Thursday, December 31, 2015

Laura (1944) Extended Version

3.5/4

Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price

Not Rated (contains Brief Violence)

Everyone loves a good mystery.  Witness the popularity of movies like "Seven" or anything by Alfred Hitchcock.  Hell, Hitch essentially defined the genre.  While the Master of Suspense didn't have anything to do with this film (it was directed by Otto Preminger), I have no doubt that he would have been pleased.

When the film opens, Laura Hunt (Tierney) is already dead.  She was murdered with a shotgun blast to the face.  Detective Mark McPherson (Andrews) is on the case, and has narrowed the suspect pool to two men: her patron, Waldo Lydecker (Webb), and her (ex?) fiancĂ©e, Shelby Carpenter (Price).  Both have motive: Waldo had a possessive streak and Shelby perhaps just wanted her for her money.  But which one is it?

"Laura" has the benefit of having a screenplay that is frequently brilliant.  Character development is strong and much of the dialogue, particularly Waldo's, is deliciously witty.  It is also beneficial that the film is in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing.  Preminger allows the mystery to unfold with the elegance of a master.  He keeps his cards very close to his chest, and when the big twist comes at the halfway mark, it blindsides us because we weren't expecting a twist of any kind.

The acting is terrific.  Dana Andrews, best known for this film and the post-WWII drama "The Best Years of Our Lives," is solid as the stone-faced detective.  We never know what he's thinking, but he's smart and we know he'll get to the bottom of it.  However, this has a downside: he's so emotionless that when people talk about him falling in love with Laura, we don't feel it.  As the title character, Gene Tierney shines.  Tierney, whose career was on a high note when this was made but was sidelined a few years later due to her mental instability, has a difficult role.  Through sheer personality, she must get us to understand how three men could become obsessed with her without overpowering us.  She pulls it off, and in that sense, I thought of Cameron Diaz in "There's Something About Mary."

The other two actors, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, are equally colorful.  As the arrogant, quick-witted Waldo, Webb shines.  He has all the best lines, and I thought of Claude Rains in "Casablanca."  As polite as he is, there is definitely something sinister, almost pathological, about him,  Ironically, Darryl F. Zanuck didn't want to cast him because of his homosexuality, which was an open secret in Hollywood at the time.  But Preminger insisted, and Webb scored an Oscar nomination.  Future b-movie horror icon Vincent Price plays a far different role than he would become typecast as.  Shelby initially seems like a rather dense fellow, but then we realize he's anything but.

The beauty of "Laura" is that with each new revelation, our confidence in what we think we know about what happened erodes.  And, unlike many movies that feature a big twist, such as "Seven," "The Sixth Sense," and so on, the big twist doesn't solve everything.  In fact, it turns everything on its head.

The film's score must be mentioned.  Although it was not nominated for an Oscar, it proved to be so popular that fans demanded recordings, and the studio published the sheet music for purchase.  It's no surprise.  The music enhances the film's mood without being ostentatious, just as all good musical scores should.

The film can get a little confusing, and the ending is a little too abrupt, but all in all this is a must for lovers of film-noir, mysteries, or quality filmmaking in general.

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