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20th Century Fox presents
"I shall never forget the weekend Laura died."
DVD ReviewFew films can be identified solely by their theme music, but Laura is definitely one of them. David Raksin's haunting, melodic score has become almost as famous as the movie itself, spawning more than 400 recordings, and exquisitely capturing the air of mystery and romance that pervades this hypnotic whodunit. Like the story's intoxicating heroine, the lush music deftly draws us into the drama, and swirls around our brain as we try to unravel the sticky web of lies entangling the characters. Yet even without its memorable theme, Otto Preminger's film flirts with and often achieves perfection. A sharp, literate script, richly textured plot (with a clever angle), first-class performances, and superb cinematography all combine to create a masterful motion picture that seems as fresh today as it certainly did upon its initial release more than 60 years ago.
20th Century Fox reveres Laura as well, selecting it as the inaugural DVD entry in the studio's new film noir series. Such a distinction may boost sales, but lumping Laura in the same category as the gritty Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Murder, My Sweet unfairly pigeonholes this sleek, sophisticated tale. Sure, the film contains a number of standard noir elements—stark contrast, murky shadows, twisted passions, a tough-talking detective, and a beautiful, ambiguous heroine—but there's a glossy quality to Laura that, like cream, allows it to rise above more typical noirs. No seedy locales or sordid liaisons dirty up its plot. On the surface, Laura is antiseptically clean, and its well-scrubbed, high society characters behave with decorum throughout. More akin to Agatha Christie than Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain, Laura revels in its Park Avenue trimmings, and its searing wit adds a lightness of tone that cuts tension and makes the characters more accessible.
Adapted from Vera Caspary's novel, Laura opens with Det. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating the murder of chic advertising director Laura Hunt. He interviews the ultra-refined, acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who relates how he fell under Laura's spell and used his stature and influence to foster her career. McPherson also questions Laura's on-again-off-again fiancé, playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price); her wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), with whom Shelby occasionally dallies; and Laura's devoted housekeeper, Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams). Through intimate flashbacks, narrated by Waldo, McPherson comes to know Laura (Gene Tierney), and as her stunning portrait beckons to him while he scopes her apartment for clues, he finds himself unable to resist her seductive aura.
Divulging further details would spoil the fun of this engrossing mystery, which marked Preminger's emergence as one of Hollywood's top directors. At just under an hour-and-a-half, Laura breezes along, aided by its razor sharp script and Preminger's flawless yet invisible technique. Every scene is visually interesting, but only on a second viewing can one appreciate all the subtle touches. With a confidence that belies his inexperience, Preminger seamlessly merges character, mood, and story, so that we, too, become captivated by Laura and her colorful friends—even as we wonder which one is a killer. The director would delve more deeply into noir with Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The 13th Letter, and Angel Face (a personal favorite), but Laura started the cycle and remains a unique, unforgettable entry in a cluttered genre.
Amazingly, Tierney resisted the title role. "Who wants to play a painting?" she quips in her autobiography. Yet that iconic portrait cemented Tierney's career, and her cool demeanor, exotic beauty, and natural sincerity both shade her performance and compensate for her limited acting range. Andrews also impresses, filing his own breakout portrayal as the outwardly sullen but inwardly romantic detective. In a classic scene where McPherson wanders through Laura's apartment, soaking up her lifestyle and rifling through her personal effects (lingerie included), Andrews quietly conveys his growing obsession with and bizarre attraction to the dead girl. Price affects a lazy Southern drawl as the spoiled, weak-willed Shelby, and Anderson dazzles in a brilliantly underplayed confrontation with Tierney in a favorite '40s locale—the ladies' room.
Yet despite these marvelous performances, Laura belongs unequivocally to Clifton Webb. The 55-year-old actor had appeared in several silent films, but spent the bulk of his career on the Broadway and London stage before Preminger cast him as the priggish Waldo, whose withering one-liners cut down every character he encounters. Just like George Sanders' equally venomous Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, Webb punctuates his narrative with a string of stinging verbal barbs, at once setting the film's sophisticated tone, and making a fine foil for the macho, no-nonsense McPherson. Even Tierney's glamorous painting can't upstage Webb's pitch-perfect portrayal, which justly earned the actor his first Oscar nomination. Without his caustic wit, Laura would be just another assembly-line whodunit, instead of one of the most slick and stylish productions of the 1940s.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Fox has lavished considerable attention on the Laura transfer, and the results meet our lofty expectations. Joseph LaShelle's Oscar-winning cinematography, distinguished by stark contrast and the trademark shadows of noir, has never looked lusher, and the exceptional clarity allows us to soak up all the subtle details. LaShelle reportedly took hours to light each scene, and his painstaking efforts pay big dividends. Whether manipulating natural or artificial light, he creates stunning images that maximize contrast and depth. Blacks are solid and rich, whites are vivid but never overexposed, and the grays in between sport enough variation to lend the film a polished sheen. A few speckles dot the print, along with an occasional vertical line, but neither of these minimal defects mars the silky presentation. Edge enhancement seems totally absent as well, and light grain preserves the seductive film-like feel. This is a superior effort from Fox, and exactly what this classic romantic mystery deserves.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Both stereo and mono tracks are included, and although just the faintest bit of hiss and a few errant pops occasionally intrude, the audio remains clean and clear throughout. Yes, the priceless dialogue is 100 percent comprehendible, and David Raksin's haunting theme enjoys wonderful presence and fidelity. Ambient sounds come through better than in most vintage movies, and the distinct vocal timbres of Tierney, Webb, and Andrews are marvelously discernible, adding even more character to a highly atmospheric film.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by composer David Raksin and film professor Jeanine Basinger; and film historian Rudy Behlmer
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: Laura's relatively brief running time leaves room for plenty of extras, and Fox maximizes the leftover disc space. Two commentary tracks provide a wealth of fascinating information about the film by a trio of speakers who know what they're talking about. First up is Jeanine Basinger, a film professor and archivist at Wesleyan University, which houses a collection of Gene Tierney memorabilia. Basinger touches upon Laura's production history, discusses various proposed or rumored alternate endings, and imparts some interesting trivia. (For instance, the famous portrait of Tierney that forever looms over the characters is actually a painted photograph, and resides in the Wesleyan archive.) Most of the track, however, addresses the look, mood, and impact of Laura, and Basinger's observations are well worth a listen. Composer David Raksin, who penned the film's lyrical and instantly recognizable theme, also contributes sporadic comments that help us understand the scoring process. He believes Laura is "not a detective story, but a love story in a detective milieu," and confesses the demise of his marriage inspired the movie's classic music. He also notes the scenes where he resisted using music (a brave and unique choice) and tells us why. The fact that Raksin passed away less than a year ago makes one especially appreciate his participation here, and lends his perspective a bittersweet poignancy.
