Few films can be identified solely by their theme music, but 'Laura' is definitely one of them. David Raksin's haunting, melodic score has become almost as famous as the movie itself, spawning more than 400 recordings and exquisitely capturing the air of mystery and romance that pervades this hypnotic whodunit. Like the story's intoxicating heroine, the lush music deftly draws us into the drama, and swirls around our brain as we try to unravel the sticky web of lies entangling the characters. Yet even without its memorable theme, Otto Preminger's film flirts with and often achieves perfection. A sharp, literate script, richly textured plot (with a clever angle), first-class performances, and superb cinematography all combine to create a masterful motion picture that seems as fresh today as it certainly did upon its initial release almost 70 years ago.
Many critics classify the movie as a film noir title, but lumping 'Laura' in the same category as the gritty 'Double Indemnity,' 'The Postman Always Rings Twice,' and 'Murder, My Sweet' unfairly pigeonholes this sleek, sophisticated tale. Sure, 'Laura' contains a number of standard noir elements — stark contrast, murky shadows, twisted passions, a tough-talking detective, and a beautiful, ambiguous heroine — but there's a glossy quality to the film that, like cream, allows it to rise above more typical noirs. No seedy locales or sordid liaisons dirty up its plot. On the surface, 'Laura' is antiseptically clean, and its well-scrubbed, high society characters behave with decorum throughout. More akin to Agatha Christie than Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain, 'Laura' revels in its Park Avenue trimmings, and its searing wit adds a lightness of tone that cuts tension and makes the characters more accessible.
Adapted from Vera Caspary's novel, 'Laura' opens with Det. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating the murder of chic advertising director Laura Hunt. He interviews the ultra-refined, acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who relates how he fell under Laura's spell and used his stature and influence to foster her career. McPherson also questions Laura's on-again-off-again fiancé, playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price); her wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), with whom Shelby occasionally dallies; and Laura's devoted housekeeper, Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams). Through intimate flashbacks, narrated by Waldo, McPherson comes to know Laura (Gene Tierney), and as her stunning portrait beckons to him while he scopes her apartment for clues, he finds himself unable to resist her seductive aura.
Divulging further details would spoil the fun of this engrossing mystery, which marked Preminger's emergence as one of Hollywood's top directors. At just under an hour-and-a-half, 'Laura' breezes along, aided by its razor sharp script and Preminger's flawless yet invisible technique. Every scene is visually interesting, but only on a second viewing can one appreciate all the subtle touches. With a confidence that belies his inexperience, Preminger seamlessly merges character, mood, and story, so that we, too, become captivated by Laura and her colorful friends — even as we wonder which one is a killer. The director would delve more deeply into noir with 'Fallen Angel,' 'Where the Sidewalk Ends,' 'The 13th Letter,' and 'Angel Face' (a personal favorite), but 'Laura' started the cycle and remains a unique, unforgettable entry in a cluttered genre.
Amazingly, Tierney resisted the title role. "Who wants to play a painting?" she quipped in her autobiography. Yet that iconic portrait cemented Tierney's career, and her cool demeanor, exotic beauty, and natural sincerity both shade her performance and compensate for her limited acting range. Andrews also impresses, filing his own breakout portrayal as the outwardly sullen but inwardly romantic detective. In a classic scene where McPherson wanders through Laura's apartment, soaking up her lifestyle and rifling through her personal effects (lingerie included), Andrews quietly conveys his growing obsession with and bizarre attraction to the dead girl. Price affects a lazy Southern drawl as the spoiled, weak-willed Shelby, and Anderson dazzles in a brilliantly underplayed confrontation with Tierney in a favorite '40s locale — the ladies' room.
