SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.
Otto Preminger had come out of Vienna (born in 1906), the son of a famous lawyer, and himself qualified in law before he threw in his lot with Max Reinhardt and the theatre. That was in the early 1930s, yet Laura didn’t happen until 1944. In the years in between he was not quite himself. Rather like that earlier Austrian Erich von Stroheim, he earned money from American audiences by playing stiff-backed Prussians – they were Nazis now. On Broadway, in 1939, he was a German consul in Margin for Error, and that was one of the films he directed ahead of Laura. But even then he only got Laura by firing its first director Rouben Mamoulian.
It was quite a coup. Darryl Zanuck had entrusted Preminger only as producer on Laura, but then started hounding him. Very neatly Preminger acted as if it were all Mamoulian’s fault – so Zanuck said take over yourself. Just to add a zinger, Preminger told Mamoulian’s wife Azadia that he wouldn’t be using her portrait of Laura for the movie. He sent Gene Tierney to photographer Frank Polony and had a few brushstrokes laid on the surface of his photo. According to Tierney, Preminger drove the cast and crew like a fury; he always had the reputation of a task-master, and that didn’t help the world to recognise his very delicate touch.
Of course, any rehabilitation of Otto Preminger needs to recognise the dreadful decline in his work after the early 1960s. What happened that a very knowing producer suddenly lost touch with the public? I don’t have the answer, but I can only surmise that if it looked bad from the outside it must have felt worse inside the intelligent being of Otto Preminger. From Laura to at least Advise & Consent, he is an immaculate stylist, a master of the moving camera and deep focus, and of keeping grouped figures in the same frame and spatial context. The style and the meaning are as one and – as with all the great directors – Preminger is advising us on the necessary way to watch his film.
To make that point more forcefully, come back to Laura, the 1944 film. In so many books and guides Laura is typed as a noir, and this is a useful place to ask for that label to be rested a little. Yes, Laura has a noir look (thanks to Joseph LaShelle, who shot six Preminger pictures). But it’s not really noir in any thematic sense, even if it is a murder mystery. It’s a story of love and possession. Think of it in these terms: Waldo Lydecker, a rich Preminger hero, has made Laura out of very little into a career woman and a social figure. He loves her, but he is gay. The film doesn’t say that, but Preminger and Clifton Webb (in his movie debut) leave no doubt (and show no alarm – indeed, Waldo is a model of eloquence, taste and intelligence, things that mattered to Preminger). So Waldo destroys Laura rather than let her fall into the hands of some male thug who can’t put words together or enjoy good wine.
Such a thug is Dana Andrews as the detective who investigates the murder of Laura Hunt, shot in the face. Andrews is an essential Preminger actor, a lead but not really a hero, and with a moral lassitude Preminger detected ahead of anyone. This detective is common and rough – he smokes and drinks, lolls on the furniture, plays a stupid ball-in-the-hole game. And Laura is a film about class that has no sentimental feeling for this uncouth detective. He is fed ‘Laura Hunt’ night and day.
This leads to the brilliant scene at night in her apartment. He is there alone. He loosens his tie and throws off his jacket. He is too bored to read her private letters, yet he tosses them around like garbage. He goes to look at her bedroom. He is drinking her Scotch. He inspects her underclothes. He smells her perfume. He sees himself for a moment, coarse, in her mirror, and hurries past the spectre. He revels in his possession of her portrait. He sits down beneath it. The camera tracks in as he starts to sleep. It tracks out. We hear a door opening and there is Laura Hunt on the threshold, his dream come back to life.
It’s a great scene, shot with a deep love of light and space, gesture and acting (as well as David Raksin’s yearning theme). And now suddenly this cop has his dream love for real – and he turns on her. He tries to break her down. He proves to himself that she is just an ordinary woman – not the goddess Waldo saw. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t want to take away at all from your feelings for Vertigo, but I do think that the sado-masochistic element in character recreation is told here more swiftly, with more wit and in ways truer to life.
Long ago, in September 1962, the second issue of Movie magazine contained a superb appreciation of Laura by the writer Eugene Archer. Here he is on the warped dynamic between detective and ‘victim’: ‘When Laura returns to life, he greets her tenderly, as in a dream; but almost immediately his attitude changes. Instead of a victim, she becomes a suspect; he accuses her, torments her and finally assaults her physically, brutally transplanting her from her comfortable surroundings to the stark interrogation scene in police headquarters, where beaming searchlights drench her face with illumination as he vainly tries to probe beneath the surface on his mystical quest for “truth”. The interior meaning is obvious; the man hates her, and cannot forgive her for coming back to life.’
That is very good commentary, entirely justified by the picture. What is noir in Laura is only the fact of a killing and the ingrowing depression of the detective and the way he has justified his pessimism and brutality. The rest of the film is low-key, to be sure, but no more so than most Mitchell Leisen romances – and that is the world Laura Hunt wants to be part of.
Archer gives his knife one extra turn, and this had a very big influence on me: ‘One can visualise their future – the tormented detective brooding into his liquor before the omnipresent portrait, while poor, unwitting Laura, the merest shell of his erotic fantasy, ponders her unhappy lot while washing his socks in her kitchen sink.’
Or, suppose he gives up the police force and joins the army. Then it’s possible one day, I believe, that he might be an alcoholic sociopath while she tends to flirt with any man who notices her. In other words, the Laura who might have had hopes once of being a Madison Avenue socialite ends up in a trailer park or in a Michigan paper, in lurid close-up, with the caption, ‘Was this woman raped?’
