Friday, June 3, 2011

There’s Something About LAURA


Welcome to the House of Spoilers! Enter at your own risk!
Private investigator Sam Marlow: “Dana Andrews was swell in Laura, but what if Bogart had played Lt. McPherson? Yeah, Bogart... smoking a cigarette and looking up at that portrait, thinking Laura was dead, but still in love with her. What a love scene. And neither of them naked!”
The Man with Bogart’s Face by Andrew J. Fenady
When Vera Caspary’s romantic suspense tale Ring Twice for Laura proved to be a popular serial in Colliers in 1942, Houghton Mifflin published the serial as a best-selling novel, now simply titled LauraIn 1944, the movie version of Laura hit the silver screen, fated to be movie bait against all odds (more about that in a moment)!  The film and David Raksin's haunting theme song were so popular, they were affectionately parodied with much gusto in many ways, including a spoof by no less than Spike Jones and his City Slickers, an honor akin to Weird Al Yankovic's song parodies (much beloved here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.).  

The film starts off on an appropriately ominous note with the voiceover, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.” These are the words of Waldo Lydecker, a waspish New York columnist (blogs hadn't been invented yet :-)), played by scene-stealing former silent film actor/ballroom dancer/stage actor Clifton Webb in the role that made him a full-fledged movie star and Oscar nominee. In case you had any silly notions that Waldo was the shy retiring type, he allows Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) of the NYPD to grill him as he sits in the bathtub of his opulent bathroom. (Perhaps Waldo hoped Mark might want to take a dip in the tub himself, the old slyboots!) Waldo multitasks, typing one of his devastatingly sharp columns on a tray in his bathtub while answering Mark’s questions about lovely, smart advertising executive-turned-murder victim Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), found violently killed with a double-barreled shotgun blast at close range
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Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is glad to assist Det. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), as long as it doesn't interfere with his daily ablutions. Good thing electric typewriters weren't invented yet; we can't have Waldo accidentally electrocuted so early in the movie!

But by all accounts, to know Laura was to love her, and why not? Even her maid Bessie (the uncredited but memorable Dorothy Adams) adored Laura, not only “on account of the thousand sweet things she done for me; it was because she was so sweet herself!” Laura was as winsome as she was beautiful; sophisticated, yet hard-working and down-to-earth.  Who’d want to kill her? Someone who loved her too much, perhaps? Maybe Waldo, her longtime mentor and friend? Or could it be Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price, then best known as a stage actor; his great horror films came later), Laura’s fiancĂ© and colleague at the advertising firm Bullitt & Company (how eerily appropriate, considering how she died), who Waldo sneeringly characterizes (not unfairly) as “a male beauty in distress”? Mark’s investigation brings him into Laura’s glamorous world, and quickly discovers it’s also a world of ambition and danger, obsession and desire. In spite of himself, tough detective Mark realizes he’s getting so deep into the case that he’s falling in love with Laura—her portrait, anyway, all that’s left of her. Or is it? When Mark falls asleep while on stakeout in Laura’s apartment, he’s awakened by Laura herself! But if the shocked, bewildered Laura isn’t dead, then who is? (Fun Fact: The famous portrait of Laura was originally painted by the wife of Rouben Mamoulian, who’d been chosen to direct before producer Otto Preminger opted to direct as well. The portrait was touched up to make it look more like an actual painting of Tierney.)

"Now that is aht!"
It turns out the murder victim was Bullitt & Company model Diane Redfern, who dropped by Laura’s apartment for a heart-to-heart with Shelby while our heroine was away in the country trying to thaw out the cold feet she’s developing about marrying him. I don’t blame her, considering Shelby was apparently two-timing Laura (in his Southern-gentleman way, the rake!), as well as the ever-awesome Dame Judith Anderson as Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Susan Treadwell in the novel). Ann may or may not have an agenda of her own, considering she’s only too happy to “lend” Shelby large sums of money at the drop of her stylish hat, and she can obviously afford him. I guess that’s what happens when you know too many good-looking layabouts with too much time on their hands—get a job, you moochers! But now that Laura’s not dead after all, the police consider her a suspect in Diane’s murder!  Can Mark get the real culprit, as Waldo would say, “trundled off to the hoosegow” before it’s too late? Come to think of it, why is Waldo so eager to get his grandfather clock back ASAP? Funny how it’s just the right size to hide a double-barreled shotgun….

"Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies..."
It amazes me that nobody wanted to make this witty, suave, suspenseful adaptation of Caspary’s classic mystery novel! Even when it got the green light, it was initially slated to be a throwaway “B” picture for 20th Century-Fox. I’m also flabbergasted to hear that the bewitching Gene Tierney, who had the amazing ability to be at once approachable and exotic, wasn’t the first choice to play the title role; Jennifer Jones and Hedy Lamarr both turned it down. Their loss! It just goes to show what the right polish and the right talent can do, with Tierney and tough-yet-tender Andrews up against that fabulous cast. Like Witness for the Prosecution and other favorite films of mine, discovering who really dunnit doesn’t spoil the fun of watching Laura again and again, especially with those beautiful clothes, the Oscar-nominated set design/decoration, and of course, listening to composer David Raksin’s rapturous music (which also deserved an Oscar nod, if you ask me)! Indeed, if you pay closer attention to real killer Waldo on a second viewing, you’ll catch more of the clues to his true nature that you were having too much fun to notice the first time around. For example, during Waldo’s flashback-laden dinner conversation with Mark about Laura, you suddenly realize how truly obsessed and self-centered Waldo really is. Note that everything he says about Laura really ends up being more about him than about her: “She deferred to my tastes...the way she listened (to me) was more eloquent than speech….” 
"Mark, get me away from these wackos!"
As Waldo, acid-tongued Webb’s bon mots are so delightful you want to commit them to memory. He steals the show with his viciously witty lines—and just as important, the angry heartache underlying them. (He does this to superb effect in The Dark Corner, too.) If I start quoting Webb’s best lines, I’ll be transcribing almost every word out of his mouth! Still, the great nest-of-vipers cast hits all the right notes in Preminger’s spellbinding adaptation of Caspary’s novel. The book told the tale from the respective perspectives of Waldo, Shelby, Mark, and eventually Laura herself. In the movie, like in all the best book-to-film adaptations, Laura stays faithful to the novel while keeping it tight to fit the movie’s sleek 87-minute running time—89 minutes in the restored version on DVD, with Waldo narrating over a montage of Laura being made over into a society glamor girl. Supposedly, that footage stayed out of the film for years because the studio was afraid the sequence’s allegedly “decadent” focus on luxury wouldn’t sit well with 1944’s wartime audiences, who were doing without many things they’d once taken for granted. (Suddenly I’m imagining Laura and Waldo double-dating with Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson and Judy Barton after Judy gets Madeleine Elster’ed!) Webb, Price, and Anderson make wonderful wolves-in-chic-clothing among Laura’s circle of friends and hangers-on. Andrews and Tierney’s chemistry sends sparks flying even before they actually share the screen after the Act 2 twist. Tierney is quite convincing as a sophisticated yet soft-hearted young woman whose kindness almost does her in; as Andrews aptly points out, “For a charming, intelligent girl, you’ve certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”  Amen to that! On a related note, this might sound odd, but I’ve often felt that Laura is almost a dark precursor to the 1998 modern comedy classic There’s Something About Mary! Think about it: both films are about magnetic women who don’t realize how much their looks and charm drive men mad, sometimes literally.

