Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Laura (1944)

I’m about to make a confession that will no doubt result in the demotion of my rank as film-lover: I’m not the biggest film noir fan in the world. I know many who adore the genre, and that’s fine for them, but I’ve seen enough noir to know that I don’t like it, Sam I am. Probably something to do with the self-conscious stylization, the mannered delivery of the dialogue, and the dialogue itself, which never seems to operate in the real world – just a conveyance of information that usually requires the viewer to take studious notes in order to get what the whole thing is about. 

I know – it’s the “other-worldliness” that is exactly the appeal. And Laura operates squarely in that world, although, to be fair, it can also be described as an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, replete with cast of possible culprits, and the final revelation of who really dunnit, after a few false leads and red herrings. By the time we do get to the dénouement, I was pretty well worn out from all the twists and turns. But to be fair, I guessed wrong – so it gets props for at least that.

As the film opens, the voice-over narration of Waldo Lydecker, columnist and radio personality, informs us of the recent murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a beautiful young woman whom he clearly had a great affection for. The detective on the case, Mark McPherson, coolly questions his relation to her, and does the same for a cavalcade of other acquaintances of the ill-fated brunette, among them her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and a woman who clearly has eyes for him, Anne Treadwell. Through flashback, we learn of Waldo’s tutelage of the girl, taking her under his wing and helping her advance in the ad industry. We also discover of Laura’s vocational assistance to Shelby, and how, perhaps, their engagement may not be quite as solid as it seems.

At a little past the halfway mark, we get a major twist: Laura is, in fact, alive. She shocks McPherson by showing up as if nothing ever happened; when he apprises her of recent events via newspaper headline, she is just as shocked. The murder victim? Evidentially, Shelby’s “other woman,” murdered by… Laura, who just hours earlier was the murder victim herself. At least that’s all Shelby can deduce from the catfight he overheard behind a closed door. When McPherson takes the culprit away, he confides to Laura that it’s all just a show – she can’t possibly be the one – and his suspicions are justified when a rifle’s fingerprint check confirms Waldo as the real killer. They shoot him just after he attempts to kill Laura, and confesses that he also mistakenly killed the other woman, dressed in Laura’s negligee. 

Laura is a confirmed classic, with awards and critical accolade aplenty, so it would ill-serve me to be too critical of it. I suppose this could be on that list of films that I can respect without necessarily loving. I sort of feel like, after all the deep, heady Fox films I’ve recently seen as I go through this collection, Laura comes up soft and lightweight. Quitted-witted dialogue, to be sure, and gorgeous B&W cinematography, but it’s all surface-level theatrics. But it was probably above-par for the film fare of its day – just what the doctor ordered for war-weary audiences looking for some soothing salve to help them deal with the harsh realities of 1944.

I’d like to add, though, how much I admired Vincent Price as Shelby. His characterization of the jilted fiancé is a perfect straddling of tall, dashing class and odd, off-kilter nebbishness. It makes one wonder – if he did not become such a horror icon some 10 yeas later, would he have continued to be such an effectively piquant character actor?

And Gene Tierney as Laura herself? Ravishing, of course, and a reminder of how those old classic film icons weren’t just pretty faces (even though they were that). They all possessed a brimming intelligence – a furtive authority that enabled them to control everyone in the room, and that included the audience. That ineffable quality of possessing everyone’s attention, immediately. In a modern cinematic world where the sound and fury of CGI, hyperactive audio/video editing and the mantra “louder is better” prevail, we al could take note of the soft, subtle power of the movie star.

So go back in time, and relish the old days of film through Laura. Not an deep or hugely emotional picture, but a fine work nonetheless. And it’s a classic.

                          Rating:  ***

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