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.


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