On Laura, the Greatest of All Necro-Noirs, at Film Forum Starting Tomorrow

12/29/2011 10:39 AM |

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Tomorrow, and continuing through the 6th, Film Forum revives Otto Preminger’s Laura.

Interviewed in 1965, Otto Preminger said his forthcoming Bunny Lake Is Missing would be “the first suspense story I’ve made in a long, long time, about 20 years.” That would make his last thriller 1945’s well-received Fallen Angel, thereby discreetly omitting two less popular films: the fascinating if half-cocked 1949 Whirlpool (Vertigo in embryo, with Jose Ferrer in full sinister-eccentric mode) and 1950’s Where The Sidewalk Ends, Preminger’s third teaming (of five) with Dana Andrews, the stoic star of Laura. Where his laconic intensity once marked him as the hero in a world of gibbering fools, in Sidewalk Andrews’s hostile silences are a sign of dangerous compression. Both films are more ragged than Laura and consequentially undervalued; they deserve reappraisal, since they (along with 1952’s Angel Face and Bunny Lake) represent the entirety of Preminger’s reworkings of the film genre that, in 1944, made his career.

A lean 88 minutes, Laura hews closer to morbid social comedy (or maybe even All About Eve) than dark noir night of the soul. The first half isn’t dominated by ostensible protagonist detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) but by two mincing suspects: prissy Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, doing a sort of poor man’s George Sanders) and soupy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Laura herself—presumed dead—exists only as a portrait of Gene Tierney Andrews fixates upon with uncharacteristic dreaminess.

In Preminger’s smoothest entertainment, Mark emerges as hero because he possesses the virtue of silence; he doesn’t make a fool out of himself out loud. The dialogue is minute-for-minute as witty and rapid as any screwball, broken up by Mark’s brooding interludes. Tierney, when she enters, is even lovelier than her rendering, and the couple fall together with a domino predictability that’s mechanically satisfying. Laura’s emphasis on necrophilia isn’t especially subtle (Mark’s explicitly accused of being in love with a dead girl), but it’s compelling for sheer boldness alone. Andrews’ detective is introduced distractedly toying with a handheld ball-in-maze game, and he proves repeatedly the good-hearted American lunk who succeeds because of inherent virtue rather than intellectual acumen, producing a sarcastic tone in a film already filled with quotable sniping.