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September 20, 2012

Laura (1944) review

A mystery, filled with red herrings, deceptions and hilarious false leads, but at the end, when it’s all solved, it seems so obvious. The entire plot falls into place. How can anyone claim to forget who the murderer is? Roger Ebert claimed in his review that “I’ve seen the movie seven times, and the murderer still doesn’t immediately spring to mind.”

A woman’s body has been found, murdered, by gunshot wound, but that’s not where we open.  There is no blood at the start, no, we see a detective from the point of view of another character.

Many films are called timeless, and though this was written in 1944, this film looks almost like it could happen today.

Though Clifton Webb does not get main billing, his sarcastically witty, if arrogant, curmudgeon seems to me the main character, as “Waldo Lydecker” has the most lines.  But the official lead role belongs Dana Andrews, in the role of a very down to earth detective who’s mission it is to find out who the murderer is.  Even stranger is that the female lead plays what appears to be a murder victim named Laura Hunt.  The detective starts out knowing nothing about this Laura, except for seeing a large portrait of her (or of actress Gene Tierney).

Sharing the line up of suspects with the Curmudgeon is a womanizing mooch from Kentucky by the name of Shelby Carpenter (played by a pre-mustache Vincent Price), who was Laura’s fiancee.   Shelby Carpenter seems to be really in love with a less glamorous older woman named Ann Treadwell (this woman being the third suspect.  She is superbly portrayed by Judith Anderson.)

Womanizer, curmudgeon, or older woman?  Who was it?  At times, it looks like anyone could have done it, even the maid.

Laura’s portrait hangs on the wall watching over the case, listening to the weird fantasies and memories of those who were obsessed with her.  And strangest of all, the cop in search of Laura’s killer seems to fall in love with this portrait.

The mystery deepens as the two main suspects appear willing to help incriminate each other.  The tell white lies, to cover up misdemeaners, but are quickly found out on that front.  There are times it appears almost solved, but then the twist is pulled in a new direction.  However, despite all the twists and turns, the ending is very satisfying, almost as happy as a fairy tale.  And, the viewer thinks to himself, why didn’t I know that all along?

Along the way, there are laughs, and plenty of them, as the main characters reveal how rotten they are.  There is not much action, it’s more of a true “talky”, and despite the fact that the portrait was painted in color, and the film was released as late as 1944, the film is completely in black and white.  So, perhaps children would not appreciate this fine work of art.

But if you can see this on the big screen, it’s worth it (although I’m not sure it’s worth dragging the children along to the cinema.  No parent I know would find anything in this film objectionable, it’s just that I don’t think kids would get it.  The jokes are spoken, not physical.  It’s almost like theater.)

So, if there’s no slapstick, not a lot of explosions, no rainbows or magical elves or massive scenery, and none of the usual spectacle for those with short attention spans, why would I suggest watching Laura at the cinema?

Well, like a play, it’s the kind of story that you can really get lost into, if there are no distractions.  Unlike Television, it’s not made up of bite sized chunks, rather it is a continuous whole.  The photography, if mainly indoors, is superb, and the props and scenery are beautiful to look at.  Seeing five characters, or even a whole party, in one frame is great at the cinema, but on a small screen they’d merely resemble a bunch of ants.

Despite being released during World War II, it’s hard to date this film.  Sure, if you recognise the costumes and styles of some of the furniture, you’d have a time set.   But if I were setting the script in the present, I don’t think I’d have to change a word.