Laura was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Preminger; Best Supporting Actor for Webb; Best Adapted Screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt, with an uncredited assist by Ring Lardner Jr.; and Best Interior Decoration.  But it was Director of Photography Joseph LaShelle who went home with an Oscar for his atmospheric black-and-white camerawork. Incidentally, Tierney and Webb were reunited in The Razor’s Edge (1946), for which Webb earned another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Webb didn’t win, but co-star Anne Baxter snared a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, four years before her Best Actress Oscar nomination for All About Eve.  No nomination for Tierney, alas; she got her only Best Actress nomination earlier for the psychological thriller Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

"I coulda been a contendah!"
Laird Cregar, The Man Who Would be Lydecker

I must admit there’s only one thing about this otherwise perfect romantic suspense film that makes me think, “Oh, what could have been!” When Rouben Mamoulian was going to direct the film, he wanted Laird Cregar to play Waldo Lydecker! (I can hear my fellow Cregar fans sighing and squealing longingly even now!) Much as I adore Clifton Webb’s performance, I must admit Cregar would have been fabulous, too, with his silky voice and imposing bulk; the nattily-dressed fat man (yes, Waldo was indeed described as fat in the novel, unlike whippet-thin Webb in the movie) hiding his resentment and heartache under a veneer of venom-tipped quips. Alas, Zanuck ultimately decided that since Cregar was already best known as a smooth-talking yet physically imposing villain, casting him as Waldo might have tipped off the audience to his true evil too soon. Yeah, I see their point, but still….  In any case, Webb and Laura’s screenwriters re-teamed in 1946 for The Dark Corner, which had enough elements in common with Laura to be considered as sort of a Laura 2—and I mean that as a compliment!

By the way, Carly Simon does a gorgeous live rendition of David Raksin's Laura theme:
http://youtu.be/Baj5Q7H5q6s

16 comments:

  1. Our lovely, talented, devastatingly witty pal and fellow blogger Yvette hasn't been able to post a comment here the regular way due to Blogger's mischief, but until she can do so again, I wanted to post this witty, entertaining e-mail she wrote to me about this week's LAURA blog post, as follows. Thanks, Yvette!


    "Well, a great review as usual, Dorian. Ho hum. What else is new?

    I always eagerly look forward to your reviews – wish you had time to write more of ‘em!

    You pointed out things I hadn’t known about the filming of LAURA.

    Laird Cregaer – Creger – Cregar – whatever. Who knew? He would have been good but rather obvious as the villain.

    About Laura’s character – your review made me think of a couple of other little quirks that I’d meant to write about but didn’t:

    For instance: What kind of woman has a huge portrait of herself overlooking her own living room?

    I mean, think about it.

    What kind of woman laughs at her own boyfriend when she reads a column full of zingers aimed at him by her supposed friend, the ever hovering Waldo?

    I guess her feelings for that particular beau weren’t that deep to begin with. And if so, why did Waldo bother at all to skewer him? I mean, I should think that kind of thing would be reserved for heavy duty enemies, otherwise it’s just wasted effort.

    You’re right about the mostly one-sided conversation in the restaurant between Waldo and Mark. It’s all about Waldo and his wonderfulness. Look at me. Look at me.

    Yeah, Laura did surround herself with a bunch of dopes. So, what does that say about her?

    But no matter how I quibble, you know I love this film and never get tired of watching it.

    What does that say about me? HA!

    At any rate, I have THE DARK CORNER on my Neftlix queue, thanks to your enthusiastic endeavors on its behalf.

    Even if my antipathy for the amiable simp known as Mark Stevens know no bounds.

    Yvette"

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  2. Yvette, I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and your skewering of certain behaviors displayed in LAURA the movie had me laughing out loud (in a good way, naturally)! It seemed to me that Laura was one of those people who naturally assume people are basically decent and kind, and looking out for her best interests, rather than seeing through the agendas of so-called "friends" like Waldo and Shelby. Suckers! :-) But seriously, at least Ann, Laura's aunt, was honest about being out for herself and "not nice."

