Home Video Reviews
It's also the role for which she will forever be best known, and Tierney knew it. In later years, she wrote, "I'm pleased that audiences still identify me with Laura. I never felt that my own performance was much more than adequate. Tributes, I believe, are for the character, the dreamlike Laura, rather than any gifts I brought to the role. I do not mean to sound modest. I doubt that any of us connected with the movie thought it had a chance of becoming a kind of mystery classic or ever enduring beyond its generation."
Elegantly structured, well paced, and devised so that there really are several viable suspects, Laura is more than just the best murder mystery ever to come out of Hollywood - it's a haunting and dreamlike love story. Gene Tierney's Laura Hunt is elevated to success in New York's upper-crust advertising world by witty columnist Waldo Lydecker (stage star Clifton Webb, making his talkie debut). Her ravishing beauty and charm captivate many, leading to a love triangle and her murder. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to the case and as he learns about Laura and sees her portrait, he falls in love with her. A stunning plot twist halfway through turns everything in a new direction.
It is difficult to synopsize Laura in a way that does justice to the finished film, for it works on intensely cinematic levels. The script and dialogue are a model of wit. The design of the film, including the sets and costumes, are not only beautiful but perfectly expressive of each character and their class (an important undercurrent to the story). Preminger's staging allows us to consider all the characters as equally suspect, even as it paints a very specific and romanticized image of Laura for us, and Mark, in the film's first half. Like Casablanca, in fact, Laura was one of those happy accidents of Hollywood in which all the elements somehow came together perfectly at the last minute to create an enduring classic.
Author Vera Caspary had tried to write Laura as a play, but she was stymied and turned it into a 1943 novel (first serialized in Collier's magazine). Otto Preminger read the galleys and was interested. He was now back at Fox after having had a falling-out there years earlier with studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, and plenty of tension still existed between the two. Preminger wanted to direct Laura, but Zanuck said, "You can go ahead and produce it, but as long as I'm here you will never direct." Zanuck assigned the project to his "B" unit, but when he read the screenplay, he elevated it to "A" status.
The happy accidents kept coming. Actor John Hodiak was originally planned for the detective role until Dana Andrews got it by craftily charming Zanuck's wife. Reginald Gardiner was planned for the Vincent Price role, Jennifer Jones and Hedy Lamarr were offered the Gene Tierney part (they turned it down), and Monty Woolley and Laird Cregar were the studio's choices for the Clifton Webb role. Director Lewis Milestone passed, and Rouben Mamoulian actually directed a significant amount of the script over 18 days with cameraman Lucien Ballard before being replaced by Preminger.
Preminger later said that Zanuck was simply unhappy with Mamoulian's work, but other accounts have Preminger purposefully undermining Mamoulian so that he'd be fired. Either way, Preminger brought in a new cameraman, Joseph LaShelle, and started over. The change in atmosphere on the set was noticeable. Andrews later said, "Judith Anderson and Otto did not get along at all. We were all on edge and very tense. Preminger's direction was Germanic in approach. He saw the picture his way. There was a change of everything, and conflicts about everything. I much preferred Mamoulian's direction. It would have been a happier experience if he had been directing." Tierney said, "[He] drove himself, and us, so hard! He was simply tireless. When the rest of the cast seemed ready to drop from exhaustion, Otto would still muster as much vigor as when the day began." Preminger claimed to have re-shot the entire script, while Mamoulian insisted that most of the film was composed of his own footage. Laura certainly looks more like an Otto Preminger film, with many stylistic qualities consistent with his other movies, though historians seem to agree that the opening sequence was kept from Mamoulian's work.
Finally came the best of the happy accidents - the musical score. Preminger originally wanted to use Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" as the film's theme music, but luckily, young David Raksin came up with something else. Then a junior member of the studio's composing staff, Raksin had been assigned to Laura after Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann turned it down, both having heard the rumors that this was a troubled production. When Raksin viewed a cut of the film, he later recalled, "I saw immediately it was not a detective story but a love story in a detective story milieu."
The story goes that Darryl Zanuck wanted to drastically cut down the famous scene in which Dana Andrews wanders around Laura's apartment, looking through her things and staring at her portrait. Raksin protested, saying that the scene was essential to showing the detective falling in love with Laura, and that it simply needed music. Zanuck said OK, and he and Preminger gave Raksin the weekend to come up with something original. Otherwise, "Sophisticated Lady" would be used. Over the weekend, Raksin received a letter from his wife saying she wanted to end their marriage, and out of his heartbreak came the hauntingly romantic tune which has touched audiences ever since. "I feel certain that the reason people responded as they do to that melody, in the picture and on its own, is that it is 'about' love, specifically about that yearning particular to unrequited love," said Raksin. Hedy Lamarr later said that she had turned down Laura because "they sent me the script, not the score."
The public embraced the Laura theme immediately and the studio knew it had a huge hit on its hands. Johnny Mercer was commisioned to write lyrics, and within months of the film's release the song had been recorded by the likes of Woody Herman, Dick Haymes, Johnnie Johnson, Freddy Martin, and Jerry Wald. All were bestsellers, and literally hundreds more recordings would come in the years to follow, making the song one of the most recorded in history.
Fox Home Entertainment's DVD features an excellent transfer of the film and comes laden with worthwhile extras: a trailer, two episodes of Biography on Gene Tierney and Vincent Price (the Tierney episode is especially good), and a deleted scene, about two minutes long, which is an extension of Waldo's flashback tale of meeting Laura, taking her under his wing and refining her appearance. You can watch the scene by itself or watch the entire film with the scene included. (You can also watch the film without it.)
Finally, there are two commentary tracks, one by film historian Rudy Behlmer and the other by film historian Jeanine Basinger and composer David Raksin. Behlmer had access thirty years ago to production documents and firsthand interviews with some of the film's cast and crew, and while his delivery is on the dry side, he is a fountain of interesting information and liberally sprinkles in direct quotes from Caspary, Preminger, Andrews, Tierney, Zanuck and others. Almost all of his information has already been recounted in his book Behind the Scenes: The Making Of, and for the most part, he simply reads aloud that book's chapter on Laura.
The other commentary track is a gem. Basinger offers analysis and insight into how the film works on the level of craft - how cinematography, writing, staging, art direction, etc. are used to tell the story and create atmosphere. Her points are thorough, entertaining and provocative, especially when dealing with the more subtle aspects of script and direction, and she clearly loves the movie. Raksin's comments are occasionally mixed in, and the late composer is very compelling on his approach to this picture, notably on the sequences in which he carefully chose not to use music.
Laura was nominated for five Oscars® (including nods for Webb and Preminger), and it won for Joseph LaShelle's black-and-white cinematography. The picture was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999.
For more information about Laura, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Laura, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold