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A detective investigating a murder falls in love with the dead woman's portrait.
For more about Laura and the Laura Blu-ray release, see Laura Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on February 7, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Directors: Otto Preminger, Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Samuel Hoffenstein, Jay Dratler, Elizabeth Reinhardt
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Dorothy Adams
» See full cast & crew
Laura Blu-ray Review
Three Men and a Dame
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, February 7, 2013
It was director Otto Preminger's first great film, and—though Anatomy of a Murder gives it a run—it may be his greatest. The 1944 film noir Laura is one of studio Hollywood's classic whodunits, but the twisting plot and suckerpunch surprises are only the beginning of the film's charms. Yes, it's a mystery movie—and one that keeps you guessing until the last act—but more than that, it's a dark examination of romantic obsession, female idolization, and the male desire to possess and control. If not a prototypical noir in a visual sense—much of it takes place in relatively bright interiors, with few concessions to intense chiaroscuro lighting, dutch angles, or the like—it has many of the genre's thematic hallmarks. A flawed, morally suspect protagonist. A potential femme fatale. An underbelly of sex and violence. Acidic dialogue. A wary cynicism about love. More than anything, though, the film is defined by its uneasy ambiguity. With a screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt—based on a novel by Vera Caspary, who would be graylisted in the 1950s for her communist sympathies—Preminger keeps us questioning the supposedly good intentions of the film's characters. Especially the male ones, who are each—in their own ways—infatuated with the titular Laura, played by legendary screen beauty Gene Tierney.
Laura, we're led to believe, is dead, blasted in the face at close-range with a double-barrel shotgun loaded with buckshot. The statute of limitations is up, but consider this a mild spoiler alert: the fact that the body is unidentifiable should be your first clue that "dead"—yes, in quotation marks—is perhaps a better way to put it. Called in to take the case is joe-blow detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), a laconic gumshoe who calms his nerves by playing with one of those old handheld ball bearing games, focusing his attention on getting the tiny silver orbs to drift into their slots. This is an apt metaphor for Laura itself—if the film's characters are the balls, Preminger spends the next hour and a half shifting and rolling them to and fro until they're one-by-one locked down and defined.
The first suspect on McPherson's list is the newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Stars and Stripes' Clifton Webb), a snooty fop who writes his diatribes whilst soaking in a marble tub, surrounded by antiques and expensive objets d'art. He is what was then known as a confirmed bachelor; while it's never stated, it's certainly implied that he's gay. Lydecker sits down with McPherson over glasses of wine and recounts his relationship with Laura, a lowly copy editor who approached him seven years prior to endorse a line of pens. ("I don't use a pen," he says," I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.") In a flashback with overtones of Pygmalion, Lydecker befriends and transforms Laura from an office peon into a high society advertising maven, well-connected and impeccably dressed. She's essentially his project—a living doll—and his feelings toward her are obviously more control-oriented than romantic. He's not willing to share Laura with anyone else.
Which leads McPherson to Lydecker's competition, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price, sans mustache), a persistent suitor Laura had recently decided not to marry. Carpenter is an oafish, social-climbing playboy with less money than he pretends to have, and Laura was the status-symbol trophy he'd trot out to parties, all the while cheating on her behind her back. He's also been secretly receiving cash payments from Laura's wealthy socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson)—an old maid who wants a boy toy of her own—drawing suspicion to both of them.
Everyone has a motive here, but nothing, of course, is exactly as it seems. The story takes a strange turn when McPherson—who initially referred to Laura merely as a "dame," much to the fussy Lydecker's ire—begins falling himself for the supposedly dead woman, drawn to the enigmatic portrait of her that hangs in her apartment. He sniffs her perfume, inspects one of her sheer shifts, sits and stares at her visage on the wall. Is this creepy? Maybe a little. But what it really illustrates is how easy it is for men to fall in love with the idea of a woman, with some mental construct of her that's independent of reality. The three men in the film each make Laura into something that she isn't, objectifying and using her to their own ends.