    It's also possible that Laura's previous beau, Jacoby the artist, was really a pompous ass, or perhaps Laura thought Waldo's attacks were all good-natured ribbing, and she didn't think Jacoby would be THAT offended. Besides, I bet Jacoby insisted on putting up Laura's painting as the centerpiece of the room to show off! :-)

    I've been in the position of thinking the best of someone only to discover I've been a chump, but like Laura, I learned the hard way, and the valuable lessons I took away from the experiences were worth it. As for Waldo, he simply struck me as the kind of man who likes to skewer enemies and rivals just for the fun of it (I've known a lot of people like that, too, I'm afraid).

    In any case, my friend, I enjoyed our blogger-sation about LAURA, and I hope you'll enjoy THE DARK CORNER, too. Just think of Mark Stevens as the beauty in distress who gets saved by Lucille Ball! :-)

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  3. One thing (among many) that has always impressed me about Laura is the cleverness of the flashback structure. The very first line tells us that Laura (i.e., Gene Tierney, the star, for heaven's sake!) is dead. Then all those flashbacks lower our guard; the fact that Gene can be dead and still the star makes sense now. So when Laura comes home unexpectedly, it's a real punch in the nose. The first time I saw Laura (long after 1944 but well before its latter-day rep), I was as gobsmacked and confused as Mark McPherson shaking the sleep out of his head (Hey, wait! She's dead!).

    Wow, you're right, Laird Cregar would've been terrific (and might have become the first posthumous-Oscar actor). But I suspect his performance in I Wake Up Screaming sank that; they probably figured it'd be too much of a tip-off.

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  4. Jim, I'm delighted to see you weighing in on LAURA here! I agree wholeheartedly with your remarks about the film's clever flashback structure. Ever since, other filmmakers have been trying to recreate that, though not always as well as it was done in LAURA. :-)

    Glad you agree about Laird Cregar, too; several of my Twitter pals and I are big fans of his. It's a shame that poor Cregar not only died so young (damn those stupid crazy crash diets!), but that his skill at playing suave villains could often hurt him as much as help him, as we've discussed here. Ah, Laird, we hardly knew ye... Thanks for joining the conversation, Jim!

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  5. Yes....that's GOOD film noir right there....

    Film noir may, in fact, be my favorite genre. Why else would my avatar be of Humphrey Bogart?

    Laura was a true masterpiece of genre and I adored every minute of it. Thanks for the review!

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  6. Some stories are perfect. The novel is one I enjoy re-reading (Oh, my poor tattered paperback) as much as the movie is one I never fail to enjoy re-watching.

    One of my great classic movie sharing moments was when I first showed my daughter "Laura". It was a chance to relive that first time when we discovered the truth through fresh eyes. What a kick! Also, she developed a major crush on Dana Andrews. Sigh!

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  7. Thanks, Nate -- again you prove you're a gent of excellent taste and breeding! :-) I find film noir irresistable myself, especially when it's done as well as LAURA. In fact, it's one of my favorite films of all time!

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  8. Caftan Woman, I loved hearing that you have a real-life Laura, and that you and she enjoyed it through fresh eyes, family-style! :-) I love introducing my daughter to classic movies that way, too, even if it takes time to get her to sit still! :-) Dana Andrews is a good pick for a first movie crush, too (I've mentioned elsewhere that my first movie crush was Danny Kaye. What can I say, I love the endearing funny guys! :-)). I know what you mean about the enjoyment of re-reading novels like LAURA; my home library is chock-full of lovingly tattered paperbacks, too! :-)

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  9. Laird was a fine actor, but--for me--only Clifton could have played Waldo. It's one of the great instances of actor and part merging into one seamlessly. Enjoyed reading about the origins of LAURA. As you may know, it was remade for TV in the 1960s with Robert Stack and Lee Bouvier (sister of Jackie O.) in the leads. I recall it being decent, but then--at the time--I had never seen "the" LAURA. My wife wrote a great film essay on LAURA in college, focusing on (are you ready for this?) the grandfather clock.

