Laura with Shelby Carpenter

A complex psychological thriller masquerading as a film noir, 1944’s Laura is about three men who are bewitched by a woman so ethereally, transcendentally beguiling that it is entirely appropriate that, when director Otto Preminger takes the curtain up, Laura (Gene Tierney) is already dead.

What follows is a basic whodunit pulled in various unusual directions. A for-instance: the cop on the case, Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), invites one of the men suspected of killing her, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), to accompany him while he cross-examines other witnesses. What cop does that? Another: the cop doesn’t do very much actual investigating and instead spends an inordinate amount of time in the dead woman’s apartment, making big moony eyes at a portrait of Laura hanging on the wall, as if it’ll tell him who did the deed.

The two other men in the dead Laura’s life are men with bits missing. Though it’s never stated up front, acid-penned columnist Lydecker is a homosexual whose relationship with Laura has been of the courtly older gent/young ingenue variety, though he, bucking against the constraints of his sexuality, wants more, much more. Vincent Price plays Shelby Carpenter, the would-be playboy of the western world who’s held back by a lack of cash and is hoping to rectify the situation by marrying the self-made Laura.

Neither man has the full complement of what Laura needs. If only decent, stand-up McPherson – a red-blooded male happy to live within his means – had met Laura while she were alive.

Lydecker in his bath meet cop McPherson
Lydecker meets the cop

The casting is spot on. Preminger (who also produced) fought hard to get Webb for the role of Lydecker, and won out against the wishes of studio boss Darryl F Zanuck, who was unhappy about the star’s open homosexuality, when this was what Preminger – who had an instinct for a lurid tabloid sell – wanted him for. Price is suave to the point of being reptilian, in the days before he’d begun his slide into grand guignol. Andrews is particularly good, and plays what is essentially a mad role – the infatuated cop – with a great deal of subtlety and restraint.

There are two important women. Laura, of course, with Tierney doing good work as the go-getter who takes the breaks offered to her by Lydecker and becomes a lone female force in the male-dominated world of advertising. What’s particularly good about her performance is the way she catches the beautiful woman’s in-built expectation that men will fall over themselves to be near her. As a kind of shadow version of Laura is the nicely over the top (as ever) Judith Anderson, four years on from playing Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, and here playing the doomed friend of Carpenter, unrequited love busting out all over and with not quite enough of what Laura’s got to get what Laura gets.

Preminger always had a taste for the melodramatic and squeezes the mood from initially highly frivolous (when the cop first meets Lydecker, Lydecker is in the bath) to incredibly fraught. The scene towards the end where the cop announces over the telephone, and in front of a room full of people hanging on his every word, that he’s about to arrest the murderer just as soon as he’s finished this call, is a bravura bit of writing and directing Agatha Christie would have been proud of.

It’s a country-house murder-mystery with an urban (and urbane) update, and Preminger is at pains to keep everything moving as if on castors, so much so that the one sharp move in the whole film really generates a frisson.

A triumph for Preminger, a rebuke for Zanuck, who not only hadn’t wanted Webb but didn’t want Preminger to direct and even forced a contrived rewritten finale on his director. Preminger, a bull at a gate, got what he wanted in all three instances, and was vindicated when Laura became one of the big hits of the year. Laura’s Theme – later recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald – was a big hit too.

Laura – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Night and the City

Harry with a silhouette of St Paul's Cathedral behind

Night and the City is often described as the best film noir out of the UK. It was made by an American director with a French sounding name, Jules Dassin, which is poetically appropriate at least since the US is the home of noir and it was the French who coined the term. The title is surely the noirest of the noir – both night and the city are key elements of the genre.

But this is London-based, and with a vengeance. Dassin, having fled the House UnAmerican Committee’s McCarthyite witch hunt after taking Twentieth Century-Fox’s Darryl F Zanuck’s advice to make himself scarce and head to London, took full advantage of a gloomy city easing out of a wartime mindset and alive with characters ducking and diving in an attempt to make ends meet.

One such is Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a fast-talking grifter hoping to shortcut his way into money, who tries to cut into in the shady world of wrestling. Harry is a tragic figure, as so many noir characters were, his flaw being his desperation to be taken seriously, as a somebody. Girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) just wants him to settle down, be normal, happy, get a job etc. But that sort of life is not for Harry, who will eventually find that if you run with the wolves you end up getting bitten.

Tierney, in a fragile mental state, had also been sent to London by Zanuck, who hoped that keeping her busy would stop her losing her mind – it didn’t – but her Mary is one of the very few decent characters in this tight, driving story. Her and her upstairs neighbour, Adam (Hugh Marlowe), a guy who knows how to cook and so is marked out from the start as the sort of domesticated male Mary is looking for – her ideal Harry. This side story – of Mary and Adam – can be ignored. Dassin gives it scant attention and what there is of it seems to have been written in to keep Tierney busy.

This film is about Harry, first, second and last, and his immersion in a world he knows little about. As we meet him he’s a club tout who’s good at separating men from their money, who works for the husband and wife nightclub-owning team of Philip and Helen Nosseross (Francis L Sullivan and Googie Withers) but is trying to get a toehold on the wrestling scene, which is already all tied up by thug Kristo (Herbert Lom) and his various henchmen.

Night and the City original poster
An original poster

Harry’s downfall comes as he tries to play off Philip against Kristo, with wife Helen in the middle, but the joys of the film come from watching an update on Dickensian London (Sullivan had recently been in David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, so the face fits). There is also a lot of geezerish proto-Guy Ritchie Cockneyism in Night and the City in other words, characters with names like Bagrag, Mickey Beer, Molly the Flower Lady. Kristo has a fastidiously polite lawyer called Fergus Chilk, who goes everywhere with a goon called Yosh. There’s a wrestler called The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), and a retired wrestling great called Gregorious (played by an actual retired wrestling great, Stanislaus Zbyszko).

Every time Widmark’s Harry says “quid”, slang for “pound”, it sounds like he’s using tongs, but he otherwise slots right in, the paranoid acting style and tendency to shout making him a fine victim, especially once Dassin’s big finale wheels into view, with Harry run-run-running for his life through a night-time central London, from King’s Cross (where Dassin’s movie lights are clearly visible on top of scaffold towers, bizarrely) down to the Thames Embankment.

Though it’s not the great great great movie people often insist it is – there’s just not enough happening in the middle section – there is still plenty to see. Mutz Greenbaum’s nighttime cinematography is excellent, a grungey complement to all those battered faces and spivvy dives, and the central performances really hit the spot, with Sullivan and Withers particularly good as the married couple engaged in subsurface war with each other, and Herbert Lom dry and coldly effective as Kristo.

Widmark, a relatively new face to the movies, was already at the top of his game by the time of Night and the City and would follow up the same year with Panic in the Streets and No Way Out. It took Dassin five years, now properly blacklisted and in France, to deliver his follow-up. But it was Rififi – a stone-cold classic and an influence on every heist thriller since – so no argument there.

Night and the City – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022