Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

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Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

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McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

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Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

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Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

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LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday Lucille Ball: THE DARK CORNER (20th Century Fox 1946)

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Having grown up on endless reruns of I LOVE LUCY (and her subsequent variations on the Lucy Ricardo character), I’m not used to watching Lucille Ball in a dramatic role. In fact, I think the 1985 TV movie STONE PILLOW is the only time I’ve seen her play it straight until I recently watched THE DARK CORNER on TCM, a minor but enjoyable noir with Lucy headlining a good cast in a story about a private eye framed for murder. And since today marks the 105th anniversary of the redhead’s birth, now’s as good a time as any to look back on this unheralded hardboiled tale.

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Lucy, looking mighty sexy at age 35, plays Kathleen Stewart, secretary to PI Bradford Galt, recently relocated to The Big Apple. He’s got a secret past that’s dogging him, and a shady man in a white suit following him. Galt confronts the tail, who claims to be a fellow PI named Foss working for Galt’s old partner Jardine. Kathleen’s sweet on Galt, but he keeps warning her to get out while she can. He finally reveals his deep, dark secret to her: Jardine was a blackmailer of women and embezzler who, when Galt found out, set up the detective on a manslaughter rap, earning Galt two years in stir.

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Jardine’s chummy with art gallery owner Hardy Cathcart, a sarcastic sophisticate married to Mari, a much younger woman. Slimy Jardine’s up to his old tricks, wooing Mari under Cathcart’s nose. But the cagey codger knows what’s up, and he’s hired a hitman (Stauffer, using the alias Foss) to kill Jardine and frame ex-partner Galt for the murder. Stauffer does the deed, and winds up getting shoved out a 30th floor window by Cathcart for his troubles. Jardine’s body is found under Galt’s bed, and now he and Kathleen must work diligently to solve the mystery before Galt ends up in the electric chair.

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Lucy’s good as Kathleen, working as Galt’s partner rather than just a mere secretary. Her banter with the PI is cute in a non-cloying way, and it’s not spoiling anything to let you know she gets her man in the end. Miss Ball was freelancing at this point in her career, no longer under contract to RKO or MGM, and she was getting a reputation as strictly a B-movie queen. A savvy businesswoman, Lucy moved to radio and starred in a hit sitcom called MY FAVORITE HUSBAND. That new-fangled medium television came along and, with a switch of leading men (Richard Denning to real-life husband Desi Arnaz) and change of titles, the show debuted on October 15, 1951 as I LOVE LUCY. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Mark Stevens plays tough-guy Bradford Galt, and though he’s a bit stiff, he’s  better here than in BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN . Clifton Webb is the acerbic, lovelorn Cathcart in a part very similar to his Waldo Lydecker in LAURA. The always reliable William Bendix is Foss/Stauffer, adding his particular brand of menace to the film. Kurt Kreuger, usually an evil Nazi, is the suave but just as evil Jardine. Reed Hadley keeps popping in and out as a police lieutenant keeping a sharp eye on Galt. Cathy Downs (Mari) was once the sweet title girl in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE , later costar of THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Constance Collier, Ellen Corby, Molly Lamont, Donald MacBride, Matt McHugh, John Russell, and Charles Wagenheim.

Henry Hathaway keeps things taut for the most part, though for me the film dragged in some places. Hathaway was one of those Hollywood directors not noted for any particular genre, but always managed to make good movies. Some of his other noirs were the classic KISS OF DEATH, THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, 13 RUE MADELEINE, and NIAGRA. He worked with stars like Gary Cooper (seven times!), Randolph Scott, and Mae West (GO WEST YOUNG MAN). He’s mainly regarded for his Western work, and guided John Wayne through his Oscar-winning performance in TRUE GRIT. Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography is appropriately dark and atmospheric.

THE DARK CORNER is not a great film, but it gives fans a great chance to see Lucille Ball act in a dramatic role. The girl was good, no doubt about it, and should have spread her thespic wings more often. But once she hit the small screen, everyone just wanted to see the lovable redhead clown her way through one madcap adventure after another. Happy birthday, Lucy.. we still love you!