There's even an argument to be made here that Lydecker wants to be Laura, that she is essentially the outward representation of a femininity he keeps closeted. It's a fascinating role for Clifton Webb, who was himself a "confirmed bachelor," and his performance—effete and arrogant, sharp eyed and sharper tongued—is the highlight of the film. That's not to say Price and Andrews and Tierney aren't good—they are—but Webb definitely gets all the juiciest lines, like when he says, "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I've never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention."
To say anything more about the specifics of the plot would be a disservice to those who've yet to see the movie, but suffice it to say that what begins as a murder mystery soon becomes something else entirely, a kind of coldly romantic psychological thriller. From it's wicked-smart dialogue and whiplash twists to David LaShelle's Academy Award-winning cinematography and Otto Preminger's objective staging—his wide, open mis-en-scene never dictates how we should feel about the characters—Laura is all-around masterful and one of most iconic noir films of the 1940s.
Laura Blu-ray, Video Quality
20th Century Fox has been doing some fine work lately with the "Studio Classics" line of Blu-ray remasters, and Laura is no exception. With a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that's been carefully restored—removing all specks and debris—Joseph LaShelle's Academy Award-winning black and white cinematography looks better than it ever has on home video. While not quite as moody as some of LaShelle's other collaborations with Preminger, this film noir's photography is luscious, with deep shadows and crisp but never overblown highlights. There are a few scenes where black levels are slightly elevated—I'm thinking of the sequence where Lydecker waits outside Laura's apartment in the snow—but this is presumably to preserve detail. Overall, the tonal balance is excellent. Clarity is strong too. From the weft of Waldo's slim-fitting suits to the texture of McPherson's face, high definition detail is in abundance, with the only noticeable softness occurring—understandably—during cross-dissolve scene transitions. Just as importantly, the print looks entirely natural, with no smeary digital noise reduction—fine film grain is easily visible here—and no edge enhancement or other unnecessary embellishments. No compression or encode concerns either. A fantastic looking mid-century film on Blu-ray.
Laura Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Laura is of course known for the popular eponymous jazz-standard song that composer David Raksin's haunting main theme inspired—it's been recorded over 400 times, by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane—and as you'd hope, the music here sounds wonderful. The film's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is clear, dynamically broad, and wonderfully detailed. There's none of the tinny, crackly high-end you sometimes get with scores from this era, and any crackles, clicks, hisses, or thumps that may have existed on the source tapes have been completely attenuated here. The audio is very clean. This goes for the dialogue too, which is always bright and full and easy to understand. The disc includes optional English SDH, Spanish, French, and Dutch subtitles—in white, drop-shadowed lettering—as well as French and Spanish dubs in Dolby Digital 1.0.
Laura Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
With one minor addition—a short retrospective with interviews of several film critics/historians—the extras on Laura's Blu-ray release have been ported straight from the 2005 DVD, including two audio commentaries, two A&E biographical documentaries, a deleted scene, and a theatrical trailer. Also note that the disc includes both the theatrical cut and an extended cut that runs one-minute longer and shows a montage of Laura's rise to high- society status, a sequence that was deemed too "off-putting in its decadence" for wartime audiences.
Laura Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
For fans of classic Hollywood mystery—and film noir in particular—20th Century Fox's newly minted Laura Blu-ray is simply a must-own release. A sharp examination of unhealthy obsession and manipulation, the film is one of Otto Preminger's best, featuring Academy Award-winning cinematography from Joseph LaShelle and a main theme that would inspire jazz singers for years to come. With a few minor changes, the Blu-ray is basically a straight port of the 2005 DVD, but I don't hesitate to recommend shelling out for the upgrade—the film is gorgeous in high definition, and David Raksin's score sounds better than ever. Get it and bask in the beauty of Gene Tierney; her face was made for cinema.
The film is currently unavailable at Amazon—for unspecified reasons—but I imagine it will be back in stock shortly.
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Laura Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Otto Preminger's Laura Set to Debut on Blu-ray - November 29, 2012
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment are set to release on Blu-ray director Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), one of the all-time greatest noir films. Starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb, and winner of Oscar Award for Best Cinematography, ...
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