– Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) “Laura” (1944)
A perfect example of film-noir, “Laura” has an intelligent and unpredictable plot, beautiful cinematography and an unforgettable score by David Raskin that create the haunting atmosphere felt throughout the film.” – Eye for Film
A somewhat mixed review from The New York Times, compared to the general acclaim the film received from most reviewers:
“…On the whole, close to being a top-drawer mystery.”
Original New York Times Review – 12 October 1944
“When a murder mystery possessing as much sustained suspense, good acting and caustically brittle dialogue as “Laura,” which opened yesterday at the Roxy, comes along it might seem a little like carping to suggest that it could have been even better. As the story of a strangely fascinating female who insinuates herself into the lives of three very worldly gents, much depends, of course, upon the lady herself. This is made quite evident in the beginning of the story when considerable interest and curiosity is generated over the murder of Laura Hunt, and the two rivals for her affections make quite a to do about her intriguing attributes to an inquiring detective.
Yes, you get the idea that this Laura must have been something truly wonderful. Now, at the risk of being unchivalrous, we venture to say that when the lady herself appears upon the scene via a flashback of events leading up to the tragedy, she is a disappointment. For Gene Tierney simply doesn’t measure up to the word-portrait of her character. Pretty, indeed, but hardly the type of girl we had expected to meet. For Miss Tierney plays at being a brilliant and sophisticated advertising executive with the wild-eyed innocence of a college junior.
Aside from that principal reservation, however, “Laura” is an intriguing melodrama. Suspects are plentiful enough, if not too pointed, and Vera Caspary gives the whole addle an added measure of complexity by having the supposed corpse turn up very much alive at about the halfway mark. Her reappearance was quite timely, too, nor it was becoming obvious that even the detective was coming under Laura’s spell — a situation which doesn’t present itself every day in crime novels, much less on the screen.
Clifton Webb, making his film debut in “Laura” as the acid-tongued columnist, Waldo Lydecker, is sophistry personified. His incisive performance is, however, closely matched by that of Dana Andrews as the detective. Mr. Andrews is fast proving himself to be a solidly persuasive performer, a sort of younger edition Spencer Tracy. Other performances are contributed by Vincent Price, Judith Anderson and Dorothy Adams. Only Miss Tierney seems out of key. Perhaps if Laura Hunt had not had such a build-up, it would have been different. Anyway, the picture on the whole is close to being a top-drawer mystery.
“Laura”, adapted from the novel by Vera Caspary; screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt; directed and produced by Otto Preminger for Twentieth-Century Fox.” – New York Times
“Laura” is one of the most stylish, elegant, moody, and witty classic film noirs ever made with an ensemble cast of characters.”
Producer Otto Preminger ultimately ended up directing the film, after filming was begun by Rouben Mamoulian and his cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Preminger’s film falls under the category of romantic, melodramatic mystery/detective thriller. It might also be called a psychological study of deviant, kinky obsession, because almost everyone in the cast loves the title character – Laura. One lobby poster dramatically declared: “The story of a love that became the most fearful thing that ever happened to a woman.”
Laura is characterized by shadowy, dream like, high-contrast black and white cinematography, and taut and smart dialogue in a quick succession of scenes. It presents the recognizably-poignant and haunting ‘Laura’ signature theme music, and a decadent and morally corrupt group of upperclass society types. Almost all of the main protagonists in the entertaining who-dun-it are treated as suspects for a down-to-earth detective. – Film Site
Studio head, Darryl Zanuck, didn’t want Clifton Webb, above, because of his effeminate mannerisms – attributes that director Otto Preminger felt suited his character, Waldo Lydecker. He filmed the actor reading from the play he was appearing in, “Blithe Spirit”, and Zanuck agreed that he was right for the role.
“There is something seductive and powerful about the classic black-and-white films lost to a generation of colour, which is best experienced when watching Otto Preminger’s stylish film noir Laura. This is the sort of thriller that keeps you on your toes, with new twists in the plot constantly unravelling to make sure you’re never one step ahead, never knowing what comes next.
Laura (Gene Tierney) embodies the woman all females want to be and all males want to be with. She has a sensual, captivating quality that appeals to everyone she meets. But as this film reveals, attraction soon turns to adoration and adoration to obsession, and before her wedding to a handsome playboy (Vincent Price), she is found dead. Enter stage left, Lt. Mark McPherson, the detective assigned to the case, who discovers that all is not what it seems. As he learns more and more about the infamous Laura, he finds himself becoming increasingly infatuated, while desperately battling to find the elusive culprit of the crime.
