an actor, Laird Cregar, who had just become well known for playing Jack the Ripper in the 1943 version of The Lodger. To cast Cregar as Laura’s tart bisexual mentor would be to throw too much suspicion on his shoulders, identifying him as the prime suspect in the mystery from the off. Preminger much preferred a little-known actor called Clifton Webb, who had thus far confined himself mainly to the stage, appearing in musical comedies and revues. Webb’s off-screen persona – cuttingly loquacious, upper-class and openly homosexual – signalled those important elements of Waldo Lydecker’s fastidious nature that still could not be openly stated on screen in 1944, plus the actor was virtually unknown so anyone watching would have no cause to suspect him over any of the other shifty high-class Manhattanites portrayed in the film. 

Preminger managed to get Cregar replaced with Webb behind Mamoulian’s back, despite initial opposition from Zanuck. When the dallies started coming back from Mamoulian’s closed set, both Zanuck and Preminger expressed dissatisfaction with the overly theatrical way he was directing some of the actors, particularly Judith Anderson. In meetings between the three men, Preminger was only too happy to spell out where he thought Mamoulian was going wrong, and it wasn’t too long before Mamoulian was off the film and Preminger found himself finally in charge of the production, scrapping everything that had been done so far and starting again from scratch with a new cameraman, Joseph La Schelle, and a new scenic designer, Lyle Wheeler, who was soon to garner a reputation as the designer of some of Hollywood’s most lavish productions.  

Preminger directs Laura with understated grace and restraint studded with the occasional unconventional flourish -- like the sudden whip-pan in the opening scene that introduces society newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, naked in his marble bath but still tapping away on the typewriter suspended above it. The world of New York high society was one Preminger had moved in himself and understood implicitly to be elegant and attractive on the surface but populated by ruthless vipers. The casting choices were essential for teasing out the dysfunctional interplay of psychological pathologies at work in the subtext of the scrip, with the effete Clifton Webb playing against leading man Dana Andrews’ rugged investigating detective, Mark McPherson. The opening scene demonstrates how harmoniously the casting, décor, photography and script combine to create the film’s textured air of feverish mysteriousness, with McPherson rendered ill at ease amongst the fussily arranged glass display cabinets and quaint antiques of Lydecker’s high-end suite, the columnist’s penchant for extreme feminine fetishisation already becoming apparent to us from his immaculately curated surroundings. Lydecker even mythologises and attempts to control McPherson’s masculinity, quoting from an article he’d once written about the detective after he sustained an injury during a siege that resulted in the death of a gangster: “The detective with the silver shinbone” sounds like the title of a hardboiled crime fiction that might have been written by Raymond Chandler, the film cleverly fixing immediately how we view McPherson through the words and sensibility of its most manipulative character. There’s even a fairly overt-for-the-time frisson of homosexual flirtation in the air when Lydecker casually rises from the bath in the nude and asks McPherson to hand him a washcloth, the manly detective casting the fey newspaper columnist a wry split-second sideways glance before doing so.


The detective is ostensibly there to interview the self-regarding Lydecker about his relationship to the supposedly murdered woman, Laura Hunt, who has (apparently) been found in her apartment, shot in the face at point-blank range after answering the door buzzer dressed in her night robe. He claims to be ‘the only one who really knew her’ and imperiously insists that she considered him to be ‘the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she’d ever met.’ McPherson also speaks to Laura’s serpentine playboy fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a parasitic hanger-on who seems equally as effeminate and ineffectual as Lydecker paints him to be, and who appears to be happy to accept the continuing financial assistance of Laura’s wealthy socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) -- who is, in turn, totally infatuated with him but unapologetically hard-nosed about that fact, and about both their many personal failings.

The catty rivalry that's on display between the two men, and which McPherson deliberately facilitates as a tactic to try and determine the facts about what really happened between them and Laura, is at the centre of a lot of the film’s most acerbic and quotable dialogue as well as its mystery. But when McPherson goes with Lydecker to visit what used to be his and Laura's favourite restaurant, the film goes into an extensive flashback sequence in which we see how he promoted her climb up the career ladder to the top of her profession after she approached him speculatively, while an ingénue with an advertising firm, hoping to secure his endorsement on a campaign she’s been working on for a new fountain pen. (‘I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom!’ he responds, sniffily, to her initial request.) 

Lydecker starts to live an obsessively vicarious existence through Laura's ensuing professional and social successes, revelling in fashioning for her a new, sophisticated identity that might almost be an alternative feminine version of his own. He secures her more endorsements and thus helps her progress at the advertising firm; he shows her how to carry herself in high-status social circles; he decides what clothes she should wear and how she should arrange her hair. Although it is platonic, the obsessive nature of their relationship encourages a sickly proprietary attitude in Lydecker with regard to who Laura can be seen associating with. He essentially starts stalking her: he’s jealous of the infatuated artist who painted her portrait which now dominates the mantelpiece in her apartment lounge, and he’s disapproving of her relationship with Carpenter, when she hires him to work with her at the advertising firm after meeting him at one of the upper-crust soirees Ann Treadwell regularly holds to help Carpenter get a foothold in the dissolute echelons of Manhattan’s beau monde.


After listening to all of this being so eloquently expressed to him by Lydecker, and then seeing the magnificent portrait of Laura in her apartment building, McPherson essentially falls in love with the mythical image of a dead woman -- a development that brings a perverse hint of necrophilia with it to the dreamy romantic atmosphere that predominates in the film, largely thanks to David Raksin’s memorable score based around the theme he wrote for the title character. It results in a heady mixture that raises all sorts of unanswered questions about the true nature of the couple’s relationship when the real Laura unexpectedly turns up again out of the blue, and it is revealed that the murdered woman was, in fact, a model called Diane Redfern from the advertising campaign Laura and Carpenter had been working on together, and whom Carpenter had been having a liaison with at Laura’s flat while the latter was away in the country deciding whether to marry him or not! McPherson’s subsequent courtship of Laura is simultaneously being conducted, then, as a murder investigation in which she has now been made the main suspect, while Lydecker’s obsession with the version of Laura he has constructed for public consumption (and which McPherson has fallen for) is now even more challenged by the flesh and blood Laura’s choice of romantic partner, as Lydecker gradually realises that she is responding to detective McPherson’s overtures.


Lydecker’s dialogue throughout the film is peppered with waspish expressions of apparent disgust for any kind of overt demonstration of male physicality, putting further emphasis on his own inability to successfully masquerade as heterosexual in this area of his life by suggesting the true direction of his own proclivities if he (and the film) could only admit to them! One can practically sense Lydecker’s repressed frustrations boiling over in lines like: 'If McPherson weren’t muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, you’d see through him in a second', and 'I hope you’ll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly “earthy” relationship!'  Vera Caspary was always unhappy about Otto Preminger’s decision to change the novel’s climactic revelation, in which it is discovered that the pistol that killed Diane Redfern has been concealed in the handle of Lydecker’s walking cane all along – a deliberately placed Freudian symbol that stands for the character’s sexually impotent destructiveness. But, in a way, Preminger’s alternative -- of having the phallic murder weapon hidden instead in a secret compartment inside the body of the replica copy of Lydecker’s elegantly adorned antique clock (which he gave to Laura as a present and which now stands in her apartment) is a perfect metaphor for the film’s unspoken theme, in which closeted homosexuality is covertly depicted finding its sublimated but unstable release through a vicarious usurpation and impersonation of feminine identity. One can understand Gene Tierney’s initial reluctance to take on a role that actually requires her to pose as a remote and not fully realised character for much of her time on screen, and one in which she is almost completely defined by the men around her; but Tierney, of course, has no trouble in rising above all of her male co-stars in one of the most memorable screen portrayals of the 1940s. Nevertheless, one cannot help but agree with detective McPherson’s rather accurate assessment of Laura Hunt’s poor choice of relationships when he tells her: ‘I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl you’ve certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes!'


It’s wonderful to see this exquisite noir finally receiving a UK Blu-ray release in which its beautiful photography really gets a chance to shine. It’s part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema collection and comes with some nice extras including an archive featurette on the film; a video interview with composer David Raksin; and two commentary tracks: one in which film professor Jeanine Basinger, Chairman of Film Studies at Weston University, Middle Town, Connecticut provides an excellent analysis of the film with occasional separately recorded interventions from Raksin regarding the score; and another in which film historian Rudy Behlmer concentrates on the production history of the film. 

The disc also includes four radio adaptations, including the Lux Theatre one hour broadcast from 1945 which starred original cast members Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Vincent Price. Philip Hoad contributes an essay to the accompanying collector’s booklet, which also features a selection of rare archive images.

Laura is a key entry in the psychological noir subgenre of the 1940s, where flashbacks and false memories and a dreamy sense of romantic ennui dominate the mood. Often these films fell squarely into the Gothic Romance genre. But Laura straddles the borders of Gothic ghost story, romantic thriller and detective mystery like no other: a perfect blending of genre elements that combine to produce a uniquely ravishing, beguiling effect on the viewer in a film that continues to cast its hypnotic spell across the decades. Let this release contribute to that spell lasting for many more years.