Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Clifton Webb Steals The Whole Show In The Excellent Noir Laura

Laura is dead. That's how the movie begins, the titular lead character of the Otto Preminger directorial effort Laura has been killed. We don't know who this woman is at first but detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) knows some people who are more familiar with her. He begins his investigation into this murder by interviewing people who knew Laura (Gene Tierney) best, including columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and fiancee Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Prince). Through these two men, particularly Waldo thanks to an extended flashback sequence stemming from Waldo telling Mark the story of how he and Laura became such close friends, we get to know Laura better and get to see Mark try to figure out who could be behind this murder.

But things get complicated once Laura returns abruptly from a trip to the country. Laura is no longer dead but a mystery still lingers in the air over who was trying to kill her. The sudden reemergence of Laura divides the movie Laura into two halves, each highly entertaining in their own right and working in a delightfully unpredictable manner like the very best mystery thrillers do. The first half of this story is a grim look at an outsider figure trying to gather up information from an assortment of people coping with the sudden death of Laura. All of the gloom these characters are feeling is chillingly discernable through the performances and writing.

Kicking the film off without the viewer knowing exactly who Laura is has to be one of the best parts of the screenplay, which is credited to four different screenwriters all adapting a novel of the same name by Vera Caspary. Starting our story in this manner means we're in the same headspace as Mark McPherson, totally ignorant to the life and relationships Laura led on with. Each new twist in her existence that registers as a shock to Mark is able to resonate as similarly impactful with the viewer. Mark makes for a great audience surrogate character in this story, including the second half of the tale which is kicked off by Laura's sudden return from the dead.

Laura's no zombie though, she's just a perfectly healthy human being who is as confused as the audience and Mark as to what's been going on around here. There's a sense of well-executed confusion (however much of an impossible conundrum that may sound like) running throughout Laura that comes from how everybody seems out of the loop on everyone else's agenda. There really doesn't seem to be a master plan at work here like there sometimes is in 1940's film noirs, rather, it all seems just like disparate plans that keep crashing into one another. This critical aspect of the production makes it incredibly thrilling to watch, as does the striking cinematography by Joseph LaShelle and especially a hysterical supporting performance by Clifton Webb.

Though Webb's performance as Waldo, a character who's first interaction with Laura is curt and who always has a snippy word to anyone passing his path, is continuing the Hayes Code-mandated tradition of characters in cinema who are coded as being "queer" appearing as solely antagonistic forces in films they emerge in, I can't deny that the character is a lot of fun in the context of this standalone story. The script gives him some of the most humorous lines of dialogue in the film and Webb proceeds to deliver these lines in a manner so full of upfront sass that he wouldn't be out of place on an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race. Even when Laura is thought of as deader than a doornail, Webb's performance is full of life that you can't help but be enthralled.

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