***/**** Image B Sound B- Extras B
starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson
screenplay by Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt, based on the novel by Vera Caspary
directed by Otto Preminger
*/**** Image C Sound B- Extras A+
starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, William Lundigan
screenplay by Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols, from a novel by Cid Ricketts Sumner
directed by Elia Kazan
by Walter Chaw A camp classic of a very particular variety, Otto Preminger's stylish, pedigreed Laura might best be read as a satire of Hitchcock's Rebecca, reuniting that film's Judith Anderson with another late, lamented mistress and acres more scenery to chew. It replaces George Sanders with Vincent Price, Laurence Olivier with stiff-as-a-board Boy Scout Dana Andrews, and a never-present heroine with Gene Tierney, she of the unspeakably-gorgeous cheekbones. Laura easily laps most films for narrative complexity, the sheer number of audacious hairpins it negotiates on the road of logic dizzying for their arbitrary contortions. The character of a fey, fifty-ish critic, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who introduces himself to a detective investigating the murder of the titular Laura (Tierney) by stepping out of a bath like some hybrid of Smithers and Mr. Burns, acts as the piece's unreliable narrator, stalking through his scenes like a dandy in honorary high collar and spats while providing the strangest contention in a strange film: that this aging, fey, homosexual lothario was passionately in love with his ward, Laura. The picture might be the most overt iteration of film noir as a genre about emasculation ever put to celluloid, and trying to puzzle out whether Waldo's for real and chief gumshoe McPherson (Andrews) buys any of his honeyed hooey constitutes a good portion of what's fun and maddening in equal measure about it. That tension between what's ridiculous and what the characters take seriously makes Laura a mystery, for sure, but not for the obvious reasons.
When Waldo first appears, he asserts that he should never forget the day Laura died, ushering the audience into a whirlwind peopled by Vincent Price as a southern gentleman (straight from the pages of Tennessee Williams--if Tennessee Williams were channelling Edgar Alan Poe), Dorothy Adams as a clucking maid, Anderson as Mrs. Danvers again, and enough cross-eyed badger spit to confuse Hammett on a bender. In the film's virtuoso sequence, McPherson has a quiet evening alone with Laura's portrait, dreaming, like Milton's Adam, of his Eve--only to have her materialize upon awakening. Preminger packs every frame of this stylistically prototypical noir with theatrical, banded lighting and mirrors, lit butts and self-conscious dialogue, crafting a collection of rogues who declare themselves variously callous, murderous, and irredeemable in the picture's plate-spinning attempt to cast suspicion on every member of its extended cast. (Hams, all, save poor wooden Andrews: Laura's major party sequence and Ms. Marple-sitting-room resolution hardly has room to accommodate Price's arched-brow grimaces and Webb's pencil-thin acerbity.) To call it exhausting and ridiculous is to call a spade a spade. And yet there's something to Laura's necrophilia that mirrors our own desire to engage this re-animated thing--to be consumed by Preminger's meticulous camera movements and of course David Raskin's ravishing score, which has become among the most famous overtures from Hollywood's baton.
Ultimately, Laura would serve well on a double-bill with Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.: two films about pathetic has-beens who earn hot young appendages with their fading reputations and swollen bank accounts before falling back into disrepute through self-delusion and the indignities of rapture from the distant past. Both feature framing stories from ostensible dead men, and both represent (though Wilder's film does it knowingly) a bygone era in form and function. Each is shot exquisitely in high style, and each has taken its lumps from contemporary critics for being guilty of a particular variety of auto-consumptive arrogance. But the real fruit in the comparison is how contemporary Sunset Blvd. feels today vs. how quaint, forced, and flat hilarious much of Laura comes off. There's no arguing the production design or the effectiveness of moments like Waldo, swallowed up whole in full-blizzard, staring up at the lighted window of his immortal beloved, but the romance doesn't affect, the mystery doesn't engage, and the pleasures of the text lie in an aesthetic appreciation of craft (and Tierney's beauty) and a collection of stifled giggles that start to sound stale and unbecoming long before the final thrust of the knife pounds home.
The ghost haunting/resurrected in Elia Kazan's Pinky is Pinky (Jeanne Crain, another looker without a lot of chops), a mulatto passing for white who speciously returns to her rural Alabama roots and her grand-mammy (Ethel Waters) because she has nowhere else to be in the world. In fact, she's fleeing a marriage proposal from a decent doctor (Pinky has trained as a nurse), since the spectre of miscegenation has caused her to question her racial dishonesty, running back to the arms of a woman every bit as racist as the white boys who try to rape Pinky and the white law that tries to take away Pinky's inheritance. The look Granny shoots at good Dr. Adams (William Lundigan) when he shows up on the plantation to claim his half-black lady-love is one of the ugliest, most unfortunately-unironic moments in a film that was so obviously pro-segregation even in 1949 that it brooked no protest in Southern theatres. The casting of Crain is the first problem in its racial dishonesty, Crain being as black as I'm white (you can blame the howling prejudices of the period, or you can remember that Anthony Hopkins was cast as bi-racial as recently as 2003), thus her final scenes with Dr. Adams locked in a doomed embrace ring with as much controversy as two clearly white people would embracing one another in a musty Hollywood "message" picture.
