Laura (1944)

Laura 1The classic screening for Sunday Aug 2nd (at 5.30 for 6.00pm) at SouthBank is more than just a standard film noir. It won Oscars for Best Director (Otto Preminger), Best Support Actor (Clifton Webb) and Best Cinematography. It was also nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction.

“That Laura continues to weave a spell – and it does – is a tribute to style over sanity … All of [the] absurdities and improbabilities somehow do not diminish the film’s appeal. They may even add to it … [T]he whole film is of a piece: contrived, artificial, mannered and yet achieving a kind of perfection…” So wrote Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times, in 2002. Wait! … Just checking … Yep, it still holds true!

PLOT

Investigating the murder of advertising executive Laura Hunt, Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) visits her apartment. This is where her body was found and he wants to build a mental picture of the victim, whose beguiling portrait hangs over the mantle (see below, right). Methodically, he interviews witnesses and suspects: the waspish columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), wastrel socialite Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and his wealthy “patroness” Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). But the deeper he gets into the case, the more fascinated he becomes by the enigmatic Laura.

Every man she met, it seems, had fallen for her, while women either liked her as a person or were jealous of the attention she got from men. To make matters worse, as he questions people who knew her, and as he reads her diary and private letters, McPherson finds himself falling under the spell of Laura himself – especially with that portrait staring down at him. Then, halfway through his investigations, someone appears to change the entire investigation, answering some nagging questions but also adding one more name to the list of suspects…Don’t you just hate it when that happens!

AUTHORSHIP

Laura 6Vera Caspary (left: 1899-1987) was a playwright and novelist who often mixed themes concerning a woman’s quest for identity/love with murder. Independence was the key to her characters, who are menaced but who turn out to be neither victimized nor rescued damsels. During the Depression Caspary joined the Communist Party under an alias and visited Russia, but became disillusioned with politics and eventually married her writing collaborator of six years, Isidor “Igee” Goldsmith. Her Communist connections later led to being “graylisted” and the couple split their time between Hollywood and Europe until Igee’s death in 1964. Caspary remained in New York where she wrote a further eight books.

PRODUCTION HISTORY

Laura began as Ring Twice for Laura, a stage play with a high-society setting and unusual plot twist. Otto Preminger offered to stage the play if he could write some revisions but Caspary disagreed. She adapted it to a novel, which  was bought as a vehicle for George Sanders by William Goetz, standing in at 20th Century Fox while Darryl F. Zanuck was doing military service. Goetz hired Preminger to direct but when Zanuck returned he was furious, having also previously clashed with the OttoAustro-Hungarian emigre (pictured right). Zanuck said Preminger could produce but not direct and he eventually hire Rouben Mamoulian (below left). Ignoring all Preminger’s directives, Mamoulian also began rewriting the script and, off his own back, cast Laird Cregar, (already known for portraying Jack the Ripper) to play the murderer. Furious, Preminger went over Mamoulina’s head and persuaded Zanuck to hire another stage actor.

But there Mamoulianwas trouble on set anyway since Mamoulian had offered relative newcomers Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews little support and they were floundering. In addition, he had made no effort to tone down the performance of theatrically trained Judith Anderson. As for Clifton Webb, who had returned to the screen after a long break and was feeling lost, Mamoulian ignored him altogether!

In the end Mamoulian was fired by Zanuck and Preminger took over. He hired a new cinematographer and designer, and replaced the crucial portrait of Laura – that had been painted by Mamoulian’s wife – with an enlarged photograph dabbed with paint for effect.

“Once we got used to Otto, we had a pretty easy time,” Vincent Price recalled. The picture was completed on time but over budget. It was a great success and consolidated Preminger as an A-list Hollywood director.

MUSIC

Laura 7David Raksin, musical adviser on Laura, had been only 23 when Charlie Chaplin asked him to do the music for Modern Times. Chaplin had been demanding, but Preminger was proving a taskmaster! The director wanted to use “Sophisticated Lady” by Duke Ellington for the main theme, but Raksin (left) objected. He felt it needed a brand new melody, not a re-tread of an old song. They quarrelled until Alfred Newman (uncle to Randy Newman), music director at Fox, stepped in to convince Preminger to give Raksin a weekend to compose an original tune.

Inspired by a Dear John letter (i.e.written by a girlfriend to a soldier, breaking off their relationship) which Raksin had once received, he wrote the haunting theme (Johnny Mercer later wrote lyrics)  that was to become not just a vital element to the film’s tone but  a jazz standard. It was a weekend in 1944, and when his obituary appeared in the New York Times 60 years later, the headline read, ‘Composer of Laura, Dead at 92.’   Preminger was so pleased with Raksin’s work on Laura, they collaborated on four more films.

THEMES/ AUTEUR SIGNATURES

Laura 5Preminger’s film characters are defined in terms of the social and institutional structures that protect them and sometimes conceal them. Crucial to this conception of cinema is the camera’s power to link character and place. In Preminger’s films, shots of the exteriors of buildings, of people entering rooms, etc., are central visual clues to how people determine their own destinies.

For example, after Detective Mark McPherson makes his crucial assertion of individuality (by admitting to the spectator he is in love with Laura) he retreats to the impersonal. Taking his suspect into headquarters for questioning he says, “It was getting so I felt I needed official surroundings.” It’s as if, lacking firm social ground in all that has transpired, he needs institutional support. And yet the relationship between these things is in flux and sometimes contradictory. This could be the motto for all Preminger heroes.

TRIVIA

Unhappy with Preminger’s first cut, Daryl F. Zanuck thought he knew better and gave it a new ending; his editing job made the entire story turn out to have been only imagined! Following a press preview of his edited Laura, Zanuck was apporached by newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, who brought up the issue of its ending: “I didn’t get,” he said. “You’ve got to change it.” Zanuck acquiesced and Preminger was allowed to reinstate his original finale. “This is your success,” he told the director. “I concede.”

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