Friday, September 10, 2021

The Several Faces of Laura

 Laura? She’s the face in a misty light, footsteps that you hear down the hall, the laugh that floats on a summer night. These words come from Johnny Mercer’s memorable lyrics to “Laura,” a jazz standard that was written by David Raksin to underscore Otto Preminger’s 1944 romantic thriller of that name. It was because of that evocative music that I ended up watching Laura once again.  

 When the “Laura” theme turned up on my classical music station, I immediately recalled the Preminger film. In my mind’s eye, I could easily picture the cast: Gene Tierney as the beautiful but potentially tragic Laura; Dana Andrew as the clean-cut cop who falls in love with her portrait; Judith Anderson as her cold-blooded aunt; Vincent Price as the parasitic Shelby Carpenter. Most of all, I recollected Clifton Webb’s matchless portrayal of newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, whose involvement in Laura’s sad fate is more complex than it first appears. Lydecker, of course, is a smug little man known for his sharp wit and vicious tongue. As he quips, discussing his writing methods, “I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” He’s the character who has most of the film’s best lines: no wonder Webb was the sole acting nominee from Laura in a year that also featured Gaslight and Double Indemnity, along with unlikely winner Going My Way.

 One thing I learned from my local classical music station: Preminger was determined to build his film around a very different musical theme, Duke Ellington’s 1933 “Sophisticated Lady.” It’s a great tune, of course, but one that by 1944 was very well known. When Preminger, a man whose word was law on a movie set, announced to composer David Raksin his plans to use the Ellington piece, Raksin had an immediately objection. The tune, he argued, was just too familiar to evoke the mystery of Laura. Preminger gave Raksin a weekend to come up with something better. Happily for all of us, he did.

 The music, though, is not the only thing to admire about Laura . There’s its striking Oscar-winning black & white cinematography, its elegant costumes, its well-matched cast. It’s only in the afterglow of The End that the viewer stops to ponder character motivations that just don’t make much sense. The film was based on a best-selling novel by the once-hugely-popular Vera Caspary. Perhaps in novel form the murky doings of central characters might have seemed more convincing. In any case, Laura was a huge hit for Twentieth Century-Fox. When I wrote about it previously for Beverly in Movieland (March 26, 2013), I had just come from a big-screen showing of the film as part of the L.A. Cinematheque’s annual Noir City series. My friend and film noir expert Alan K. Rode was on hand to explain how Preminger became the director as well as the producer of Laura, despite a serious falling out with Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck over a previous project.

 I won’t repeat Alan’s full explanation here, except to say that Zanuck’s first choice for director was the well-established Rouben Mamoulian, who had made cinema history via his experiments with sound in 1929’s Applause, while also directing such landmark Broadway shows as Oklahoma! and Porgy and Bess. But because of questionable casting choices and an insistence that Laura’s essential portrait be painted by his own artist-wife, Mamoulian got the boot. I saw her work hanging on the walls when I interviewed an aged Mamoulian in his home, and I’m convinced that his firing was all to the good.



  1. Hi Beverly, A good piece on a good movie or, as my wife likes to say when it’s on, “ Laura” is my FAVORITE movie”. However, she also says that when Barbra straightens Hubble’s hair in “The Way We Were” and when Nolte ends “Prince of Tides” with “Lowenstein, Lowenstein, Lowenstein.” She’s right of course, why not have many favorites, it’s a big world, there are scores of heart stopping movies and one should be flexible. Of course, we both being from Brooklyn and loving Barbra is a match one must never stray too far from, except maybe for “Yentel (Adore Mandy too).” Bob.

  2. "Laura" has a wonderful feel to it. But I'm still troubled by some of the characters' motives and behaviors. Can't imagine Webb with a shotgun full of buckshot.