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Film Friday: «Laura» (1944)

Today is Vincent Price's 105th birthday. I have only seen four of his pictures, but since one of them is widely regarded as one of finest films noir of all time (and features one of my favorite actors, Dana Andrews), I thought I would tell you a little bit about it. 
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Otto Preminger, Laura (1944) opens in New York with the discovery of the facially disfigured body of the beautiful and highly successful advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), murdered by a shotgun blast to the face, inside the doorway of her apartment. Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) interviews each of the suspects: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an imperious society columnist and Laura's possessive mentor; Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura's weak-willed playboy fiancé; and Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), Laura's socialite aunt, who is in love with Shelby. Mark also questions Laura's loyal housekeeper, Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams), the person who found the body. 

During the investigation, Mark becomes fascinated with Laura and is bewitched by her captivating painted portrait. One night, Mark falls alseep in Laura's apartment, under her portrait, and is awakened by the sound of someone entering the room. He is shocked to realize that is it Laura, who informs him that she has been away in the country reconsidering her forthcoming marriage to Shelby. Further evidence reveals that the dead girl is one of Laura's models, Diane Redfern, who was once romantically involved with Shelby. With jealously on top of the agenda, all the suspects have a motive: Waldo or Anne might have killed Diane in the mistaken belief that the model — in Laura's apartment and wearing one of Laura's negligées — was Laura; Shelby might have been disposing of his ex-girlfriend; and Laura herself might have resented Diane's attachment to her husband-to-be. When the murder weapon is finally discovered, it becomes clear that the killer is in fact Waldo, who has always been jealous of Laura's suitors. Envious and vengeful, especially after Laura begins an affair with Mark, Waldo enters her apartment to ensure that if he cannot have her, then no one will. Mark arrives just in time to save Laura and, during the course of the rescue, Waldo is fatally wounded. His last words are: "Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love."

Waldo Lydecker [voiceover]: And thus, as history has proved, love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout history. Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death. 

Born into a distinguished Viennese family, Otto Preminger was brought to Hollywood in 1935 by producer Joseph Schenck and studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, co-founders of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck, who took an immediate dislike to the émigré, assigned Preminger to several low-budget projects, before finally giving him the chance to direct his first A picture, Kidnapped (1938), based on the best-selling novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although Preminger was thankful for the opportunity, he knew that he was the wrong person to helm a film set in the Scottish Highlands. During production, he and Zanuck argued incessantly, until the mogul fired Preminger and replaced him with Alfred Werker. Suddenly unemployed, Preminger moved to New York, where he found great success acting in and directing plays on Broadway, including Margin for Error, in which he portrayed a bullying Nazi consul. When the United States became involved in World War II, Zanuck left Fox to serve in the Army Signal Corps, appointing his executive assistant, William Goetz, to run the studio in his absence. With Zanuck away, Preminger secured an agreement with Goetz to act in and direct a screen version of Margin for Error. Goetz was so delighted with the first rushes that he gave Preminger a seven-year contract as actor, director and producer at Fox.

While filming Margin for Error (1943), Preminger became interested in adapting a new property that Fox had recently acquired, a suspenseful detective novel by American author Vera Caspary entitled Laura. Originally published in Collier's magazine between October and November 1942 as a seven-part serial named Ring Twice for Laura, the story was released in book format by Houghton Mifflin in early 1943. Goetz looked over the material and immediately greenlighted the project, allowing Preminger to direct as well as produce. In the late 1960s, Preminger revealed to Peter Bodganovich what interested him about Caspary's story: "The gimmick. You see, a suspense picture depends mainly on finding a new gimmick. There are very few new plots. If you can find something different, as in this case, where a girl you thought was dead automatically becomes a murder suspect by walking into her own apartment — that helps."

Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb
in a publicity still for Laura
Just as Laura entered pre-production, Zanuck returned to Fox and was "incensed" to discover that Preminger was back under contract. After six years of not speaking with the director, Zanuck summoned Preminger to a meeting at his house, where he told him, "I see you are working on a few things. I don't think much of them except for one, Laura. I've read it, and it isn't bad. You can produce it, but as long as I am at Fox you will never direct." Subsequently, Zanuck relegated Preminger and the project to the B film unit headed by Bryan Foy. 