– Eye for Film
Otto Preminger’s battle to make “Laura”
Otto Preminger was looking for a theatrical project to direct and first became aware of Vera Caspary’s story when her agent offered him the first draft of a play called “Ring Twice for Laura”. Preminger liked the high-society setting and the unusual plot twist but felt the work needed a major revision and offered to rewrite it with its author. He and Caspary disagreed about the direction they should take it and she opted to collaborate with writer George Sklar instead.
Marlene Dietrich expressed interest in portraying the title character, but despite the attachment of a major star, Caspary was unable to find a producer willing to finance a national tour or a Broadway run, and she abandoned the project.
Caspary eventually adapted the play for a novel with the same title and a sequel entitled simply Laura, both of which eventually were purchased by 20th Century Fox for $30,000. Fox assigned Preminger the task of developing the books for the screen, and he began working with Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt. Recalling the differences of opinion he and Caspary had had, Preminger opted not to involve her until the first draft was completed. He sensed the more interesting character was not Laura but Waldo Lydecker and expanded his role accordingly, but Caspary was unhappy with the changes to her plot.
Zanuck decided that Preminger could produce but not direct Laura. Several directors, including Lewis Milestone, were offered and rejected Laura until Rouben Mamoulian finally agreed to direct. Mamoulian immediately ignored all of Preminger’s directives as producer and began to rewrite the script. To Preminger’s dismay, he cast Laird Cregar, known for his portrayal of Jack the Ripper in The Lodger, in the key role of Lydecker. The producer felt casting an actor with a reputation for playing sinister roles would lead the audience to become suspicious of Lydecker earlier than necessary. He favored Clifton Webb, who had left films in 1930 to concentrate on the stage and at that time was appearing in the Noël Coward play Blithe Spirit in Los Angeles. Fox casting director Rufus LeMaire and Zanuck both objected to Webb because of his overt effeminate mannerisms, exactly what Preminger felt suited the character. He filmed the actor delivering a monologue from the Coward play, and Zanuck agreed he was perfect for the role.
Filming began on 27 April 27 1944, and from the start Mamoulian had problems with his cast. He offered relative newcomers Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews little support, allowed theatrically trained Judith Anderson to play to the balcony instead of reining in her performance, and virtually ignored Webb, who had learned the director was unhappy with his casting. After viewing the early rushes, Zanuck called a meeting with Mamoulian and Preminger, each of whom blamed the other for the problems on the set. Preminger finally convinced Zanuck the material needed a more subtle approach than Mamoulian was willing to give it, and the studio head allowed the producer to fire him and direct the film himself.
Preminger immediately hired a new cinematographer and scenic designer and replaced the portrait of Laura – a crucial element of the film – Mamoulian’s wife had painted with an enlarged photograph of Tierney lightly dabbed with oils to give it the ethereal effect he wanted.
Preminger initially experienced resistance from his cast, who had been led to believe Preminger was unhappy with their work by the departing Mamoulian. “Once we got used to Otto, we had a pretty easy time,” Vincent Price recalled in a July 1989 interview. Filming was completed on 29 June, slightly over budget but within the projected timetable.
Once principal photography was completed, Preminger hired David Raksin to score the film. The director wanted to use “Sophisticated Lady” by Duke Ellington for the main theme, but Raksin objected to the choice. Alfred Newman, music director for Fox, convinced Preminger to give Raksin a weekend to compose an original tune. Inspired by a Dear John letter he had received from his girlfriend, Raksin wrote the haunting theme for which Johnny Mercer later wrote lyrics. It eventually became a jazz standard recorded by more than four hundred artists, including Stan Kenton, Dick Haymes, Woody Herman, Nat King Cole, The Four Freshmen, and Frank Sinatra. Preminger was so pleased with Raksin’s score the two collaborated on four additional films.
Zanuck was unhappy with Preminger’s first cut of the film and insisted it be given a new ending, in which it was revealed Lydecker had imagined the entire story. Following a screening of the Zanuck version, columnist Walter Winchell approached the studio head and told him, “I didn’t get the ending. You’ve got to change it.” Zanuck relented and allowed Preminger to reinstate his original finale, telling him, “This is your success. I concede”.
Awards and Nominations
Joseph LaShelle won the Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography. Otto Preminger was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director but lost to Leo McCarey for Going My Way. Clifton Webb was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way. Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost to Frank Butler and Frank Cavett for Going My Way. Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, and Thomas Little were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Black-and-White Art Direction and Interior Decoration but lost to Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari, Paul Huldschinsky, and Edwin B. Willis for Gaslight.