Monday, March 28, 2011

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest:
Laura (1944)

Laura is #580 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 02/01/11 on DVD

Ranked #310 on TSPDT

*There be spoilers ahead for those who care about such things.
Otto Preminger's Laura is not your typical film noir - if it even is a film noir at all.  The main difference from others of its so-called genre, is in the form of its requisite femme fatale.    This titular fatale is played by the drop-dead gorgeous Gene Tierney in the role that would make her a star, but that is not the odd part (how could the lovely eye-piercing Miss Tierney be considered the odd part of anything!?).  The oddity comes in the fact that Miss Tierney's Laura is actually first seen as the portrait of a dead woman.  A dead woman that haunts Dana Andrews' police detective while he is investigating her murder.   Whether it is the allure of her portrait drawing Andrews in (and how can Tierney do anything but draw you in!?) or perhaps something much more sinister, only the tale of the film will tell.

Neither Andrews nor Tierney were at the height of their eventual popularity in 1944, though they were both in the early stages of stardom (he in The Ox-Bow Incident, and to a lesser degree, Ball of Fire and she, a somewhat bigger name, hence her top billing, in The Shanghai Gesture and Heaven Can Wait), but this film made sure that changed for both of them, for the better.  I suppose neither can really be considered a great actor (though not many can do cold and calculating bitch better than Tierney) but both are nearly always fun to watch - Andrews for his sly smile and kinda slimy bad boys and Tierney for her luscious lips and conniving bad girls (a thing that would come through in both of them even when they were playing good).

As for Preminger, he too was on the cusp of greatness when he made Laura - even if that greatness seemed like just an offshoot (at the time) of what Hitchcock was already doing for nearly two decades by this point.  Preminger weaves this - let's go ahead and say it, Hitchcockian - web of lies and deceit with a rather broad series of strokes, but it all comes together in a fascinating way.  Preminger would go on to make greater films (Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, Bonjour Tristesse) but in this early - and somewhat silly - film noir, we could already see those things of greatness yet to come.
Now contrary to some of the allusions I have made above, I actually quite enjoyed Laura.  Sure, it's silly and rather overly-complicated (yet deceptively simplistic) but some of the nuances Preminger puts into his direction, and the fun one gets from watching Tierney and Andrews (as well as a young buck Vincent Price - also more and enjoyable-to-watch actor than actually a great actor) make for an intriguing film.  The silly pretension of it all, the rather comical last-minute rescue from the o-so-obvious "surprise" villain, Price's hamming it up, Andrews' rather lackluster desire for our intrepid "dead girl".  It is all quite ridiculous (other noirs perhaps have some of the same silliness, but the great ones manage to outweigh such with the gravity of their respective situations) but it is still a lot of fun.  In fact the silly pretension and actors' hamming make it even more enjoyable for me (think about that for a while!).

Laura, instead of reaching the grand heights of a Double Indemnity or an Out of the Past or a Big Sleep, is in that same realm as The Woman in the Window, The Hitch-Hiker, Detour, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, D.O.A., Kansas City Confidential and all those other good (but, not too good) noirs of the era.  It is surely a film I would watch again and again (it is THAT fun - even Godard paid homage to it through Jean-Pierre Leaud's toy-tinkling thug in Made in U.S.A.) and a film that would make my own personal Top 1000 (to reference the reason behind this post).  Perhaps I seem a bit too critical of the film (looking back I suppose I am) but after all is said and done, Laura is no sillier (and no worse) than many of its mid-level genre compatriots (a genre, incidentally that is one of my favourites - high, mid or even low level).

I suppose, above and beyond the somewhat contrived plot, the reason I like Laura as much as I do, is because of it being, at its very basest core, a movie about obsession.  Whether it is Dana Andrews' detective, Clifton Webb's cocksure yet charming gadfly or Price's notorious womanizer and money hound, Preminger's film verily drips with obsession - and who doesn't love a film about obsession!


Carl Rollyson said...

I think Dana Andrews was one of the great actors of the 1940s--as good as anyone working at the time. I'm writing his biography for University Press of Mississippi, so you might say I'm a little partial.

Kevyn Knox said...

I do love Dana Andrews, even if I don't place him in my top acting echelon. There are certain actors, from Chester Morris to Andrews to Rock Hudson to Nic Cage, that no matter their limited range (or perceived limited range) I love watching them in just about everything they do.

True, I probably am being a bit tough on poor ole Dana. I loved him in his tiny scar-faced role in Ball of Fire - wishing he had a bigger part. It is a bit sad his career fell off as it were and he had to take so many b-roles in later years. I haven't actually seen any of these (Curse of the Demon and all that) but plan on it sometime this year (and yes, I do plan these kind of things out in advance).

Hope to read your Andrews Bio one of these days.

Carl Rollyson said...

Don't miss Dana in Fallen Angel and Daisy Kenyon. I have stills from both those pictures in my book trailer: