(1944) Directed by Otto Preminger; Written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt; Based on the novel by Vera Caspary; Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson and Dorothy Adams; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…I feel certain that the reason people responded as they do to that melody in the picture and on its own is that it’s about love, specifically about that yearning particular to unrequited love.” – Composer David Raksin, regarding Laura’s theme (from DVD commentary by Rudy Behlmer)
All of us have probably met someone at some point who has an intoxicating effect on everyone he or she encounters. Their influence is so strong they can drive people to do things that would otherwise be considered unconscionable. One case in point is the title character from Otto Preminger’s noir classic, Laura, played by Gene Tierney. The film illustrates how such unbridled infatuation can become deadly.
Laura followed a rocky road to production, as Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox set out to adapt Vera Caspary’s original story.* The screenplay went through several rewrites, with an initial draft by Jay Dratler. Ring Lardner Jr. was brought in for a re-write, with Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt giving the script a final polish. The casting also went through several permutations. According to the L.A. Times, Eva Gabor was once attached to the project as Laura Hunt** Several names were reportedly considered for Waldo Lydecker, including George Saunders, George Raft, and Laird Cregar (Zanuck’s pick). John Hodiak (also a favorite of Zanuck’s) was earmarked for the role of Lieutenant Mark McPherson, before Dana Andrews petitioned to fill the detective’s shoes. Reginald Gardiner was considered for Shelby Carpenter, before the role eventually went to Vincent Price. After several individuals passed on directing the film, Rouben Mamoulian was hired to take the helm, but was replaced by producer Otto Preminger after just 18 days of shooting.***
** Fun Fact #2: Jennifer Jones was cast in the title role, but was replaced by Tierney when she failed to show up for filming.
*** Fun Fact #3: Various stories abound about Mamoulian’s departure from the film: Did Mamoulian quit or was he fired? Well, it depends on whose version of events you accept. One account attests that Mamoulian resigned after Preminger’s continued interference. According to Preminger, however, producer Zanuck was unhappy with Mamoulian’s progress on the movie. But according to Dana Andrews, Mamoulian wanted his Detective McPherson to be more intellectual, rather than the everyman in the final cut. Whichever version you prefer, Zanuck seemed to be the common denominator.
In the opening scene, we learn that the title character has been found dead in her apartment from an apparent shotgun blast to her face. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), an intrepid police detective, interviews the people who knew her best, narrowing down the list of suspects. He creates a composite of the woman at the center of the controversy, and her love triangle between wealthy newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and younger suitor, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). As McPherson’s investigation approaches the truth, the tensions between the characters increase, and as we soon discover, not everything is as it appears.
Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s older gentleman friend, is the paragon of sophistication. He’s pompous and erudite, with an acerbic tongue. He possesses a singular penchant for eviscerating his foes with nothing but his wits and a poison pen. Yet in his dark, seemingly impenetrable heart, he reserves a soft spot for Laura. A flashback scene, illustrates how their first meeting doesn’t go so well, when she attempts to obtain his endorsement for an advertising campaign. He soon does an about face, apologizing for his abruptness. Through all the bluster and cynicism, Waldo is a hopeless romantic, vulnerable to Laura’s formidable charms.
The prime suspect is Laura’s ne'er-do-well fiancé Shelby Carpenter, a spineless would-be playboy with more moxie than money. Although he’s engaged to Laura, he doesn’t have the same level of dedication as Lydecker. When he’s not wooing her, he’s either cavorting with a young poster model, or frequently seen in the company of Laura’s wealthy (and significantly older) aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As portrayed by Price, he’s an opportunist, going wherever the wind blows.
Lt. McPherson, is all business on the outside, but it’s apparent he’s probably been hurt more than a few times before. He refers to women as “dames,” much to the chagrin of Lydecker. The more he learns about Laura, the more he’s bewitched by her presence, and drawn to the mystery that surrounds her. One of his little personality quirks is his little handheld dexterity game with tiny ball bearings. While the game helps him concentrate, it’s clear that his real game is chess, playing one individual against the other to ferret out the killer. Despite Mamoulian’s dismissal from the film, his vision of depicting the cerebral side of McPherson still remains. We can practically see the gears inside McPherson’s head turning, as he works out the puzzle of the murder case.
Gene Tierney plays it cool as the enigmatic Laura Hunt. Either by accident or design, she plays the men against each other, exposing their relative weaknesses. Like a human Rorschach test, she’s every man’s dream, fulfilling their desires and appearing to them as anything they want her to be. Laura’s portrait figures prominently in many scenes throughout the film (including the first and last), taking on a life of its own. Its ubiquitous presence signifies her mesmerizing effect on the three male characters. Likewise, Laura’s theme, composed by David Riksin,* serves in a similar capacity, creating a haunting undertone and conveying the tantalizing effect of Laura as love unobtainable, love lost and love renewed.
* Fun Fact #4: Before Riksin was hired to create the score, composers Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann were approached, but passed on the film.
Laura isn’t about labyrinthine plotting (although there’s a nifty twist midway through the film), organized crime syndicates, or fight scenes. Instead, it’s a dialogue-driven character study, as one man attempts to determine what would bring a peaceful person to commit murder. As we gradually learn about the characters, we see what makes them tick – particularly what ticks them off. Despite the behind-the-scenes friction of the production, what appears on screen is nothing short of captivating. It’s a potent piece of alchemy, illustrating where romance and treachery intersect. By the film’s conclusion, we’ve all succumbed to Laura’s spell.
Source for this article: DVD commentary by Rudy Behlmer