Sunday, August 07, 2022

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney Find Romance and Intrigue in the Incomparable Laura

One of the 1940’s most enduring and entertaining studio offerings, Twentieth-Century Fox’s Laura provides viewers with a key film classic for both the murder mystery and the film noir genres. The 1944 production offered director Otto Preminger (replacing Rouben Mamoulain) the chance for a major breakthrough, and he adeptly helms the adaptation of the ingenious Vera Caspary novel with solid pacing, class, and abundant skill, while the invaluable score by David Raksin’s and beautiful lensing by Joseph LaShelle invaluably assist in creating and maintaining a simultaneously romantic and rivetingly tense mood. Armed with an irreplaceable cast offering distinct performances and top-quality production values in every department, Laura stands a cut above the majority of cinematic output, both in its era and today.

Headlining the list of A-1 players, Dana Andrews makes an indelible mark as Mark McPherson, the NYPD detective attempting to solve the film’s central whodunit. Starting his film career in 1940, Andrews worked his way up the ranks at Fox playing bits, then co-leads and, following wonderful, vivid work as one of the victim’s in another landmark film, 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, found himself joining the top ranks of stars after the success of Laura. As McPherson, Andrews conveys an air of unperturbed, placid practicability, yet also suggests a compassionate demeanor lies underneath his exterior, as Mark finds himself falling for the title character’s portrait, much to his bewilderment, which only intensifies as the story progresses. Andrews has a unique manner of bringing both vulnerability and cool detachment to his signature heroes, gaining an audience’s full support in the process; therefore, even as Mark uses some unorthodox methods during his investigation, the sincerity Andrews exudes assures the viewer will trust McPherson’s motives and stay firmly on his side until the movie’s denouement is reached. Andrews continued to flourish throughout the 1940’s as he maintained a string of fine performances in quality films, including a terrific noir reunion with Preminger for 1945’s engrossing Fallen Angel, along with hits such as State Fair, A Walk in the Sun, Boomerang and excellent work in the decade’s biggest smash, 1946’s Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives. Although his post-1940’s cinematic output witnessed an inevitable drop, Andrews’ highly individualistic work in Laura and other significant 1940’s roles allows him a permanent place among the most talented and remarkable leading men of his era.

As Laura Hunt, Gene Tierney also found herself gaining enriched career status following a fruitful early period at Fox, with a lovely 1940 debut in Technicolor opposite Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James and endearing work in a 1943 Fox classic of her own, Ernst Lubitsch’s appealing Heaven Can Wait. Although Tierney wrote in her compelling autobiography how she felt her performance in Laura was competent but nothing special, her calm passiveness is in beautiful synch with Andrews’ low-key playing, and she suggests an enigmatic quality that is extremely well-suited to the idea of Laura possibly owning a dubious moral character. Tierney, of course, also possesses an otherworldly beauty that is in keeping with the idea of Laura as a supreme goddesses in addition to being a top-flight advertising executive, doing justice to the famous portrait’s depiction of Laura as a vision for the ages. As her career burgeoned subsequent to Laura, Tierney appeared to blossom dramatically when given roles with sinister aspects, such as in The Razor’s Edge, The Egyptian and, especially, via iconic, Oscar-nominated work in her biggest hit, 1945’s definitive color noir Leave Her to Heaven; however, Tierney’s earnest playing as Laura Hunt provides a prime example of the special qualities Tierney could bring to the table while adopting a more romantic persona (see also Dragonwyck and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir for other top Tierney roles in this mode), and her serene presence and engaging interplay with Andrews and their costars allows Laura Hunt to prevail as one of cinema’s most memorable and haunting leading ladies of the period.