All of which is another way of saying that great directors build their world or their place, and like to use the same fixtures. Dana Andrews is in five Preminger films, Gene Tierney in four. Three cameramen – LaShelle, Leon Shamroy and Sam Leavitt did most of his pictures. And most of the good ones turn on the same thing: how can you look at a pretty girl and know how far you can trust her, or yourself? This is a pattern that easily contains those other great works Angel Face (1952) and Bonjour Tristesse. By my count Preminger made seven great films (I’d throw in Daisy Kenyon, 1947, apparently a women’s picture yet one in which Joan Crawford nearly rids herself of a reliance on men). There were bad pictures, all the harder to account for when you realise what lucidity and control and enduring doubt or caution meant to Preminger. But when he is good, he is like Renoir crossed with Fritz Lang (another Viennese). One day we are going to have to recognise just how much thrilling uncertainty Vienna brought to the bloodstream of our movies.
These days we do not appreciate unlikeable characters in our films – unless they are spectacular murderers. But Preminger always did his best work with people just like us: the ardent, spiteful girl in Bonjour Tristesse; the devoted, vicious discoverer in Laura; the blank-faced psychotic who is Angel Face. And everyone in Anatomy of a Murder, all with their own reasons. If we ever regain adulthood, and recognise our flawed selves, then there is a chance that Otto Preminger will be known as a genius.
David Thomson, Sight & Sound, May 2005
Director: Otto Preminger
©: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Production Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Producer: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt
Additional Writing: Ring Lardner Jr, Jerome Cady
[Based on the novel] By: Vera Caspary
Director of Photography: Joseph LaShelle
Special Photographic Effects: Fred Sersen
Film Editor: Louis Loeffler
Art Directors: Lyle Wheeler, Leland Fuller
Set Decorator: Thomas Little
Costumes: Bonnie Cashin
Make-up Artist: Guy Pearce
Music: David Raksin
Musical Director: Emil Newman
Sound: E. Clayton Ward, Harry M. Leonard
Assistant Directors: Tom Dudley, Robert Saunders
Camera Operator: Lloyd Ahern
Camera Assistant: Ray Mala
Stills: Frank Polony
Transparency Projection Shots: Edwin Hammeras, Edward Snyder
Associate [Set Decorator]: Paul S. Fox
Pianist: Urban Thielmann
Music Mixers: Murray Spivack, Vinton Vernon
Research Director: Frances Richardson
Research Assistant: Ruth Fox
Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt)
Dana Andrews (Detective Mark McPherson)
Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker)
Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter)
Judith Anderson (Ann Treadwell)
Buster Miles (Johnny, office boy)
John Dexter (Jacoby)
Dorothy Adams (Bessie Clary)
Kathleen Howard (Louise)
Lee Tung Foo (Waldo’s servant)
Harry Strang (detective)
James Flavin (McAvity)
Ralph Dunn (Fred Callahan)
Clyde Fillmore (Bullitt)
Grant Mitchell (Corey)
Dutch Schlickenmeyer, Lane Chandler (detectives)
Frank Larue (hairdresser)
Jane Nigh (secretary)
Cy Kendall (inspector)
Dorothy Christy, Alexander Sacha, Aileen Pringle, Jean Fenwick, Terry Adams, Forbes Murray, Yolanda Lacca, Kay Linaker, Cyril Ring, Cara Williams, Nestor Eristoff, Beatrice Gray, Kay Connors, Frances Gladwin, Gloria Marlen, Charles Sullivan, William Forrest
Pre-recorded intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large (Wed 8 Sep only)
BIG SCREEN CLASSICS
Wed 1 Sep 18:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by film critic Farran Smith Nehme); Fri 17 Sep 21:00; Fri 1 Oct 14:30
Thu 2 Sep 18:00; Fri 24 Sep 18:00; Sun 3 Oct 12:10
Thu 2 Sep 14:45; Sun 12 Sep 15:00; Wed 29 Sep 17:45 (+ intro by Lucy Bolton, Queen Mary University of London); Sat 2 Oct 20:50
Call Northside 777
Fri 3 Sep 20:40; Thu 9 Sep 14:30; Tue 14 Sep 17:50; Mon 20 Sep 17:50
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Sat 4 Sep 15:15; Thu 30 Sep 18:15
Cry of the City
Sun 5 Sep 18:10; Thu 9 Sep 18:10; Sat 18 Sep 21:00; Tue 21 Sep 14:45
The Undercover Man
Mon 6 Sep 18:10; Thu 23 Sep 14:45; Sun 26 Sep 12:00
The Big Sleep
Tue 7 Sep 20:45; Sun 19 Sep 11:00; Mon 4 Oct 17:45
Wed 8 Sep 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Thu 16 Sep 14:30; Tue 21 Sep 21:00; Fri 1 Oct 20:50
The Third Man
Wed 8 Sep 21:00; Fri 10 Sep 14:30; Tue 14 Sep 20:50; Sat 2 Oct 11:30
Thu 9 Sep 20:45; Wed 15 Sep 17:20 (+ pre-recorded intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Sat 25 Sep 11:30; Tue 28 Sep 20:45; Tue 5 Oct 14:30
The Big Heat
Sat 11 Sep 14:30; Mon 13 Sep 21:00; Wed 22 Sep 18:00 (+ intro by Simran Hans, writer and film critic for ‘The Observer’); Mon 27 Sep 17:50
Philosophical Screens: Temptation and Coincidence in ‘Double Indemnity’
Wed 29 Sep 20:00 Blue Room
Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.
BECOME A BFI MEMBER
Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at bfi.org.uk/join
We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.
See something different today on player.bfi.org.uk
Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at www.bfi.org.uk/signup
Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email