Yet despite these marvelous performances, 'Laura' belongs unequivocally to Clifton Webb. The 55-year-old actor had appeared in several silent films, but spent the bulk of his career on the Broadway and London stage before Preminger cast him as the priggish Waldo, whose withering one-liners cut down every character he encounters. Just like George Sanders' equally venomous Addison DeWitt in 'All About Eve,' Webb punctuates his narrative with a string of stinging verbal barbs, at once setting the film's sophisticated tone and making a fine foil for the macho, no-nonsense McPherson. Even Tierney's glamorous painting can't upstage Webb's pitch-perfect portrayal, which justly earned the actor his first Oscar nomination. Without his caustic wit, 'Laura' would be just another assembly-line whodunit, instead of one of the most slick and stylish productions of the 1940s.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Laura' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case, though as hard as I try, I can't make the actress on the cover art look like Gene Tierney. The 50GB dual-layer disc houses a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video transfer and a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 audio track. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle won an Oscar for his work on 'Laura,' and Fox's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer salutes his achievement. A nice step up from the 2005 DVD, this fine effort maintains the film's warm yet unobtrusive grain structure, presenting an image of exceptional clarity and lovely texture. The picture runs a tad hot, which somewhat diminishes the stark contrast of the film noir style, but gray scale variance is still pleasing and shadow delineation is superb. LaShelle reportedly took hours to light each scene and his painstaking efforts pay big dividends. Whether manipulating natural or artificial light, he creates stunning shots that maximize contrast and depth. Blacks are solid and rich, whites are vivid but never overexposed, and the grays in between display enough variation to lend the film a polished sheen. In short, 'Laura' has never looked more lush.
The DVD sported some isolated specks and a couple of pesky vertical lines, but those have been meticulously removed here. No grit or marks of any kind mar the pristine source material, and subtle details pop out like never before. The knickknacks and grandfather clock in Waldo's apartment are stunningly sharp, and close-ups ooze Golden Age glamour. Noise is never an issue, even during nocturnal scenes, and no digital fixes seem to have been applied. This is a superior effort from Fox, and exactly what this classic romantic mystery deserves.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear, clean sound that's been noticeably cleaned up since the 2005 DVD release. Gone is the faint hiss that plagued the DVD, and the errant pops have been erased, too. The track beautifully showcases David Raksin's iconic score, thanks to a wide dynamic scale that handles the swelling strings well, while marvelous fidelity and tonal depth allow the music to sound richer than ever before. All the priceless dialogue is 100% discernible, and the track superbly renders the distinct vocal timbres of the principals.
Subtle accents, such as footsteps, the turning of doorknobs, and the closing of a purse clasp, are crisp and pronounced...sometimes too much so. Occasionally, the track seems heavy and clunky, exhibiting a slight reverb and faint echo that lends the sound an artificial hollowness that's a bit distracting. Atmospherics are generally well integrated into the mix, but as Laura and McPherson talk quietly in her apartment as a driving rain falls outside, it sounds as if a technician is pouring water down a floor drain to achieve the desired audio effect.
Still, the cleanliness and purity of the track outshine any minor deficiencies. All in all, 'Laura' sounds great on Blu-ray, making it hard for us to believe it was recorded nearly seven decades ago.
All the extras from the 2005 DVD release have been ported over to this Blu-ray edition, and it's a fine collection of material.
The second commentary features film historian Rudy Behlmer in another stellar performance, marked by impeccable research, organization, and delivery. Using studio memos and quotes from interviews he conducted himself, Behlmer offers an exhaustive and engrossing chronicle of the production of 'Laura.' He discusses the original Vera Caspary novel, how it evolved into an unproduced play, and details its development at Fox. We learn Jennifer Jones was originally slated for the title role, that studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck opposed casting Clifton Webb because of his homosexuality, and how producer Otto Preminger took over the film's directorial reins from Rouben Mamoulian, among many other terrific tidbits. Behlmer also provides extensive bios on all the principal actors and creative personnel, outlines an array of deleted scenes, and offers background on the Fox studio and Zanuck's managerial style. No doubt about it, Behlmer's the best in the business, and he proves why on this mandatory track.
Like her portrait on the wall, 'Laura' hasn't aged a day, maintaining its impeccable sense of style, incomparable wit, and sleek noir accents. Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and the rest of the stellar cast contribute some of their best work, while director Otto Preminger displays considerable talent on his first big movie. Fans of '40s fare will appreciate Fox's meticulous video transfer, solid lossless audio track, and bountiful supplemental package. Anyone who loves a good mystery shouldn't hesitate to take 'Laura' home, and this Golden Age classic earns a high and hearty recommendation.