❉ An appraisal of Otto Preminger’s fruitcake masterpiece, by Ken Shinn.
Film noir is a genre which comes with a lot of baggage, and a whole hill of expectations. Pause for a moment to consider what the phrase conjures up for you – hard-boiled trenchcoats whose guns don’t argue, beautiful dames as pure as the driven slush or downright evil, henchmen from the looming to the leering, fog-shrouded docks, slashing chiaroscuro shadows, erudite masterminds forever chasing the lucrative but unattainable rainbow, souls roughened by sandpaper cynicism as much as voices by an apparently endless diet of Wild Turkey, Lucky Strikes, and whichever brand of joe was closest to hand.
Otto Preminger’s 1944 film, Laura, is often claimed as a classic of film noir. At first glance, it’s an easy mistake to make. Dana Andrews wears the appropriate wardrobe and scowl, Gene Tierney is completely beautiful and utterly inscrutable, eccentric henchmen, red herrings and just-plain-bystanders are all around. Shadows are hard-edged, shots are fired, schemes are laid, and lives are ended. There can surely be no argument with the online cinema savants. Laura is a film noir. End of.
Except that it isn’t.
Perhaps the first clue that we need to consider is the case of the runaway director. Although he left in acrimonious circumstances following the eternal differences of artistic temperament with Preminger early in the film’s production, the original director slated was Rouben Mamoulian. Look at Mamoulian’s directorial credits and a certain theme becomes apparent. There’s a strong streak of the fantastic in his films, from outright musicals such as Silk Stockings, via such melodramatics and larger-than-life characters as The Mark Of Zorro and Queen Christina, back to what must surely be regarded as his masterpiece and break-through film, 1931’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, the adaptation which gave horror cinema its first big dose of credibility and critical approval with Fredric March’s Oscar-winning dual role star turn, as well as a surprisingly near-the-knuckle approach to matters of sex and violence – a lot remained implied, true, but the entendres became decidedly single.
The point that’s reached is a small revelation. The director that they wanted – even if he was fired from the set – was a man best-known for yarns of the broad, the melodramatic, the fantastic or downright horrific. Hardly the sort of fellow that you’d turn to first for a gritty, realistic film noir.
Now admittedly, Laura is a murder mystery. Look at it with eyes as prosaic as that no-frills phrase suggests, and maybe that is all that you’ll see. But remember that there are all kinds of murder mysteries. Who did it, why they did it, where they did it, when they did it. There’s a lot more to such stories than just finding out who was responsible, at least when they’re any good. And Preminger’s film, based on Vera Caspary’s 1943 novel, is definitely one such criminal conundrum. And, as I’ve already said, it’s not a film noir. Not by a long chalk.
The second clue is in the presentation of the eccentrics and possible evil-doers. While the likes of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre may have come across as erudite and epicene in their appearances in such films as The Maltese Falcon, they nevertheless carried an air of threat about them. For all their wit, or their dandification, the feeling was always present of people whose minds were full of scheming, greedy intellect, or rats in fops’ clothing, ready to pull out a switchblade from under that fancy brocade waistcoat at a moment’s notice. Now, make no mistake, there is a killer in Laura, but that killer is less an evil mastermind than a lovelorn sap who crosses the line into dangerous obsession.
Here, the eccentrics are provided, marvellously, by Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. Of course, Price played roles in many genres, but he’s associated most with the horror genre to this day – and, while Laura isn’t an outright horror film, it is a film which contains near-hallucinatory passages, creepy atmospherics, and a tone that touches nightmarish on several occasions. And these eccentrics are given an endless range of acidic, wry, or just plain witty comments – a few choice selections: ‘How singularly innocent I look this morning’, ‘In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention’ – Webb; ‘I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes’, ‘I forgot to tell you, I also read palms, I swallow swords, I mend my own socks, I never eat garlic or onions, what more could you want of a man?’ – Price – hopefully being enough to demonstrate my point here. This isn’t so much a film noir at all.
In its plot beats, there’s a lot more of Gothic melodrama to it. Our hero comes as close as one could in a mainstream film of that time to having the outright romantic necrophiliac leanings of a Poe character. The passions are that much more heated, the exchanges that much more arch, than the hard-edged, sharp-creased world of the typical noir drama. In fact, it’s ironic that Preminger kicked Mamoulian off the film on the grounds that his work on it wasn’t sufficiently subtle. Or maybe old Otto was downright un-nerved. If what we finally got was the subtle version that he desired, then who knows what throbbing, twisted marvel Mamoulian may have made of the material?
And, furthermore, there’s more than the occasional soupcon of outright pantomime. Whether it’s the always delicious camp of Price, or a crucial sequence about half-way through which, for all its bravura, may still leave you with a ‘BEHIND YOU!’ quivering for release just behind your lips. Such ingredients may seem bizarre, even mis-matched to you. But, this once, they’re not. Instead, they gel into a mesmeric confection that’s nigh irresistible.
I am loath to give away any of the plot of this film at all. All that you really need me to tell you is that it is a murder mystery, and a superlative one at that, and that you really should sit down and enjoy it if you haven’t done so already.
Eureka’s Blu-Ray release ensures that every bit of light and shade comes across as powerfully as it should and comes complete with a whole host of intriguing extras, including an interview with composer David Raksin, who provides a splendidly evocative and eerie score: archive footage of a deleted scene; two different commentaries; and no less than four radio adaptations of the story. Phil Hoad also provides a marvellous essay for the accompanying booklet, and there’s a fine selection of rarely-seen archive imagery.
Laura is an enigma that will hook you, draw you in, and keep you there right up until a downright astounding climax. Detective or not, you will love this mystery.
❉ ‘Laura’ has been released on Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment, RRP £17.99.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.