Saturday, April 4, 2015

Gene Tierney in Otto Preminger's LAURA

hm, dames...

Otto Preminger's Laura is a crackerjack suspense 'who-done-it-where-is-she' film, and it's all driven by character, motivation, and superb dialog. Hell, even the narration is fitting, at least when it's delivered by the likes of Clifton Webb: he was apparently was the newcomer to film, for the most part, though he was known on Broadway. This makes him an unknown quantity for audiences in 1944, and he comes off right off the bat as a little (or a lot) fishy, as he is in a bath, seeming like an aristocrat but nothing more than a 'columnist' of pretentious heights. Indeed, the best word to use for Webb's performance is pretentious, but in the best complimentary way: you may be able to peg him, but he is able to spin a tail like it's nobody's business. Hell, he even gives Dana Andrews a bit of the slip. At first.

"Are you for real, it's so hard to tell..." Wait, wrong song.
 What drives this story is this woman at the center: is Gene Tierney's title character a dastardly "dame"? What's she playing at? Suspected dead, and yet (as we are soon to find out, not really a "spoiler" exactly, unless you want to go in totally blind), she keeps her own self mysterious. But unlike Webb's character/performance, Tierney may have more underneath, and yet it's interesting how she starts out as a very decent, kind person. That first scene that Lydecker describes when Laura comes up to his table, trying to offer advertising and Laura being rebuffed and her all-too-kind response, says it all, even as it's from HIS point of view. He could make her out to be worse than she is, but if anything she is the sweetest person ever - even, or especially, as she puts him out during his lunch. Good heavens!

Andrews is the detective here, and yet for a role that is practically the straight-guy - that is, the one without the same levels of personality as Webb and Price - he delivers the goods as well. There's a scene where he is alone in Lydecker's apartment at night, pondering details, having drinks like any good private dick in a film noir, and stares at the portait of Laura. For a moment I almost wondered if Preminger would go into the surreal - is Laura's return for "real"? It's that convincing of a film noir world, of the unexpected, of the subterfuge coming up over and over, of the 'disguises', that it could have been plausible, if only for a moment.

Of course, this is Hollywood in 1944, a studio production under Zanuck, so it can't get TOO crazy. What Laura provides for the viewer, most so for someone looking for a solid example of what film noir was, is mystery and intrigue, and Motivations with a capital M. You know there are some slippery characters, and this includes an older woman who admits at a key point to the main character that she *could* conceive of committing murder (though she doesn't). When you have actors playing these people, becoming them even, you know something is up through the first half, you don't quite know what it is, and neither does Andrews' detective. And he may be tricky too: is he falling for her? One can hope, at this point, that it's not so - even if she may be what she appears to be... or she isn't, who knows?

You want to go along for the 'ride' in Laura because of the personalities, and what can turn on a dime in an instant. Preminger keeps the screws tight with the plot, but also manages to get a helluva lot of spectacular images. Sometimes it's just the placement of four people in a frame, showing the depth of the composition, with those blinds-through-the-window providing that light that gives everything a further mystery. One might find it a cliché today, but Preminger is among those creating the language of noir (at the same time as Wilder with Double Indemnity, at least in part with Hitchcock), and it all adds to the material.

Clifton Webb of the Living Dead
There doesn't feel a moment wasted here, not when Laura gets an all-too-bright light shone on her in an interrogation, not when Price tries to flub his way through another talk and barely gets by. It's enticing, exciting, the music is tense and the script has more than its share of wit and zingers. Immensely watchable as a classic 40's noir.

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