Saturday, June 28, 2008

Film Ignorance #4: Laura

Film: Laura
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
Year: 1944
Reason for Ignorance: Never Heard of it

Ignorance Rating: 18/100

Otto Preminger was apparently a major Hollywood director at the mid-century, but I've never seen any of his films. I did know his name, however, because he directed Anatomy of a Murder, a courtroom drama starring Jimmy Stewart that I have wanted to see for a while. Now that I've seen Laura, I can't say I'm interested in finding anything else by him and watching it, besides the afore-mentioned Stewart picture.

Laura is a pretty straightforward film noir/mystery picture from this period of Hollywood: a beautiful dame is murdered and a tough-talking gumshoe has to work out the truth of the matter while receiving lies from everyone who knew her. There are two main variations her on the noir theme, neither of which serve the picture that well. First, the femme fatale, who's frequently murdered in the final scene, is murdered before the film begins. Secondly, the femme fatale in question is actually a wonderful person. This is what irked me - everyone has fallen in love with Laura: the fallen Kentucky gentleman (Price in a pre-horror role), the painter of her portrait, the urbane newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb) and, most nonsensically, Mark McPherson, the police detective. He never met her, but he fell in love with her anyway. But although she exerts this powerful spell over everyone, everyone also agrees that Laura was the kindest and gentlest woman they'd ever met. This removed the magic of the film noir for me; sure, we're frequently treated to a detective who's above suspicion, but besides that, everyone's supposed to be wading through the muck. Laura floats above it.

It would have been very hard to talk about the plot of Deliverance without mentioning the anal rape, but I was free to do so since everyone already knows about it. Since I don't think it's cultural common knowledge, I won't reveal the big twist that takes place halfway through Laura. Let's just say this: I was pretty sure who killed Laura about 15 minutes into the film, and, although the twist threw me off the scent for a while, I was back on track well before the film revealed all of its secrets. This made the final revelation of the murder un-revelatory.

The only truly positive thing I have to say about this film concerns the acting. The acting generally ranged from competent to slightly wooden, with Vincent Price's dissolute southern gentleman standing out. But Clifton Webb's columnist, Waldo Lydecker, was a revelation. I don't think I've ever seen Webb in anything before, but he's fantastic. His Lydecker is distasteful and regards everyone else with distaste. He's fantastically arrogant, following McPherson wherever he goes, questioning his methods, interrogating his witnesses, and trying to make it clear that he's the smarter and the classier of the two of them - the more worthy of Laura's posthumous love and the better able to solve her murder. His performance is the only thing about this film that is truly excellent. Otherwise, it's mostly a bit dull.

In other words, this is certainly not a bad film, but it didn't strike me as a special one. Sure, if you want your noir fix you can watch it and enjoy it, but it's not going to wow you. Before watching it, I'd recommend The Third Man, Touch of Evil, Out of the Past, The Lady from Shanghai, The Big Sleep, The Asphalt Jungle, Double Indemnity, and even Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody Allen's charming noir homage that I only now know references Laura as well as many of those other films I mentioned. If you still want more after that, check out Laura.

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