Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney. Dir: Otto Preminger.
I shall never forget the weekend I saw Laura on TCM. It was…oh, crap. When was it? Okay, I have forgotten the weekend I saw Laura. But I haven’t forgotten the film. It stayed with me strongly for hours after I watched it, so much so that I couldn’t get into any other movie after it and I had to watch it again. The sets, the lighting, and the story take you in, and create and manipulate your mood. Even the theme music is so haunting that, though I am far removed from any source of music at the moment, I can hear it. Right now.
The cast is full of amazing actors and also Gene Tierney, who brings nothing much to the film, but does not detract from it, so that’s okay. She was beautiful, to be sure, and if you only see the movie once, you don’t necessarily notice how odd her line interpretations are. I mean, she makes strange choices in which words to emphasize in a sentence. And I may be nit-picking on that because I’m an actor. But I’m not the only one who doesn’t think Tierney’s Laura lives up to the hype the other characters make about her in the film. Check this New York Times review, which came out the day after the movie premiered, 71 years ago.
I suppose I’d better get this plot thing done. for surely, anything else that I could say right now won’t make any sense unless I do.
The movie is about a woman who was murdered and the subsequent investigation into her death. It opens as Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the story’s narrator, narrates. He begins by saying “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” (see what I did way up there?) and proceeds to describe, not only the sun and the weather, but also his relationship with her- from his very slanted viewpoint. The viewer is then subjected to Waldo’s lavish apartment, which indicates a very real fear of empty wall-space. Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) goes to interview Waldo, who is in his bathtub, typing. Because that’s not at all unusual. It is established that Waldo is impressed with McPherson’s previous accomplishments, and McPherson is impressed with nothing. At the end of the interview, McPherson indicates that he will be leaving to go question other people, and Waldo decides to come along. Also, not at all unusual.
We are next introduced to the rest of the most likely suspects, Ann Treadwell (Dame Judith Anderson), and Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Laura was engaged to pauper-sophisticate Shelby, Treadwell was rich and in love with Shelby, and perfectly willing to fund him for the rest of her life. Waldo was in love with Laura and perfectly willing to control her for the rest of his. It’s the classic love square.
I’m not going to say much more about the general plot because it is a mystery, and I’m not going to tell you who did it. I will, however, offer up this handy list of suspects and reasons why they may or may not have killed Laura.
Waldo Lydecker– In love with Laura, though one would not notice it if he didn’t say so. Fastidious busy-body where it concerned Laura. He credits himself for taking her from just a regular ad-woman to a prominent business woman of elegance. So if he loved her, why would he kill her? Well, she didn’t love him like that, for one thing, and for another, she was about to marry someone else. Waldo may have decided that if he couldn’t have her, nobody could.
Shelby Carpenter– About to marry Laura. Kentucky aristocrat without a penny to his name since the family estate disappeared. Accepting large financial gifts from Ann Treadwell, who wanted to marry him. He also accepted a gift from Laura and immediately had someone pawn it (a point of speculation as to whether he gave it to someone who then pawned it or if he gave it to her for the purpose of pawning it for him- I subscribe to the latter notion). Possibly a player, since he had been seen in the company of one Diane Redfern, a model from Laura’s company. Why would he kill Laura? Because she was considering breaking their engagement. Shelby may have decided that if he couldn’t have her, nobody could.
Ann Treadwell– Slightly older widow in love with Shelby. She wanted to marry him and support him even though she knew he wasn’t at all in love with her. Caught with Shelby after Shelby broke a dinner date with Laura. Threw a scarf around her waste to make a basic black dress look more exotic. Why would she kill Laura? Because Laura was about to marry the man she loved. Right now you’re imagining how delicious it would be to have a high society lady wielding a shotgun and saying things like, “I wanted, Shelby, see? That dame stole him from me, see? I’ve been investing in him and I’m gonna get my return, see?”
Detective Mark McPherson– investigating the crime. Plays with a puzzle. Falls in love with Laura postmortem. Not actually a suspect- this isn’t an Agatha Christie story, after all. I just wanted to put up another picture of Dana Andrews, who is forever etched in my mind as Daner Andrews (thanks, Rocky Horror Picture Show). I often wonder if he actually said that prunes gave him the runes, and if they did, did he use them to predict the future?
Laura– Loved by one man who exposed every other man she dated as a fraud or otherwise. In love with another man who may also be playing the field. At the top of her business game, but maybe missing something in her life? Did she actually, in a fit of extreme confusion or possibly “the vapors”, commit suicide via a double-barreled shotgun blast to the face? I’ll just tell you now, she didn’t. So how is she a suspect? That I’m not going to tell you.
I will say this much- the person who gets shot at the end does possibly the most realistic enactment of taking a bullet that I’ve ever seen. Ever.
