New Year’s Weekend Pick: Laura (1944)

by on December 26, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Fri Dec 30 to Thu Jan 5 at 1, 2:50, 4:40, 6:30, 8:20, 10:10 daily at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
Otto Preminger’s Manhattan murder mystery is our rolling three-day Editor’s pick all New Year’s weekend. Andrew Sarris called it “Preminger’s Citizen Kane!” What else do you need to know?

Dana Andrews swoons to Gene Tierney’s image and David Raskin‘s famous theme:

Laura 1944

Maurizio Roca for the blog Wonders in the Dark:

Otto Preminger’s crowning achievement is one of the most elegant and dreamlike of film noirs. Made in 1944, the first year the classic cycle kicked into high gear, Laura was always a different type of noir. It didn’t reside in the dark urban sprawl of Murder My Sweet or swim in the moral murk of Double Indemnity. Here was a picture that had the sophistication of uptown New York with a MGM kind of outlook for its characters. While calling it glossy like Gaslight or Rebecca would be untrue, it has more in common with those movies than The Big Heat or Criss Cross. Its visual look is hardly filled with the standard dim and dusky design in which most have grown accustomed. There are moments where chiaroscuro lighting is present but it never lasts very long or to signify any action by the players. Camera-wise, the film mainly avoids exaggerated camera angles, consistently set up at eye-level position. The noirness of Laura comes mainly from its script.


The general vibe that Laura gives during its 89 minutes is one of a midnight dream. The pace of the film is slow and David Raskin’s incredible score conjures up all sorts of feelings we associate with sleep. It has a measured grace and vague moments of stillness. The question staring us in the face is the belief that maybe Laura isn’t alive. Perhaps from the moment McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s chair, he is dreaming the rest of the film. Not a noir nightmare, but a desirable hallucination and a turn of events that would make his waking self very happy. Once Laura haunts you with a screening, chances are you will never be the same. The portrait of Laura may not have totally captured her beauty, like Waldo intones, but this film sure does. Revisits are guaranteed…



Michael Atkinson for The Village Voice:

In its factory formation belle epoque, Hollywood was infrequently blessed by calamitous serendipity—sometimes, production debacles that should’ve crashed at takeoff ended up flying high. Second only to Casablanca as a kind of code-packed accidental masterpiece, Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) began at Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox as trite pulp, was worked over by at least five staff screenwriters (including an uncredited Ring Lardner Jr.), attempted birth as a Rouben Mamoulian daydream, and finally emerged as an enigma wrapped in a perfumed handkerchief of genre tropes and mysterious desires. The nuts and bolts of the murder plot—in which morose detective Dana Andrews essentially falls in love with an idealized Gene Tierney after she’s had her head blown off—soon enough give way to underground currents, after she walks through the door an ordinary woman and the question of ID’ing the corpse becomes a decidedly secondary concern.


Quietly Godardian before the fact—does a story’s architecture matter as much as our ardor for imagery?—Laura is a hypnotic and deathlessly interpretable experience, what with Clifton Webb’s sexually contradictory presence, Vincent Price (!) as a smug paramour, and Andrews gilding the tough-dick paradigm with his own distinct brand of grieving lostness. Despite the noir label, a film this lovesick and Freudian hardly qualifies.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Otto Preminger’s directorial debut (1944), not counting the five previous B films he refused to acknowledge and an earlier feature made in Austria. It reveals a coldly objective temperament and a masterful narrative sense, which combine to turn this standard 40s melodrama into something as haunting as its famous theme. Less a crime film than a study in levels of obsession, Laura is one of those classic works that leave their subject matter behind and live on the strength of their seductive style.



Thomas Scalzo for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

How many films have you seen that dare to begin the story with the main character already dead? Such is the case with this Otto Preminger film noir classic. Filled with scads of unexpected plot twist and revelations, Laura is a blueprint of how to film a satisfying mystery. Although we are treated to a constant flow of new clues, they rarely serve to confuse or bewilder, rather working to draw us deeper into the tale, and compelling us to hazard guess after guess and jump to conclusions as to the identity and motive of the killer. Although the admirable direction of Preminger is certainly integral to our ability to enjoy the film and follow the plot, we must make note of the deft screenplay penned by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt (adapted from the novel by Vera Caspary) that brings each character vividly to life, and engages us from the first scene.


Enhancing and embodying these astute words is a cast that is simply top drawer: Dana Andrews as the unflappable McPherson injects his strait-laced character with a subtle charm; Clifton Webb gives us a Waldo Lydecker that is at once a literary genius and a creepy conniver; With Shelby Carpenter, a young Vincent Price shows that he is just as comfortable playing a bumbling dolt as he is donning the mantle of devious villain; and of course, Gene Tierney’s Laura, depicted through flashback, is at once striking and confidently intelligent—without question a girl everyone could fall in love with, as indeed everyone does. The ability of each actor to instill his or her respective character with an endearing, robust personality draws us into the story and keeps us persistently unsure of what to believe, who to trust, and where to place our allegiances.


Peter Bogdanovich in Movie of the Week:

The one picture Otto Preminger director which virtually everyone – even diehard anti-Premingerists – have always agreed was brilliant is his romantic murder mystery-suspense classic Laura. Exceedingly ambiguous, Laura has the modern advantage of continually surprising the viewer with the twists and turns of the various characters, none of them predictable. Laura reveals Preminger’s sharp intellect, good taste, wit, sense of craft, ease of delivery, incisiveness, and economy. Otto was a pro. To the end, he believed firmly in what he called “the intelligence of the audience.”