Pinky is nothing more than 1949's Crash: a film that doesn't deal with race so much as it pays lip service to race while being racist in ways likely unexamined by all involved. Kazan would later express regret for the movie's choices, but he was a late-replacement for John Ford (himself taking over for Rouben Mamoulian), who, in his first reels screened for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, demonstrated a distinct lack of sensitivity in his portrayal of black culture. Hindsight suggests to me that Ford's coarseness would almost certainly be preferable to the confused treatment of race erupting from the friction between Kazan's instinct to raw naturalism and Zanuck's mass-appealing fluff. Take the figure of Jake (Frederick O'Neal), a lazy, shiftless, fried-chicken-eating layabout who sidles around, obsequious to the law and taking sass from his tough-talking, abusive wife (for more of this kind of archetype, see also 2006's Freedomland)--and then look to matriarch Ms. Em (Ethel Barrymore), of whom Granny has a fawning opinion. (Granny reveals that she's done Ms. Em's laundry for free for decades.) A scene where it's revealed that Granny's been left all of her master's shoes and dresses is extremely well-played and extremely ambiguous in equal measure--leading to Pinky's inheritance of the place of she and her granny's indentured servitude and the ridiculous court battle resulting in her ignoble triumph.
Pinky is 1949's Patch Adams, doing for half-breeds what that film did for assclowns, sharing the same courtroom resolution and the same commune-of-healing that's meant to instil joy and uplift in its gaffed audience but manages mainly to instil dread that someone who thinks the way these people--Pinky, Patch--think is now in charge of shaping how children think. A dangerous picture that should be viewed as an example of the glad-handing crap with which they continue to lead us astray in regards to race and racism, Pinky is an artifact of where we still are as a melting pot, albeit one with the occasional graceful, Kazan-ian moment.
Laura arrives on DVD under Fox's "Film Noir" imprimatur (it's #1 in the series, at least in the studio's archival estimation) packed with two feature-length commentaries, two documentaries, a deleted scene, and the theatrical trailer. The full-frame, b&w transfer is a beautiful, stark rendition that makes those beautiful chiaroscuro shadows sparkle and pop. Moiré patterns are minimal, and while the edge enhancement can be distracting, I do wonder whether the film's visual aggressiveness isn't actually augmented by that digital artifact. A DD 2.0 stereo remix is full and pleasing, though the original mono audio (configured for 2.0 playback), included here for posterity, isn't exactly inferior. Historian Rudy Behlmer offers one of his hit-or-miss commentaries with an informative yet exceedingly dry and non-screen-specific yakker that finds him reading long production notes and contemporary notices recounting the standard criticisms of the script and casting of Webb as a heterosexual. Behlmer's academic droning is preferable to the yakker intercutting Raskin and Wesleyan University Film Professor Jeanine Basinger, however. Raskin has very, very little to say throughout ("I could have composed entrance music here, but I didn't"), while Basinger provides a hagiography that casts every single choice in the film in bronzed triumphal light. Her reverie about Webb's performance and the almost garish lighting ("It makes it all look realistic!"--er, no it doesn't) is distracting and off-base, and the revelation that she might be a part of some Tierney appreciation society further discredits her as an authority.
The parade of extras marches on with A&E "Biography"s on Tierney and Price (44 mins. apiece). Tierney's tragic life, her battle with mental illness, and so on are recalled with the standard brusque professionalism of the network's productions. Crystallizing a lifetime of tragedy into three-quarters of an hour is uncomfortable, to say the least, and Price's comparatively cheerful piece is a nice respite. A two-minute deleted scene with optional commentary from Behlmer shows more of Laura's effect on Waldo in a montage that has her benefactor playing dress-up with his new toy as Preminger's camera adores her. What's not to love? I like the line herein where Waldo refers to her as his walking stick and white carnation. Behlmer's commentary, for what it's worth, only lasts a few seconds. Selecting an "Extended Version" option restores this elision to the movie proper. A cleaned-up trailer rounds out the platter.
In contrast to the fluff/dry commentaries gracing studio crown gem Laura, the less-loved Pinky gets a curmudgeonly and dead-brilliant yakker from critic Kenneth Geist; I would now consider purchasing a disc based solely on his presence within the supplementary material. Geist dissects Pinky mercilessly from every direction (personal, academic, moral, sociological)--he's performing real criticism here, noting that the courtroom sequence looks like one of the musicals Kazan directed on stage with its syncopated fanning motion in the gallery while pinioning the hypocrisies of the piece with a dead eye. I don't know how useful it is to punch holes in the film's narrative consistency (as Geist does with an archer's concentration), but the point he makes about how the script took financial truisms of Granny's situation and manipulated them into a noble-savage gesture is pithy and right on point.
Fox shows real balls in hiring Geist and then allowing him to run roughshod over their picture (a "Cinema Classic," according to the cover), but the criticism is illuminating, to say the least. If only he'd been let into a cage with Laura. Although the fullscreen transfer of Pinky proper looks over-exposed and degraded, knowing Kazan's other work a little, it's possible that the 'hotness' of the piece is by design to infuse a bit of desperation in what is otherwise a Hollywood-ized version of desperation. A few major lines and hiccups mar the b&w source print (pointing to its general inconsequence in history, perhaps), but overall, it's a decent job. Ditto the audio: like Laura, it's presented in an unremarkable DD 2.0 remix and the original mono (also 2.0). Pinky's theatrical trailer caps the (superfluously) slipcovered package. Originally published: May 17, 2006.