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Film noir is a sub-genre of film which is defined by moral ambiguity, disillusionment, and hopelessness. After producing a slew of comedies and family films, Hollywood began to take a walk on the darker side in the late 1930’s by producing complicated stories that acknowledged the gritty reality of Depression-era America. The combined devastation of the Great Depression and horrors of the Second World War brought the American psyche to a dark place by the 1940’s, creating a jaded movie-going public. Film studios responded by producing an increasing number of films that borrowed the techniques and cynicism of European cinema and combined them with an all-American rebelliousness; thus film noir was born.
The theme song turned popular standard goes, “Laura is the face in the misty light…but she’s only a dream”, an idea reiterated by acerbic columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) when he says “I, Waldo Lydecker was the only one who really knew her” when discussing his murdered protégé. In many ways, the 1944 film Laura is as enigmatic as its protagonist; at once a murder mystery, love story, and psychological drama, the film defies classification. In many ways, this classic film noir does not even seem to fit within the confines of the flexible genre. For instance, the action takes place in the luxurious apartments of Manhattan society rather than the back alley’s of the city’s slums, and the heroine enchants those around her but does not have any malicious intent. Closer observation of the characters’ self-serving motives and amoral behavior, however, reveals a grim picture of the low-lifes who often make up “high society”.
The film begins as Waldo writes a column dedicated to Laura following her brutal murder the day before. He is interrupted by the arrival of detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who proceeds to conduct a half-hearted interrogation of Waldo. The interrogation reveals that successful career-woman Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) was murdered by a shot gun blast to her face just days before her planned wedding date. Following the interrogation, Waldo accompanies McPherson to the homes of Laura’s various associates as part of the murder investigation. During McPherson’s conversations with Laura’s loved ones, the audience is introduced to the dead woman through a series of flashbacks. Each flashback must be taken with a grain of salt, however, as they are all clearly told from the other characters’ points of view. As a result, the audience is able to form an image of Laura, without actually gaining any objective insight into her motives or personality. McPherson is fascinated by the various accounts of Laura despite his better judgment, and soon finds himself falling in love with the idealized memory of her. Just as the detective seems to be closing in on a solution, however, the case takes a drastic turn that proves that nothing in his investigation is what it seems.
Laura’s rise to the silver screen was almost as convoluted as it’s plot. The tale originally began as a play which was later rewritten as a serialized novel. The novel was an instant hit, and author Vera Caspary was given numerous offers to bring the story to the stage. Caspary then re-adpated the novel back into a play, only to find that she was not able to get a full production for it. Exasperated, she gave up on pursuing a stage production and sold the rights to the story to 20th Century Fox. Initially regarded as a routine “B-picture” by the studio, the film then underwent a series of changes under director Rouben Mamoulian, including a temporary ending in which the whole film was revealed to have been a dream. Eventually, Mamoulian was dismissed and Otto Preminger was assigned to direct, and although Caspary was displeased with certain elements of the film, he remained largely faithful to the original plot.
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In keeping with the expectations and budget requirements of a B-picture, Fox comprised a case of character actors and virtual unknowns. As a result, the film propelled newcomers Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews to stardom and revived the fading (film, Webb was a success on Broadway at this time) career of former silent actor Clifton Webb. All of the films’ players are in top form and create complicated characters that leave audiences guessing until the film’s finish. Webb’s performance is particularly memorable as he dominates the screen with a sly gesture or sarcastic comment each time he appears. Gene Tierney also provides an exemplary performance, especially considering the fact that she plays several variations of Laura in each flashback. Similarly, Judith Anderson provides just the right touch of bitterness in her cool portrayal of Laura’s jealous aunt. Vincent Price is equally entertaining in his portrayal of Laura’s charmingly duplicitous fiancé . Finally, Dana Andrews rounds out the cast in a superb performance as the hard-boiled detective trying to make sense of Laura’s world of half-truths and hypocrisy.
One of the most interesting elements of the film is its atmosphere. While most detective stories of this period have a straight forward tone, Laura’s charm lies in its dream like atmosphere. Throughout the film, characters relate accounts of not what actually occurred so much as what they believe or wish had occurred. As a result, each of the film’s flashbacks contains an element of nostalgia and an idealized view of the past. This atmosphere in turn leads the audience into a world of ‘should have’ or ‘what might have been’ scenarios that keep reality at bay. It is this sense of unreality that enables the film to not only keep the viewer guessing as to ‘who done it’, but also leads them to question the how’s and why’s that the central twist hinges upon. Through this enhanced view of the characters and their world, the viewer is able to empathize with McPherson in his pursuit of a memory and the secrets she holds.
Laura, like its title heroine, is a masterpiece that truly defies both summation and classification. Through its combination of lavish settings and sparkling wit set against a back drop of violent action and sordid motives, the film remains a classic noir of the highest order. Though numerous subsequent films and television shows have tried to emulate its atmosphere of mystery and illusion, none have been able to mesmerize quite like Laura. Just as Laura herself effortlessly charmed those around her to the point of obsession, the film has continued to bewitch audiences for nearly seventy years. It is little wonder that when Fox asked Caspary to write “another warm, wonderful, sexy girl like Laura” she could only reply, “I wish I could”
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If you enjoyed the twists and turns of Laura, be sure to take a look at my murder mystery All in the Past http://offthewallplays.com/2014/11/19/past-murder-mystery-play-scripts/