TCM with some background on Preminger’s ascension:

In his autobiography, Preminger related how he reestablished his relationship with Twentieth Century-Fox when he convinced studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck to purchase the rights to the novel. Preminger and Zanuck had not spoken since 1937, when Preminger was replaced as the director of the Twentieth Century-Fox film Kidnapped. Their bitter feud damaged Preminger’s Hollywood career, and he did not make another film until 1943, when Twentieth Century-Fox executive William Goetz, who was running the studio during Zanuck’s military service, allowed him to direct Margin for Error. According to Preminger, Zanuck “accused Goetz of treachery” when he returned and told Preminger, “You can produce [Laura] but as long as I am at Fox, you will never direct.” Finding a director proved difficult, however. In a modern interview, Preminger said that both Walter Lang and Lewis Milestone turned down offers to direct Laura, citing a lack of enthusiasm for the script. In her Saturday Review (of Literature) article, Caspary claims that John Brahm was asked to direct the film but declined. A February 24, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item named Irving Cummings as director.


Rouben Mamoulian eventually agreed to direct the film. In his autobiography, Preminger recalled that Mamoulian “didn’t like the script any more than the others who had turned it down but he had no other jobs in sight and needed the money.” Preminger’s relationship with Mamoulian was stormy from the start, as the director changed sets and costumes without consulting Preminger, and asked him not to come to the set. Upon viewing the disappointing dailies, Zanuck fired Mamoulian about two weeks into production and made Preminger the director.


Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of the Screen:

Laura is a cool piece-of-work, silken, remote, perhaps the most posh of all film noirs. From the opening shot, as the camera tracks discreetly through the swanky Manhattan penthouse of man-about-town Walter Lydecker, the film has a powerful atmosphere of repressed sexuality. Except for Laura, the characters are unsavory. The twisted, possessive Waldo is one of noir’s great psychopaths.


The film’s themes of sexual transference and obsession are presented obliquely, giving the drama a stealthy undercurrent. Preminger treats the loaded material quietly, in a matter-of-fact way. His fanciest touch is the visual linkage he makes between the detective and Laura’s portrait, which hangs over the fireplace in her living room. Preminger works in a detached style, his camera for the most part maintaining a neutral distance from the actors. The film’s uninflected visual manner parallels the dry, reined-ed performances: Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews look and sound like sleepwalkers; Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Judith Anderson introduce homosexual tints on the sly.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

I’ve seen Otto Preminger’s ”Laura” three or four times, but the identity of the murderer doesn’t spring quickly to mind. That’s not because the guilty person is forgettable but because the identity is so arbitrary: It is not necessary that the murderer be the murderer. Three or four other characters would have done as well, and indeed if it were not for Walter Winchell we would have another ending altogether. That ”Laura” continues to weave a spell — and it does — is a tribute to style over sanity. No doubt the famous musical theme by David Raksin has something to do with it: The music lends a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it plays under, and it plays under a lot.


David Raskin on the film’s famous theme:

I feel certain that the reason people responded as they do to that melody, in the picture and on its own, is that it is ‘about’ love, specifically about that yearning particular to unrequited love. On Saturday morning, I received a letter from the lady to whom I was married, and with whom I was very much in love, and I couldn’t figure out what she was saying… On Sunday evening, I pulled it out of my pocket, smoothed it out and put it on the piano and started to read it. And it suddenly dawned upon me, she was saying “Farewell, buddy.”


Knowing that, I felt the last of my strength go, and then, without willing it, I was playing the first phrase of what you now know as Laura. I knew it was the real thing, and I stumbled through it again and again in a sweat of catharsis and self-indulgence.



Alain Silver and James Ursini point out the nuance of the film’s eponymous femme in Film Noir Reader :

Twentieth Century-Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck had very distinct and different ideas about the nature of her female gothic crime heroine than did the film’s producer-director Preminger. Zanuck was influential in developing Laura more fully and in removing Tierney’s voiceover narration by her character that was originally in the novel and in early versions of the studio’s film adaptation. Zanuck urged Preminger to expland Laura’s noir heroine beyond a naive gothic ingenue victim, yet maintain enough fresh innocence where she does not realize how much trouble she is in, both to avoid making her a cheap tramp or a loose femme fatale. Preminger considered Laura a more sexual woman of the night. The creative tension between Zanuck and Preminger added more depth and intrigue to Tierney’s screen character. Laura’s evolution from career woman to dream girl fantasy to deceitful femme and finally a more multifaceted varation of the gothic victim by the end of the film is fascinating. Laura emerges a contradictory noir heroine with flaws, virtues and dimensions that do not fit the classical mold of hard-boiled femme fatale, and whose feminine presence permeates the film.


And a David Cairns limerick:

Her suitors seem perfectly fey
Does this cutie prefer them that way?
V Price is a reb
And C Webb’s a celeb
But she chooses that perv Dana A.


  • Very well put together page on this classic film. As far as the portrait of Laura featured in the film, I saw it pop up in another Tierney 20th Century Fox film ‘On The Riviera’ as a prop in her home, but I wonder whatever happened to it? Someone must have it. I think I remember David Raskin saying once that he thought it was inherited by someone connected to Zanuck… a very famous collectible nowadays…

    • Like the profile pic. I’m thinking you have the painting yourself and are trying to throw us off the trail, like the criminal who personally hires the private detective.

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →