Pros: Dana Andrews, Production Values, Campy, Direction, One liners
Cons: Campy, unbelievable
A release from the Fox Film Noir Collection, Laura is one of the 1940s crime dramas that is considered a staple of film noir collections, and rightly so. Unlike most noirs, which show seedy lower class characters in similar downbeat environs, Laura shows crime among the upper crust - a precursor to our obsession with so-called white collar crime among the rich and famous in more recent years. The basic idea behind the picture is the story of a detective who falls in love with a dead woman as he searches her apartment under a looming portrait of the victim.
The film opens with a voice-over from poison pen gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb - Titanic). The columnist is a self absorbed, effeminate, hateful little parasite who eats his lunch at the Algonquin Hotel and knows his words can make or break people and is not afraid to use his clout.
A woman has been killed in Laura's apartment, assumed to be Laura, but since the shotgun blast was in her face, the identification is only tentative. Dana Andrews is the tough detective Mark McPherson assigned to the case. The first 2/3 of the story plays out with Andrews trying to find who murdered Laura; then Laura suddenly appears from her brief vacation and the investigation becomes who murdered "Jane Doe."
The story has more convolutions than nearly any other noir, therefore it is fruitless to try to follow it with logic as it is not logically plotted. The main thing that carries Laura over is the glossy production values with the great sets and costumes all shot with the roving camera of newly minted director Otto Preminger using newly minted cinematographer Joseph LaShelle. Whereas most directors plan their scenes with many cuts, Preminger's camera tracks and pans through a set with few cuts beginning in one room and ending up in another of Laura's lush apartment without blinking. In addition, the David Raksin music with the distinctive Laura theme is cleverly inserted as ambient music on the radio, phonograph, and orchestra at the restaurant
The story, from the novel by Vera Caspary and adapted for the screen by a committee of writers that included Ring Lardner, has variable quality in the characterizations, with Clifton Webb as the catty columnist the most emphasized character. Webb is able to archly stalk through the scenes flinging vitriol at one and all and is quite a despicable character.
Vincent Price (in his pre-horror guise) is a soft-spoken big lug of a gigolo whom all the women apparently can't keep their hands off of. He and Webb have great fun camping it up and seeing who can chew the most scenery.
Judith Anderson is the rival socialite who is pawing Vincent when she can. The highly strung Clifton Webb, although ostensibly Laura's suitor, seems like he would like to paw Vincent, too. Anyway, he never lays a gloved hand on Laura, even though he claims she loves him.
Lovely Gene Tierney gives no credibility to the role of a successful businesswoman. She really carries her part strictly on her looks, which are formidable but a bit distant. Tierney seems to have more impact via her large portrait that hangs over the mantelpiece in her lavish digs.
The more I watch Laura and these other noirs, the more I like Dana Andrews (Where the Sidewalk Ends). Andrews has everything Humphrey Bogart has for these sorts of roles but none of the jitters or twitches. I think Dana Andrews who looks like he was born in a raincoat and fedora makes one of the best noir detectives and deserves a much bigger audience. Andrews emits that stalwart quality that makes you know he is in charge and evidences a wry sense of humor more palatable than Clifton Webbs campy histrionics.
The newly released Fox Film Noir Collection DVD is as shiny as a new penny with a spotless version of the 88-minute, 1944 black and white film with a host of extra content that makes it a super value in addition to being a must for your crime film collection. The best features are the A&E Biography segments on Vincent Price and Gene Tierney. There are two full length commentaries that are informative but duplicative.
Even though it has its flaws, like The Big Sleep or Gilda Laura proves that film noir does not have to make strict sense to be superior entertainment.