Friday, May 28, 2010

Laura (1944)

Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) is a mess, but it’s a fun, playful mess. The story of a police detective (Dana Andrews) who falls in love with a murder victim (Gene Tierney as the film’s namesake) while investigating the crime, this Oscar winner is both creatively ambitious and genre dependent. It’s a film about taking chances, then making a mess of things when you fail, and the final product holds true to that theme.

As hard-boiled detectives go, Dana Andrews is a pretty dull and un-resourceful one. His character falls in love with a corpse, yet we’re never invited inside to see what makes this man click, to understand the complexities of such a love…or to ever feel it with him. He’s never heroic, or anti-heroic, or really much of anything. He’s just sort of there to fill the genre requirements, and his film suffers accordingly.

As far as flaws go, that’s a pretty big one. Yet the fact that Laura recovers and ultimately succeeds is what makes this film such a peculiar and beloved piece of the noir cannon. The success is three-fold. As the film’s title character, Gene Tierney is endearingly dangerous. She’s simultaneously beautiful but damaged, wicked but innocent, tender but strong. In Laura Tierney established the prototype for the neo-noir femme fatale, the kind of woman men kill and die for, and she fits that role almost impossibly well.

But if Laura is the film’s fuel, it’s Clifton Webb who provides the spark as the eccentric elitist Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s oldest friends and greatest admirer. Witty and biting, Webb’s Waldo is both comic relief and societal stand-in, a man so astute and to the point it seems he’s almost conscious of the mystery film setting, and the parts he should be playing in it. He’s the quintessential show-stealing supporting player, and he earned an Oscar nod for it.

The man who won his Oscar for his work on Laura, however, was cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, and his work is stunningly beautiful. Classic Noir is all about capturing the rich textures of the darkest corners, and then painting them on scene. They style and beauty of Laura, as a movie and as a character, belong as much to LaShelle as Preminger or Tierney.

Laura was also nominated for screenwriting, which accounts for its inclusion in this series. The script is certainly daring – it boasts a 15 minute (!) flashback scene and some mind-bending narrative ideas. The script took a lot of risks, and a lot of falls. At 88 minutes, Laura feels like a much longer film…almost too long. This is mostly due to the lack of dramatic pull and identifiable characters. So much of Laura is Hollywood concoction, a play on what the audience would like to see, that the writers often forget what the audience would like to FEEL. They hit us in the heart a few times, playing on our fears and confusion…but never consistently and rarely enough.

Overall Laura feels odd and compulsive and mostly entertaining. But when your main character is a miss, and his story has no pull, your end result can never be anything more than pretty moving pictures and a charming supporting cast.

And by certain time-worn Hollywood standards, that’s enough.

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