The second commentary features film historian Rudy Behlmer in another stellar performance, marked by impeccable research, organization, and delivery. Using studio memos and quotes from interviews he conducted himself, Behlmer offers an exhaustive and engrossing chronicle of Laura's production. He discusses the original Vera Caspary novel, how it evolved into an unproduced play, and details its development at Fox. We learn Jennifer Jones was originally slated for the title role, that studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck opposed casting Clifton Webb because of his homosexuality, and how producer Otto Preminger took over the film's directorial reins from Rouben Mamoulian, among many other terrific tidbits. Behlmer also provides extensive bios on all the principal actors and creative personnel, outlines an array of deleted scenes, and offers background on the Fox studio and Zanuck's management style. No doubt about it, Behlmer's the best in the business, and he proves why on this mandatory track.
Two installments of A&E's popular Biography series follow, beginning with an absorbing and beautifully produced hour on Gene Tierney. A Shattered Portrait uses a wealth of film clips, home movies, newsreel footage, and rare photos to illustrate Tierney's exciting yet incredibly troubled life. Narrator Peter Graves calls the actress "the embodiment of unattainable beauty, the image of perfection," yet a series of tragedies and failed romances caused her to become so mentally unbalanced she was forced to leave the screen in the mid-1950s and enter a sanitarium, where she would undergo a series of wrenching electroshock treatments. The 45-minute program details her volatile marriage to designer Oleg Cassini (who terms her "the unluckiest lucky girl in the world"), and relationships with such legendary figures as Howard Hughes, a young John F. Kennedy, and Prince Aly Khan. In addition, actor Richard Widmark, composer David Raksin, Tierney's sister Pat Byrne, and daughter Christina Cassini offer vital insights into Tierney's character and actions. A Shattered Portrait is hands down one of the best Biography episodes I've seen, inspiring renewed appreciation and admiration for this beautiful and courageous woman.
By comparison, Vincent Price led a much more sedate and traditional life, but The Versatile Villain examines it with Biography's customary style. Narrator Richard Kiley calls Price "a modern Renaissance man," who complemented his passion for drama with an equally avid interest in art. We learn at age 12, Price purchased an original Rembrandt etching, and would later lend his name to a line of affordable fine art marketed by Sear's. Reminiscences and testimonials from Jane Russell, Roddy McDowell, Dennis Hopper, director Roger Corman, and Price's daughter Victoria enhance the 45-minute documentary, which charts Price's rise from a member of Orson Welles' fledgling Mercury Theater Company to dashing Hollywood character actor to star of some of the campiest and most gruesome horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. The film also chronicles Price's memorable appearances on the Batman TV show (as Egghead) and in Michael Jackson's Thriller video. Though less captivating than the Tierney bio, The Versatile Villain still paints an intimate, involving portrait of one of the screen's most recognizable personalities.
A brief deleted montage, running a minute-and-a-half, can be viewed with or without Rudy Behlmer's commentary, and offers a more detailed depiction of Laura's social ascension and personal refinement under Waldo's Svengali-like tutelage. Apparently, Fox executives believed the public would resent a woman who pursued such frivolity during wartime, and severely truncated the sequence. The montage can be viewed on its own, or edited back into the film by selecting the Extended Version option on the Special Features menu. Although the packaging advertises an alternate opening as part of the extended version, the disc includes no such scene.
The original theatrical trailer completes the extras package.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsLike her portrait on the wall, Laura hasn't aged a day, maintaining its impeccable sense of style, incomparable wit, and sleek noir accents. Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and the rest of the stellar cast contribute some of their best work, while director Otto Preminger displays considerable talent on his first big movie. Fans of '40s fare will appreciate Fox's meticulous transfer and bountiful spate of extras, but anyone who loves a good mystery shouldn't hesitate to take Laura home.
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