Saturday, January 8, 2011

Laura (Rhoades)

Fall in Love With A Portrait of “Laura”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Have you ever fallen in love with someone in a picture? Matthew Helmerich’s dad once told me about falling for a photo of actress Peggy Dow (Mathew’s mom and namesake of the Peggy Dow Theater at the Tropic Cinema) long before he actually met her.

Heck, I once had a crush on a Playboy centerfold … but I was a teenager at the time.

Falling in love with a picture. That’s the premise of “Laura,” the 1944 classic mystery that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema this Monday night.

In it, a detective (Dana Andrews) is investigating the presumed murder of a beautiful socialite named Laura (Gene Tierney) and becomes infatuated with a painting of her over the mantle. He can’t get her out of his head. Love at first sight, as they say.

The mystery deepens as he learns more about the woman behind the image. He interviews the dandy who claims to be her mentor (Clifton Web), her fiancé (Vincent Price), even her aunt (Judith Anderson) and housekeeper (Dorothy Adams), trying to figure out just who she is.

As you movie buffs will recall, this old black-and-white noir offers a few twists and turns as our detective pursues the elusive memory of Laura.

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger (“Anatomy of a Murder,” “Exodus”), the film had a troubled inception. Based on a play called “Ring Twice for Laura” and a novelization of it, the author didn’t like Preminger’s take on the story. The casting department didn’t like his choices for the starring roles. And his nemesis, 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, replaced him with Rouben Mamoulian. However, Mamoulian’s version was too hammy and Zanuck gave the project back to Preminger.

Even so, Zanuck didn’t like the final cut and changed Preminger’s ending. But he restored it after newspaper columnist Walter Winchell said, “I didn’t get [the ending]. You’ve got to change it.”
Zanuck bowed out, telling Preminger, “This is your success. I concede.”

It won an Academy Award for its cinematography, along with receiving several other nominations, one for Preminger as Best Director.

Known for its “sustained suspense, good acting, and caustically brittle dialogue,” the film ranks No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 10 Mysteries. It has a 100% rating from film critics on Rotten Tomatoes. And the movie’s haunting theme music by David Raksin has become a jazz standard (Johnny Mercer added the lyrics after the film was released).

Preminger’s Hollywood career had been stalled until “Laura.” After its success, he went on to make some three-dozen films, earning him two more Academy Award nominations.

Known as “Otto the Terrible” for his dictatorial directing style and tantrums on the set, his haughty nature made the Austrian-born Preminger a natural to play Nazis in other people films (e.g. “Stalag 17”). He was even the villainous Mr. Freeze in TV’s “Batman.”

The story is told that on the set of “Exodus,” Preminger needed to film a group of Israeli kids crying. “Cry, you little monsters,” he screamed at them. When the kids refused, Preminger had their mothers quietly removed from the set, saying, “You see, your mothers have been taken away. You are never going to see them again! Never!” The kids instantly burst into tears.

This reminds one of dialogue from “Laura.” As Clifton Webb’s character says to the detective: “McPherson, you won’t understand this; but I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.”

“Have any luck?”

“Let me put it this way. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors' children devoured by wolves.”
[from Solares Hill]

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