Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Not quite black and white… Laura (1944)

Maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew here but I’ve been concerned with seeing this film since I picked up a lobby card from the BFI… Said card features Dana Andrews staring with intent at Gene Tierney… who wouldn’t… and their expressions are so loaded that you feel something bad has to have happened and that it could quite easily happen again.

Film Noir is so much about hidden meaning and the total uncertainties of explained truth… It’s a mighty genre to summarise succinctly but it seemed to represent a huge moment in American history when it was realised that not only where the bad guys at home as well as abroad but that they were as much American as anyone else… This sounds wild, but just think of the whole horrific series of post-war hearings that pursued this very logic as, perhaps light-headed after winning the World after the War, the USA started to look for its weaknesses.

Noir also looked to play with narrative structures as part of the cinematic depiction of disorientation when, literally, anyone could have done it, the perp might be the “ victim” and the narrator may even be dead.

Gene Tierney stars initially as a painting of Laura Hunt, a woman who appears to have been brutally slain by a shot gun fired directly into her face. Dana Andrews is Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson, the latest in a line of police put onto the case. We first see him in the apartment of Laura’s friend, the writer Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb.

Lydecker is a wise-cracking writer who beckons the detective into his bathroom where he has been working on a typewriter balanced on a board. Whilst this is eccentric behaviour there’s a strangely feline aspect to Lydecker and his challenging treatment of the policeman, asking him to pass his robe as he leaves the bath and trying to unsettle and belittle him.

Laura was to have married the socialite Shelby Carpenter played by a young and delightfully off-beat Vincent Price. Waldo was disapproving and makes it clear where the motives for the crime may have lain.It seems that the couple had been having mutual second thoughts as their day approached with Shelby drawn to the forceful and harshly-intellectual Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), not obvious competition for Laura, or what we have seen of her from her painting and flashbacks, but none of these people are what they seem.

Very quickly Detective McPherson is out of his depth immersed in the deeper meanings of these unsettling intellectuals. He clings to the rock of certainty provided by the painted image of the murdered Laura. The others spy his weakness.

Then suddenly, Laura returns. She had been away at her country cabin and her radio been broken, meaning that had not heard of her own demise. Or had she?

This emboldens the detective and he suddenly has the purpose of a solid murder mystery to deal with together with one new suspect. Laura’s presence gives him something tangible to deal with and if he can solve the mysteries surrounding her situation he will find the answer to who was actually killed and why.

It would be wrong to go into much further detail about the plot as this film is so much about the surprise of what happens next at every turn until the last.

Needless to say, there are many twists and switches, Shelby shows some confusing loyalty to Laura whilst Ann Treadwell is so coldly logical about the human relationships between the three of them that you want her to be wrong, but you know she’s right. People are that calculating and manipulative.

The murderer turns out to be unexpected but that’s what you’d expect if not maybe who you’d expect...

It’s a stylish and atmospheric film that makes the most of its largely interior locations. Otto Preminger directs with style and focus and it’s certainly a film you have to watch more than once to get full value - one of the very best of its type.

Gene Tierney plays the part wonderfully or should that be inhabits the role? She had the perfect look for the period and the style if not the performance range. No shame in that. She felt the role would have suited Hedy Lamarr but whilst Ms Lamarr would have been perfect for the painting I’m not sure she would have carried the edginess and moral confusion that Tierney manages.

Gene Tierney was one of the most imperfectly beautiful actresses of her generation and that was her strength. You could believe that most of the men would fall for her but that things wouldn’t always go her way.

Laura has just been showcased at the BFI and re-released in some UK cinemas. It’s well-worth watching in cinema – the kind of film watched on TV all too often and maybe taken for granted. But nothing is certain in Laura although it is guaranteed to be also available on DVD from Amazon.

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