"I shall never forget the weekend Laura died."
--Clifton Webb, "Laura"
Actor Clifton Webb was in his mid fifties before he achieved recognition in the 1944 film-noir classic "Laura." For the next decade and half, he would be a Hollywood star, a remarkable feat considering that he was not particularly handsome nor leading-man material. That he should have been singled out for such notice is a compliment to one of the neatest little mystery movies that filmdom ever produced.
The noir film as we know it today, with its cynical atmosphere of dark shadows and femme fatales, was in its infancy in 1944, but "Laura" is one of the movies that brought it to age. Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews got top billing, but it was really Webb's movie from start to finish. His are the first words we hear, quoted above, and his is the movie's final memorable scene.
But let's start at the beginning. Laura Hunt is dead. She was a beautiful New York City socialite, played by Ms. Tierney, who was brutally murdered in her apartment at close range by a shotgun blast to the head. We see in flashback that she made her ascent to sophistication and riches from being a young, naive advertising agency employee who gets a monumental break in her career from a powerful newspaper columnist and radio personality, Waldo Lydecker, played by Webb.
Investigating the murder is police Lieutenant Mark McPherson, played by Andrews. He's methodical, hard-nosed, tough as nails. You know how tough he is because he wears a proper tough-detective's trench coat. But the more he learns about the case and about Laura, and the more he stares at Laura's portrait in her apartment, the more he starts to fall in love with her--in love with a dead woman. Andrews, like Tierney, is brilliant in his role, but they all pale next to Webb.
Webb as the decadent, conceited, mean-spirited, hypocritical, self-absorbed Lydecker is the very picture of self-confidence, both as a character in the movie and as an actor. This would seem a contradiction. Clifton Webb had been a song-and-dance man on Broadway, not necessarily a dramatic actor, and he had been in very few movies before this one, and then only in very minor roles. His known homosexuality had apparently put him off most Hollywood studios. But director Otto Preminger had faith in him and demanded he be in the picture, over the objections of Fox's studio chief at the time, Darryl F. Zanuck.
Indeed, Zanuck didn't even want Preminger on the project, but when the movie's original director, Rouben Mamoulian, was pulled from the production, Preminger was the only available director in sight. So Preminger came in, and so did Webb. According to the book "Retakes" by John Eastman (Ballantine Books, 1989), Zanuck wanted Jennifer Jones or Hedy Lamarr for the title role, but they declined. Ms. Tierney thought her performance was "lackluster," but it became her most famous part. Vera Caspary, the author of the book on which the movie was based was said to loathe what was going on. She objected to all the changes the screenwriters made to her novel. Not even the celebrated hit song "Laura" was originally a part of the proceedings. Preminger had wanted Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," but he got David Raskin's orchestral music, instead. And it so struck a chord with the public that afterwards Johnny Mercer was hired to write lyrics for it, and it became a number-one hit single. The movie "Laura" is one of those seemingly disastrous affairs where nothing appears to go right yet ends up serendipitously successful. It was among the biggest movies of the year.
But back to Webb. His eccentric, snobbish Lydecker character is said to have been patterned after real-life New York drama critic Alexander Woollcott, the same guy who inspired the character of Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner." Lydecker is first heard narrating the story. Then when we first see him, he is in his lavish penthouse apartment typing away on a column whilst sitting in an elaborate bathtub built into the middle of his study. Laura had a dinner engagement with him on the night of her murder, he explains to McPherson, but she cancelled it. Lydecker tells McPherson that since he writes often about crime, and since Laura was a dear friend to him, he would like to go along on the investigation. He's a suspect to McPherson, but the detective agrees.
At this point, the next half of the story is told in flashback. It tells how Lydecker did a great favor for Laura by endorsing one of her client's products; how Lydecker shaped her career and her personal life; how Lydecker fell in love with her; how Laura came to fall in love with a handsome ne'er-do-well, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price in an outstanding pre-horror phase of his career as Laura's wimpish fiancée); and how Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, still fresh from her triumph as Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca"), hated Laura for taking Shelby away from her.