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  10. Rick, I'm in awe that both you and your wife both have such superb taste in great movies! If your wife still has that LAURA essay focusing on the grandfather clock, you might consider posting in on CLASSIC MOVIE AND TV Cafe. Much as my fellow Laird Cregar fans love Laird, I agree that Clifton Webb was magnificent in the role that most deservedly made him a movie star.

    You're the first person who's ever said anything positive about the Lee Bouvier/Robert Stack TV version of LAURA! :-) I'll admit I'd be curious to see it once, just to find out if it's as inferior as I've heard. What can I say, I'm a completist. :-) Glad you enjoyed my blog post with the origins of LAURA -- thanks!

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  11. Great post on Laura, a favorite of mine. Such a great cast and great dialogue from Waldo. For some reason I always mentally pair Waldo with George Sanders' character from All About Eve. The seem to have the same snooty, unkind air about them. Of course Sanders was also super tall like Vincent Price, so I also find myself thinking that it was the former in Laura rather than the latter.

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  12. Rachel, thanks for your praise of my LAURA blog post! I can readily understand why you'd mentally pair Waldo Lydecker with Addison DeWitt. If those two characters ever spent time together, they'd either become fast friends sneering wittily and suavely at those they deem less clever, or they'd hate each other on sight and toss poisonous but still witty barbs at each other. Either way, it'd be fun to watch, as long as you're not the one they're sniping about! :-)

    Incidentally, the Fox Movie Channel's HOUR OF STARS had aired a TV production of LAURA starring Dana Wynter as Laura -- and George Sanders as Waldo! I don't think they run that show on FMC anymore, and I wish they would, because I'd love to see Sanders in that role.

    Hey, if you love George Sanders and other suave types, you might enjoy "Flico Suave," Team Bartilucci's salute to suave screen stars! If you're interested, here's the link:

    http://doriantb.blogspot.com/2010/10/flico-suave-analysis-of-suaveness-in.html

    Thanks for joining the conversation, Rachel! I'm looking forward to catching up with more of your own excellent MACGUFFIN MOVIES blog posts!

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  13. Dorian and Rachel, George Sanders played Waldo Lydecker in the 1968 TV version of LAURA! And, Dorian, my memory of said movie is tainted because I hadn't seen the original at the time. So the plot was new to me!

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  14. Great googly moogly! George Sanders played Waldo Lydecker in both the HOUR OF STARS version and the 1968 TV version of LAURA?! I may actually have to keep an eye out for it on YouTube or something, if only for the sake of comparison! :-) Many thanks for the info, Rick!

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  15. Really witty and entertaining article about a wonderful movie, Dorian -- and full of fun facts. I had no idea Laird Cregar had been considered for Waldo. One of the first blogs I ever did on the TCM site a couple of years ago was about Cregar. I loved him...he would have been too obvious as killer, but otherwise perfect for the part. Yvette made me laugh with her comment about having a big portrait of yourself on your own living room wall -- happens all the time in movies, and always seemed a tad narcissistic to me!

    Am I reading you right -- was the portrait of Laura NOT originally of Gene Tierney, but just touched up to look so? Hard to believe!

    I know what you mean about Waldo's marvelous caustic remarks, and how you could practically do a whole blog on those! But I have to say, I think my favorite was when he realized Laura and Mark were in love with each other. I may not have the first part right, but he said: "I hope you are happy with what promises to be a DISGUSTINGLY EARTHY relationship." Great writing, fabulous delivery by Webb.

    Excellent post, Dorian. I just loved it...

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  16. Becky, I'm delighted to see you joining the conversation here; we miss you when you're not around! Laird Cregar is always wonderful, though I understand (grudgingly :-)) why Clifton Webb got the role instead, and I agree that Webb really nailed it! Webb's "disgustingly earthy relationship" riposte has always been one of my favorite quotes. I'm still chuckling over Yvette's witty skewering of Laura's portrait (yes indeed, the original version of Laura's portrait was done by Mrs. Rouben Mamoulian -- whooda thunk it?). I'm so glad you enjoyed my LAURA post -- thanks, my friend!

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