Preminger began working on the Laura script with screewriter/novelist Jay Dratler, whose credits included the crime drama Meet Boston Blackie (1941) and the romantic comedy The Wife Takes a Flyer (1942). When Zanuck criticized Dratler's dialogue as "very ordinary," Preminger hired Betty Reinhardt and Samuel Hoffenstein to instill life into the screenplay where needed. A Russian émigré, Hoffenstein had been responsible for a number of other literary adaptations, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), An American Tragedy (1931) and Conquest (1937).

Once he completed a first draft of the script, Preminger invited Caspary to the studio to read it. They had met for the first time in New York in the late 1930s, when they began collaborating on the play Ring Twice for Laura, although they soon fell out over creative differences. Caspary eventually finished the play script with writer George Sklar, but "there were no Broadway takers," leading her to publish the story on Collier's magazine instead. Caspary was not pleased to learn that Preminger was making a B picture out of her novel and became exasperated by the fact that a new plot and additional characters had been added. She objected to way Preminger had conceived the ending, in which Waldo hides the gun he plans kill to Laura with in a baroque standing clock in her apartment. In the novel, Waldo's gun is hidden in his cane, a symbol of his "impotence and destructiveness." Caspary also felt that Preminger misread her heroine: "'In the book, Laura has no character and no sex,' Preminger said to me. I howled. 'Then why did she had to pay a gigolo?' he asked. I could have been struck down by an inch of celluloid. 'Laura gives everything with her love. Perhaps you don't know anything about love, Mr. Preminger,' I said, and made a haughty exit.'"

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney
Foy was also dissatisfied with the script, voicing his disapproval with Zanuck at a meeting. He said that, among other things, he did not like the fact that Laura, a detective story, did not have a single scene that took place in a police station. While Zanuck continued to dislike Preminger personally, he sided with him on the creative turn that the production was taking: "The fact that it doesn't have a routine scene in a police station is exactly what I like about it. I'll take over the supervision of the picture." Eventually, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. — four years away from being blacklisted — was brought in to polish the script. Apparently, it was Lardner who added the scene in which detective Mark McPherson brings Laura Hunt to the police heardquarters for interrogation.

Holding firm to his refusal to let Preminger direct Laura, Zanuck offered to film to Fox regulars John Brahm, Walter Wang and Lewis Milestone, all of whom turned it down. In February 1944, it was announced that Irving Cummings would helm the picture, but it was Rouben Mamoulian who ultimately accepted the assignment, even though he did not particularly care for the characters or the setting. "He didn't like the script any more than others who had turned it down," Preminger later said, "but he had no other jobs in sight and needed the money." Another Eastern European émigré, Mamoulian had earlier scored big with Zanuck in Blood and Sand (1941), a Spanish bullfighting epic starring "King of the Fox Lot" Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth and Linda Darnell.

Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney
To play the title role in Laura, Zanuck initially approached Jennifer Jones, who under an agreement with independent producer David O. Selznick (her future husband) was contracted to make one film a year for Fox. When Jones turned it down, Zanuck went to Hedy Lamarr, but she too showed no interest in the character. Finally, Zanuck offered the part to Gene Tierney, who had signed with Fox in 1940. Although Tierney liked the script, she was not particularly enthusiastic about her role. "The time on camera was less than one would like," she later recalled. "And who wants to play a painting?" Zanuck eventually convinced her to play the mysterious Laura Hunt by saying, "The role is right for you, Gene. You'll be good in it. And, you'll see, this one will help your career."

 For the role of police detective Mark McPherson, Zanuck wanted John Hodiak, but Preminger insisted they cast Fox contract player Dana Andrews, whose credits included Howards Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941) and William A. Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a Best Picture nominee at the 16th Academy Awards. It was apparently Lewis Milestone who first brought Laura to Andrews' attention. While working together on The Purple Heart (1944), Milestone told Andrews that although he had turned down the assignment, he thought the role of the detective would make him a star. The director gave Andrews the script and, after reading it, he began actively campaigning for the part; he even got Hedda Hopper to plug him for the part in one of her columns. Zanuck's wife, Virginia, was also in favor of Andrews, whom she had met by chance on the set of Wings and a Prayer (1944). She thought the young actor had "star potential," but Zanuck would not hear of it. Ultimately, Preminger's persistence paid off and Andrews got the part. Laura was the third pairing of Andrews and Tierney, who had previously co-starred in Tobacco Road (1941) and Belle Starr (1941). They latter appeared together in The Iron Curtain (1948) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), the latter directed by Preminger.

Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews
The role of Waldo Lydecker was arguably the most difficult to cast. Zanuck initially conceived the part for Monty Woolley, who had recently earned an Oscar nomination for The Pied Piper (1942), co-starring Preminger. Halfway through the casting process, he decided that he wanted instead Laird Cregar, well established in villainous roles, but Preminger objected: "You must have a man who either is unknown or has never played heavies before. Otherwise, the audience will known right away, and there will be no chance to suspect Gene Tierney."

With that in mind, Preminger suggested Clifton Webb, whom he had just seen in a Los Angeles production of Nöel Coward's play Blithe Spirit. Zanuck, however, refused to cast Webb, especially since he had not made a film in 15 years. Casting director Rufus LeMaire agreed, adding that Webb was far to effeminate for the role: "He doesn't walk, he flies!" Over LeMaire's objections, Preminger persuaded Zanuck to let him shoot a test with Webb, which ultimately to the annoyed studio head that the actor was right for the part. Tierney later said that both Webb and Andrews were "regarded as gambles. Andrews was unproven as a leading man. Webb had never made a movie [sic], but had spent his career on Broadway, and had an image that was, well, prissy."

Zanuck had mentally cast English actor Reginald Gardiner as Shelby Anderson, but the role was eventually given to Vincent Price, whom Preminger had directed in a Broadway production of Sutton Vane's Outward Bound in 1938-1939. Price would always regard Laura as the best film he ever made; he considered it "one of those few pictures that is perfect. Not pretentious, very simple, just brilliant. Certainly way and away the best thing Otto Preminger ever did." Rounding up the principal cast as Ann Treadwell, Laura's aunt and Shelby's would-be lover, was Australian stage actress Judith Anderson, whose portrayal of domineering housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebbeca (1940) had brough her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Judith Anderson and Vincent Price
Shooting began under Mamoulian's direction on April 27, 1944. Right way, there was was tension between Mamoulian and Preminger, who later recalled: "[Mamoulian] started to direct the picture, and he ignored me completely. He didn't even let me come on the stage, said I made him nervous because I was also a director." Preminger thought that Mamoulian "just didn't understand the picture." He misdirected most of the cast, did not give Tierney and Andrews — relative newcomers to the industry — the attention they needed and often clashed with Webb, whom he did not want in the film.

After viewing the first rushes, Zanuck sent an angry telegram to Preminger: "This Dana Andrews whom you sponsored is an amateur without any sex appeal, and Clifton Webb is 'flying.' Judith Anderson should stay on the stage, and you should have stayed in New York or Vienna, where you belong." When the second set of dailies proved to be just as bad as the first — if not worse — Zanuck finally gave up and uttered the words Preminger had been longing to hear since returning to Hollywood: "Monday you can start directing Laura. From scratch."

Preminger began his directing job on Laura by discarding all of the footage shot by Mamoulian and hiring a new cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, who had shot Webb's screen test, and a new costume designer, Bonnie Cashin, with whom he had worked on In the Meantime, Darling (1944). Preminger also scrapped some of Mamoulian's sets and, in doing so, got rid of the portrait of Laura that had been commissioned from Mamoulian's wife, Azadia Newman, a successful Hollywood artist. Preminger hated the portrait, saying that it lacked the "mystic quality" for which he was searching. He then substituted a photograph of Tierney by studio photographer Frank Polony, enlarged and lightly airbrushed with paint, giving the appearance of brush strokes, then placed in an expensive frame. According to Tierney, "I am not being modest when I say that people remember me less for my acting job than as the girl in the portrait, which was the movie's key prop."

Gene Tierney and Vincent Price
Although the cast was initially "hostile" towards Preminger, a "cooperative spirit" prevailed throughout shooting. "Otto held us together," Tierney later recalled, "pushed and lifted what might have been a good movie into one that became something special." Furthermore, Price regarded all the actors as good friends who were delighted with the opportunity to work together. He and Tierney, with whom he had previously co-starred in Hudson's Bay (1941), became especially close until she withdrew from Hollywood in the mid-1950s. They went on to appear in two more films together, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) which earned Tierney the only Academy Award nomination of her career and Dragonwyck (1946).

