Laura - 1944
Laura is produced and directed by Otto Preminger (59’s Anatomy of a Murder & 60’s Exodus) and was named one of the 10 best mystery films of all time by AFI. The screenplay was adapted by three credited writers from a novel of the same name, yet it feels like it came from a singular voice. The movie has a small but reputable cast of Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price and the scene-stealing talent of Clifton Webb. The story centers around a murder mystery and the cast of suspects surrounding the victim, Laura.
Otto Preminger put on a clinic on blocking a scene (blocking = working out the details of an actor's moves in relation to the camera) together. Preminger would set up the camera in a way that would allow his actors to play with their movements in relationship to each other. Simple things from the way background characters would react to the scene developing in front of their eyes or how the main players would move around the room. My favorite example of Preminger’s blocking technique comes when Det. Lt. Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, is left alone at Laura’s apartment. He walks around the entire apartment, slowly reveling small intimate details to the camera, but my favorite shoots come when he perfectly stops in front of the camera to stare at her painting hanging over the fire. She always lands in the middle of the screen looming over him as he starts to develop feelings for her.
Laura has a beautifully mysterious and melancholic theme that underlines the entire movie. The score helps set the tone for the movie and engages with the audience as they try to unravel the mystery in front of their eyes. Something I miss about Hollywood today is the subtle use of score. The score rarely swells up to the point of calling attention to itself, but it’s always present and helping the events land harder. Below is a small sample for you to enjoy.
The great thing about Laura’s mystery is not that the ending is unexpected, it’s that you saw it coming all along. I don’t mean that the movie telegraphs the ending, I mean they effectively give every suspect enough motivation for you to expect them to be the killer. This movie had me changing my mind on multiple occasions, and when the final reveal comes along, I genuinely said out loud, “of course that’s the killer”. The movie also boasts a couple of small twists that are worth me avoiding for your viewing pleasure.
Laura also benefits from two solid performances that push the plot forward. As I mentioned above, Clifton Webb, as Waldo Lydecker, is a scene-stealing machine. He commands attention to his character, an uptight, rich newspaper columnist that has an eternal and sometimes overbearing love for Laura. He is also in charge of some of the movie narration, giving his line delivery an eerie feel to it that makes you uneasy. We are introduced to his character as he is typing away his column while sitting naked in the bathtub. Nothing to add, just a great character introduction. Second standout is the late great Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s fiancé and social climber. The way he interacts with the people around him lets you know he is carrying a secret around, making the detective and the audience instantly suspect him. His accent is a weird hybrid of Midwest and upper class, making anything he says instantly intriguing.
Where the movie is lacking, and it’s barely worth mentioning, is with the detective. Dana Andrews just played a straight-up, stereotypical detective. His line delivery is monotone and his body language is of someone that is bored by the situation. While I understand that it helps highlight the suspects around him, allowing the audience to examine them rather than him, I wish he had a little bit more meat to his performance.
Laura is a great straight-up mystery crime drama that gives enough breadcrumbs for the audience to follow along till the end. Having a brisk run time of an hour and half it, lends itself to a great quick viewing experience, not asking its audience for a huge commitment. Seventy-three years later and Laura is still delivering a highly entertaining mystery and that’s why I love movies.
Laura is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it, unless you have something to hide…
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