For this blogathon, the challenge was that the classic era director and star must have worked together at least three times. There are a surprising number of choices, Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang or James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, for example.
Laura (1944) is unusual in that Otto Preminger directed both stars, Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews the required three times. Besides Laura, Tierney starred in Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and had a late career cameo in Advise and Consent (1962). One of the great film noir actors, Andrews also appeared in Fallen Angel (1945) and Where the Sidewalk Ends with Tierney.
Adapted from a novel by Vera Caspary, Laura was first conceived as a B picture with minor contract players but was eventually elevated to an A release by 20th Century Fox where Daryl F. Zanuck was actively involved with the adaptation process and casting decisions. With the cast in place, including Vincent Price and Judith Anderson, filming began with Rouben Mamoulian [Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde (1931)] in the director’s chair. Otto Preminger was the producer. After a dispute with Zanuck during the filming of Kidnapped (1938), he was not allowed to direct. Mamoulian was subsequently fired and with Zanuck away on leave, Preminger took over as director [the pattern of Preminger taking over from Mamoulian repeated itself with Porgy and Bess . Famed for his portrayals of Nazis on Broadway and in several movies, Preminger immediately put his stamp on the picture, visually and with his more authoritarian style on the set.
After David Raksin’s musical theme over the title sequence, Laura begins with a voice over narration by newspaperman and bon vivant Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb): “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.” As far as anyone knows, she was shotgunned to death in her New York apartment. Preminger was known to give his actors “star” entrances. In the opening scene, Webb gets one of the most memorable with Waldo in the bathtub. Detective Mark McPherson (Andrews) has entered his apartment investigating Laura’s murder. One could hardly imagine two different men. Waldo is mannered in the extreme (Richard Dyer calls him “one of the great queens of film noir”) while Mark is a tough talking New York cop. His closest brush with a serious relationship was a “dame” who “got a fox fur” out of him.
In flashback, we meet Laura Hunt as Waldo chronicles for Mark her rise from advertising underling to society darling. Waldo was at first annoyed by the striving Laura who wants him to endorse a fountain pen. He’s intrigued enough to seek her out and transform her Pygmalion-like into his ideal woman, introducing her to all the “right” people, as seen in montage. He’s despondent when he realizes he can never truly possess his creation. When Mark visits her apartment looking for clues and sees her portrait hanging over the mantlepiece, he’s haunted by “the face in the misty night.”
In Women in Film Noir edited by E. Ann Kaplan, Janey Place writes: “The power to incite murder which is visually ascribed to Laura’s magnificent portrait is resolved to be a product of the neuroses of the men around her, not of the power she wields . . . Laura’s portrait is compositionally dominating, inciting Mark’s fantasies and giving visual expression to Waldo’s idealized vision of her . . .”
In same volume, Angela Martin argues: “As is often the case, Laura only expresses anything of the femme fatale inasmuch as that is projected through the behavior of the men around her. Her attraction for them becomes “fatal,” not because of anything she does, but because they make the mistake of thinking they can own her . . .”
Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch writes that when the European émigré first arrived in Hollywood, he “knew nothing of the technique of filmmaking and, moreover, didn’t have the same passion for the medium as he had for the theater. The plays of Shakespeare and Shaw meant far more to him than the silent film of F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, or Fritz Lang.” However, by the time he made Laura, his cinematic vision was firmly established. As Drew Casper says in the commentary to Advise and Consent, Preminger’s staging and use of the long take shows the influence of theater. Where another director might cut to a reverse shot (to “tell” the audience what to think), Preminger (with cinematographer Joseph LaShelle) lets a scene play out, using camera movement instead of the cut.
In Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would be King, Hirsch writes:
Gene Tierney represented the greatest challenge for Preminger. Although she had starred in some major Fox productions . . . she remained unsure of her abilities. And as she herself admitted, she was not excited by the role. “The time on camera is less than one would like and who wants to play a painting?” Fortunately, Tierney appreciated his take-charge approach. “Only he had absolute faith in the project,” she said. “He drove us, and himself, so hard . . . he was simply tireless. When the rest of the cast would seem to be ready to drop from exhaustion, Otto would muster as much vigor as when the day began.” Although to the actress, Preminger “looked the part of a fencing instructor at a Prussian military academy,” she thought him “a gentleman. Unlike certain other directors of that period, he had no insecurities, and did not feel obligated to attempt the seduction of his leading ladies.”
Even though he was a notorious ladies man, was Preminger using the fey Waldo and the prissy Shelby (Vincent Price) as his surrogates? “I think Otto had a crush on Gene, but then who didn’t?” Price observed. “She had a charm very few actresses have or had.”
Hirsch concludes that the director could be “an astute psychoanalyst” and “recognized Tierney’s anxiety (the actress would suffer numerous nervous breakdowns in the coming years) and treated her with special consideration.”