After filming wrapped on Laura, Alfred Newman, the head of Fox's music department, engaged composer David Raksin to write the score for the film. Preminger wanted to use Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" as the main theme, but Raksin objected that the song was too well known and that it carried associations applicable neither to the film nor to the character of Laura. Adamant, Preminger told Raksin, "This is Friday. You come in with something better we like on Monday, or we use 'Sophisticated Lady.'" On Monday, Raksin who at 23 had composed the score for Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) delivered "Laura," a haunting, mournful melody he created after learning that his wife was leaving him. The song, played strategically throughout the picture, became a hit when Johnny Mercer added lyrics and went on to be recorded by over four hundred artists, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fiztgerald, Andy Williams and Seth McFarlane.

Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews
Laura opened at the Roxy Theatre in New York on October 11, 1944 to largely positive reviews from critics. Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times wrote: "When a murder mystery possessing as much sustained suspense, good acting and caustically brittle dialogue as Laura [...] comes along it might seem a little like carping to suggest that it could have been even better." For their part, Variety observed: "The film's deceptively leisurely pace at the start, and its light, careless air, only heighten the suspense without the audience being conscious of the buildup. What they are aware of as they follow the story [...] is the skill in the telling. Situations neatly dovetail and are always credible. Developments, surprising as they come, are logical. The dialog is honest, real and adult." The reviewer for Daily Telegraph was especially pleased: "One of the best thrillers ever made, as good as Double Indemnity, better than Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. [...] The plot is brilliantly contrived, the characters live, the dialogue is witty without being forced, laconic without a lot of hammy biting on the bullet."

The cast and crew were also thrilled with the results. "When we all went to see Laura on opening night," Price later recalled, we had never heard the score! That was written long after the film was finished. So we sat there and thought, 'Isn't that marvelous.'" According to his daughter Victoria, Price felt that Tierney had as much to do with the film's success as Preminger's direction: "In his opinion, it was Gene Tierney's 'odd beauty' and underrated acting ability that made Laura so popular. He felt her beauty was both timeless and imperfect." Tierney, on the other hand, did not give herself much credit for its success. "I never felt my own performance was much more than adequate," she said. "I am pleased that audiences still identify me with Laura, as opposed to not being identified at all. Their tributes, I believe, are for the character — the dreamlike Laura — rather than any gifts I brought to the role. I do not mean to sound modest. I doubt that any of us connected with the movie thought it had a chance of becoming a kind of mystery classic, or enduring beyond its generation [...] If it worked, it was because the ingredients turned out to be right."

Vincent Price, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb
and Dana Andrews
Although not a blockbuster, Laura became a moderate financial hit for Fox, earning $2 million in domestic rentals, against production costs of $1,020,000. At the 17th Academy Awards held at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in March 1945, Joseph LaShelle won the Oscar for Best Cinematography (Black and White), with the film receiving four additional nominations: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction (Black and White). Leo McCarey was named Best Director for Going My Way (1944), which also won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Laura was a major turning point in the careers of everyone associated with it. Otto Preminger became one of Hollywood's most distinguished directors, notable for pushing the boundaries of censorship with such controversial films as The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). The film's success also elevated its main cast to A-list status. Dana Andrews became one of Fox's most popular male stars, as well as one of the actors most closely associated with Preminger, playing leading roles for the director in three other noirs: Fallen Angel (1945), Daisy Kenyon (1947) and the aforementioned Where the Sidewalk Ends. Gene Tierney became one of the most popular leading ladies during the remainder of the 1940s, achieving further recognition for her roles in Leave Her to Heaven, The Razor's Edge (1946) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1946). Clifton went on to receive two other Academy Award nominations for The Razor's Edge and Sitting Pretty (1949) while Vincent Price made a name for himself in a series of successful horror films, including House of Wax (1953) and The Fly (1958). All things considered, Laura was an unqualified hit. As much as he disliked Preminger, Darryl F. Zanuck had to admit that the director had delivered a masterpiece. Zanuck's final words to Preminger on Laura: "This is your success. I concede."

Dana Andrews: The Face of Noir by James McKay (2010) | Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style by William Hare (2003) | Gene Tierney: A Biography by Michelle Vogel (2005) | Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews by Carl Rollyson (2012) | Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb by Clifton Webb with David L. Smith (2011) | Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King by Foster Hirsch (2011) | The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger by Chris Jujiwara (2008) | Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography by Victoria Price (2014) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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