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Written by Timothy Sexton
The legend goes that following the release of the film, legendary Hollywood actress (and near-lookalike of Gene Tierney) confessed that she turned down the titular role which became Tierney’s defining part for one reason: they sent her the script rather than the score. Indeed, the haunting “Laura’s Theme” is an example of the way a musical score can elevate a film to the next level. Would Laura have become the classic it is with Lamarr—or any other actress—in the title role? Well, that’s one of those great mysteries that can be asked of many films: would one significant change here or there have made the result different from what we know. Gene Tierney’s name can very often be found on lists of the greatest Hollywood beauties of all time, but is a name rarely found among acting legends. The sublime matching of role to actor in this case is therefore not an example of a great casting based on sheer acting talent. Tierney’s deficiencies as an actress are in Laura enhanced in a way specifically related to the fact that the personality of Laura Hunt for much of the film is presented through her immobilized image captured as a frozen instant in time in the oversized portrait of her that is as much a separate individual character as her mobile incarnation.
What a cast: a girl named Gene and a guy named Dana! In fact, Gene and Dana were one of the all-time great movie couples in Hollywood history, appearing in five films together. Of the five, Laura has gone on to enjoy the highest status as a classic. Interestingly, Laura also features some of their fewest scenes along together. Both Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews suffered significant emotional and mental problems—hers caused by depression and his by a lifelong battle with the bottle—so perhaps their chemistry was the result of shared acceptance of the other’s unique quirks and foibles.
A twenty year gap existed between Clifton Webb’s last significant movie role and his reappearance on the screen as Waldo Lydecker. What a comeback Laura proved to be with Webb snagging an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Studio chief Daryl F. Zanuck was initially opposed to the casting of Webb as influential columnist Waldo Lydecker due to Webb’s effeminate mannerisms since the entire plot of the film revolves around Lydecker’s obsession with young Laura Hunt. That concern is a viable criticism of the film as Webb telegraphs from the beginning that he playing Lydecker as a coded homosexual—the only type of homosexual that could exist in a Hollywood film during the Hays Code era. What Lydecker’s hard-to-miss homosexuality winds up doing, however, is to remove sexual jealousy as an obvious motive for Lydecker as a suspect in Laura’s murder and deepen the psychological complexity of the plot as it becomes increasingly obvious that Lydecker’s obsession with Laura is something far different and sinister than the more prosaic obsessions exhibited by Det. McPherson and Shelby Carpenter.
What makes Laura stand out from a vast crowd of similar films may well be that the men who obsess over Laura Hunt are not merely after her for sex. Even Shelby Carpenter turns out not to have been chasing Laura so much because for sexual reasons as one naturally suspects. His obsession is money and society. Laura was made a couple of decades before Vincent Price became one of the Kings of Horror and is an excellent example of the depth he truly possessed as an actor. Although he plays Shelby as slimy enough to be a top suspect in Laura’s murder, he displays none of the macabre sensibility that would make you feel cheated if it turns out he’s not.
The greatest testament to Judith Anderson’s significant talents is that you can easily suspect her being involved in Laura’s murder despite being the girl’s own aunt, but you do not immediately jump to that conclusion. Anderson’s career-defining role as the sinister and rather nutty Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca virtually guaranteed her a long career stereotype as sinister and slightly nutty murderers if she’d wanted to travel that path. Her almost lighthearted performance in Laura indicates she clearly did not. Nevertheless, she was wise enough to almost always give her characters just the slightest hint of the potential for going mental in her eyes and that glint of madness does show up in certain scenes.
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