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'Laura,' a smirking class satire masquerading as a film noir, plays at the Charles tomorrow and Monday

'Laura,' a smirking class satire masquerading as a film noir, plays at the Charles tomorrow and Monday
'Laura' directed by Otto Preminger

Who killed advertising superstar Laura Hunt? That's the question New York City detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) is trying to answer in this 1944 thriller. With his hat perpetually at a rakish tilt and his demeanor always set to suspicious, McPherson visits the opulent apartments of Laura's posh Manhattan social set, asking questions but not getting the answers he wants. Did her fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), blow her face off with a blast of shotgun buckshot? Perhaps. As a formerly rich playboy who flashes his Cheshire grin at whichever lady moneybags might next float his expenses, he certainly fits the bill. Maybe it was the well-heeled Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who knows exactly what kind of man Shelby is, doesn't care, and wants him for herself. Or maybe it was Diane Redfern, Shelby's lady friend with benefits. McPherson is pretty sure it wasn't Bessie (Dorothy Adams), Laura's no-nonsense housekeeper. He can't quite figure out all the angles—and when Laura (Gene Tierney) herself walks through her apartment's front door, McPherson really finds himself in a pickle.

Director Otto Preminger was one of a handful of European filmmakers lured to Hollywood by its glamour—maybe the continental turmoil of the 1920s and '30s had a bit to do with it too. And like other expatriates such as Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, Preminger embraced the dream factory of this young country with a sophisticated cynic's mirth. Conventional film history likes to calls "Laura" a noir, but it's practically a smirking class satire wrapped around a murder mystery. Preminger portrays New York's polite society as a gaggle of preening opportunists, comfortable in their entitlement and willing to get downright barbaric should anybody question their bearing, especially a lowly police officer who refers to women of a certain stature as "dames."

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The ravishing Tierney is best remembered for her star turn here, but the movie's real diva is Clifton Webb's Waldo Lydecker. A man of refined taste who reminds everyone of that whenever he opens his mouth, Lydecker is the newspaper columnist and radio personality who took Laura under his wing and nurtured her into a poised, charming woman of refined judgment and taste. He pounds out his bon mots while reclined in an oversized bathtub. His jackets brandish both a pocket square and boutonnière. He says things such as "in my case, self-absorption is completely justified" with a straight face. And McPherson begins to wonder if under that bespoke facade lurks something more deviant, allowing "Laura" to explore what happens when self-avowed taste, education, power, and wealth can't have what it wants.

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