The story is a good whodunnit, although it probably isn't half as clever as a mystery as it is a character study. The plot takes a sudden and most unexpected turn about halfway through the picture when McPherson falls asleep in front of Laura's portrait. From then on, he says without a trace of stereotype, "I suspect everybody and nobody," a line parodied by Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau and no longer taken very seriously. But at the time it must have seemed fresh, and it's certainly true because everybody in the picture had a motive for murder.
Today, there are touches in the film that can be downright bewildering to a modern viewer. I had quite forgotten that men in the forties and fifties wore their pants up around their armpits; that characters in movies often talked like characters in stage plays, full of unnaturally witty, Oscar Wilde-like repartee; and that everyone who was really cosmopolitan in New York lived in swanky apartments overlooking Central Park, went to fancy night clubs every evening, drank expensive liquor endlessly, and chain-smoked packs of cigarettes a day.
"Laura" is noir to the nines. Although it takes its time working its way into the purity of the genre, most of the latter half of the film takes place on dark, rainy nights, with characters often in shade or silhouette, the shadows darkening and becoming more prevalent as the movie goes on. I loved every minute of it.
As further validation of its fame, "Laura" was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Web); Best Director (Preminger); Best Writing (Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt); Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Joseph La Shelle); and Best Black-and-White Art Direction (Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, and Thomas Little). Joseph La Shelle won the Oscar for Best B&W Cinematography, and everyone's careers were furthered.
The movie is presented in almost its original 1.37:1 screen ratio, here rendered at 1.33:1 to fit a standard television screen. The picture's strong points are its pronounced black-and-white contrasts and its generally pristine appearance, free of age flecks, lines, scratches, or blemishes. Its weak points include a small degree of grain, manifesting itself in a few rough edges, and some moiré effects--shimmering lines--which intrude from the very outset of the film. None of these latter things are particularly distracting, but they are noticeable if you're aware of them.
The audio is presented in two forms: the original monaural or a new stereo 2.0 mix. The mono is actually clearer to my ears than the more softened stereo, but that's a judgment call. In any case, the Dolby Digital 2.0 processing widens out the music somewhat, but it is still a far cry from today's state-of-the-art sound. Nevertheless, it is quiet, with noise reduction having worked wonders on the soundtrack, and it is extremely smooth. It's also very bland, as one might expect, very flat, limited in frequency range and dynamics. But you'll only want dialogue, which comes off quite well.
Fox includes a nice range of extras on the disc, including two film formats--theatrical and extended--and two audio commentaries. The first commentary is with music composer David Raksin and film professor Jeanine Basinger. Raskin does his best to remember what he can from so long ago, while Ms. Basinger fills in background details. The second commentary covers a lot of the same ground with film historian and author Rudy Behlmer. Together, they seemed like overkill, but for the film's legion of fans, no amount of information, no matter how repetitive, will be too much. Interestingly, the disc's menu states that the commentaries are available on the theatrical version only, presumably not on the extended version, but the commentaries were present on both versions as far as I could tell.
Next comes the extended version of the movie, which is only a minute longer than the theatrical version. It is announced on the keep case as having an alternate opening, but it actually includes a single deleted scene that can be viewed on its own, with optional commentary by Rudy Behlmer. This scene, coming about a third of the way into the film, was apparently deleted because the Second World War was going on, and the scene showed too much of the lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous, which could have been demoralizing to the troops overseas. Then, there are two "A&E Biography" specials. The first is "Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait," forty-four minutes long and made in 1999, chronicling the stormy career and personal life of the star. It includes comments by friends and family, like ex-husband Oleg Cassini. The second biography is "Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain," made in 1997 and also forty-four minutes. It reminds us that Price had a flourishing career in Hollywood as a featured player before becoming a full-fledged star with horror vehicles like "House of Wax," "The Fly," William Castle's "The House on Haunted Hill" and "The Tingler," and Roger Corman's low-budget Poe epics such as "The House of Usher" and "The Pit and the Pendulum."
The extras conclude with twenty scene selections and a well-worn theatrical trailer. An informational chapter insert also comes with the package.
As I've said, "Laura" is classic noir, a dark, shadowy mystery that continues to impress fans on second, third, and subsequent viewings because of its engaging acting, its fascinating characters, and its imaginative direction. Most of all, however, it impresses viewers because of Clifton Webb, who steals every scene he's in.