As is often the case, getting this movie made was not the easiest task; we are talking about Hollywood after all. To explain it, I must go a few years back before the story was even a gleam in Vera Caspary’s eye. Otto Preminger (Laura’s director) was signed by Joe Schenck and Darryl Zanuck to direct for 20th Century Fox in the 1930’s. After directing a few films, he was given Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped which had been adapted by Zanuck himself. As filming commenced, during a viewing of the dailies, Zanuck accused Preminger of changing a scene between star Freddie Bartholomew and a dog. Preminger insisted he shot it just as it was written, and Zanuck insisted that he was pretty sure he knew what his own script said. Later that day, Zanuck had the locks on Preminger’s office changed and took away his parking space. He tried to buy out the rest of his contract, but Preminger wanted the full amount of money that the contract promised, so that didn’t work out for Zanuck. Preminger couldn’t find any other directing jobs so he went to New York to go back to acting (which he did before he came to Hollywood). After a few years of performing in various shows, he got good notices and was summoned back to Hollywood, this time as an actor. At the same time, Darryl Zanuck was in the service because the United States had gotten involved in WWII. William Goetz was running the studio in Zanuck’s absence and signed Preminger to a seven year contract to direct. That’s a lot to digest; time to make a new paragraph.
A woman named Vera Caspary wrote a play called Ring Twice for Laura and submitted it to Preminger, who was looking to direct a theatrical production. He read the script and liked it somewhat, but decided it needed revising. He tried to work with Caspary on the revision, but she didn’t like where he was taking it and she decided to revise it with someone else. She could not get anybody to produce it with no big names attached though, so she abandoned the project. Then she adapted the story into a novel, and also wrote a sequel. 20th Century Fox purchased these books to turn into a film, asking Preminger to adapt them for the screen. The implication here was that Goetz would have Preminger direct as well. Zanuck returned from service and was furious that Goetz had re-signed Preminger to a studio contract. Still angry about the Kidnapped incident, Zanuck said that Preminger could only produce the film and would not allow him to direct it, hiring Rouben Mamoulian to direct instead. However, the rushes that Mamoulian turned in were awful, and Preminger made sure that Zanuck knew that it was Mamoulian’s fault. Zanuck listened and put Preminger in as director. Preminger redesigned the sets, recast Waldo Lydecker (see below), and re-shot the scenes that had already been done. He even took down the painting of Laura that had been done by Mamoulian’s wife, and replaced it with a blown-up photograph of Tierney that had oil paint added to it. This concludes the story of how Preminger came to direct the film.
There were also issues with casting. Preminger wanted Clifton Webb for Waldo Lydecker, but he was the only one who did. Zanuck thought that Webb was far too effeminate for the role, but it was for this reason that Preminger wanted him in it. Webb was currently appearing in a Los Angeles production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (a play I will be directing next summer) (yes, that was a shameless plug) and Preminger filmed a monologue and showed it to Zanuck, who then agreed that Webb would be best. Laird Cregar (Jack the Ripper from The Lodger) was actually cast by Mamoulian and had started filming, but he was thrown out with Mamoulian’s bath water. George Sanders was also considered, and eventually played the role in a 1968 tv movie from a Truman Capote adaptation which was met with poor reviews. I think Webb was excellent, but I could definitely see George Sanders as Lydecker too. Except that there is something so sinister about Sanders, he’s almost always a suspect, even if there is no crime whatsoever committed in the film, and I think that’s what Preminger was trying to avoid.
Women rumored to have been considered for the part of Laura included Hedy Lamarr and Jennifer Jones. Gene Tierney reportedly did not want the role and only did it out of contractual obligation. She, like me, also thought that she was only adequate. Now, whether that declaration came before or after the reviews, I could not say. I will say, however, that the only way the role of Laura could have been portrayed worse is if Jennifer Jones and her trunkful of histrionics had been put in the film. Also, probably Marjorie Main would not have made a good Laura, but she was never under consideration, as that would have been ridiculous. I’d like to see a mash-up of that though.
I saw Laura for the first time a few months ago when TCM was doing its Summer of Darkness series. I am embarrassed to say that it took me this long to see it, but the delay was by no means intentional. I was never home when it was on or it was never on when I was home. I remember Robert Osborne talking about it on commercials for TCM Essentials last year and just the little snippet of what he said about it made me want to see it.
As it says on my “About” page, I grew up on classic film and I’ve seen thousands of them. Sometimes I catch one that I haven’t seen since I was a kid and didn’t know what it was back then, and I will start to recite lines or sing along to something I didn’t even know I knew. I love letting my friends know about films that are coming on TCM, and sometimes people will just ask me if anything good is coming on instead of looking at the schedule. I usually respond with the answer and a link to the schedule. TCM is pretty much my comfort food, so I’m very happy to have the opportunity to participate in this blogathon.