Clifton Webb witnessed one of Hollywood’s greatest late-career arrivals via his portrayal of the acerbic, self-absorbed newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker. A veteran of stage and a few films during the silent era, Webb found himself becoming a top character actor in his mid-50’s after his phenomenal impact in Laura. Armed with an imposing walking cane and many of the film’s best lines (“I write with a goose quill, dipped in venom” comes to mind as I type this without any venom in hand, darn it) Webb effortlessly nabs the spotlight with the confident aplomb of one who had made movies for years, rather than coming across as a novice in the industry (abet one with a substantial list of theatrical successes behind him). Although Webb appropriately emphasizes Lydecker’s egocentric, snobbish demeanor, he also allows audiences to clearly see the strong attachment he establishes with Laura as he aids her climb to the top of her profession, thereby lending a sympathetic aspect to exist within Waldo amid his more obvious arrogant behavior. Following Laura, Webb worked consistently during his final twenty years in other top Fox offerings, with a peak being his fine, emotionally-driven Oscar-nominated wok in 1946’s The Razor’s Edge, just before his biggest career success as Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty (also Oscar-nominated) and its sequels, while the 1950’s saw Webb headlining hits such as Cheaper By the Dozen (which allowed him to place in the Quiqley poll of Top Ten Box Office Stars of 1950, so make that a star character actor), as John Phillip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever, and Three Coins in the Fountain, before his final appearance opposite William Holden in 1962’s Satan Never Sleeps. While Webb’s continuing success post-Laura accounts for one of the more improbable and exceptional runs for a major movie star of a certain age, his reputation rests largely on his work as the difficult-yet-magnetic Waldo Lydecker, as it is the Webb characterization most recognizable to modern-day lovers of classic film.

Vincent Price brings a genial, relaxed manner to his role as Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s intended who nevertheless possesses a roving eye and becomes a prime suspect in the case McPherson’s attempting to unravel. Similar to his costars, as a relative newcomer to films Price’s status took a beneficial upswing with the release of Laura, with his work in the previous year’s prestige Fox offering, The Song of Bernadette, being his main screen credit of note. Price would follow-up by costarring twice again with Tierney in short order, via Leave Her to Heaven and a meatier role in 1946’s Dragonwyck, then continue as a reliable lead and second lead until the mammoth success of 1953’s House of Wax completely changed the dynamics of Price’s screen image, switching him from a handsome, good-natured leading man to the Master of the Macabre, a role he played with relish in countless films until his wonderful swansong in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. As Ann Treadwell, the chic, modernistic, wealthy matron who only has eyes for Shelby, Judith Anderson gets a chance at a nice change-of-pace role, far from her most famous part as the diabolical Miss Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and she has a wonderful moment in a powder room wherein she relates to Laura why Ann and Shelby are ideally suited for each other, as they are both rotten and therefore a perfect match. Finally, Dorothy Adams also makes a nice impact as Laura’s beguilingly loyal maid, Bessie, who takes no guff from Mark or anyone else as she defends Laura’s moral character, come what may. Also, look fast for a young Cara Williams, as a coworker who wishes Laura good luck as the latter arises from their luncheon table to meet Waldo for the first time (Williams can also be seen behind Webb and Tierney in a later scene wherein Lydecker visits Laura at her workplace, hence the “coworker” label).

Upon release, Laura gained popular acclaim from both audiences and critics, leading to five Oscar nominations, including ones for Preminger, Webb and for the witty, sophisticated screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt, and a win for LaShelle’s lush, atmospheric black and white cinematography, thereby granting Laura the “Academy Award-winning” moniker it richly deserves. Although somehow Raksin’s unforgettable score was overlooked come Oscar time, it has maintained its stature as one of Hollywood’s best, with several versions of the theme song hitting the top ten in 1945, on the way to the tune becoming a standard, and the score placing at #7 on the AFI’s 2005 poll for “100 Years of Film Scores.” The film itself also placed highly (at #4) on the AFI’s 2008 list of Top Ten Mystery films, following its 1999 inclusion in the prestigious National Film Registry’s archives. In addition to major accolades, Laura also is assured to uphold its place among the top movies of its era due to the durable nature of the film, as repeated viewings only serve to heighten audiences’ admiration and enjoyment of one of classic cinema’s most impeccable and involving works.

As a P.S., I just completed a video tribute to Queens of classic film noir, which of course includes Tierney (with Andrews in one shot) along with many other ladies of the night, both of the femme fatale persuasion and those harboring a more noble character. The "Talking in Your Sleep- Classic Film Noir Style" tribute can be viewed on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/svhQmznUFMw