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Otto Preminger: Anatomy of a Director

Mystery woman: Laura returns

Mystery woman: Laura returns

Laura Hunt is dead. We see her in flashbacks, when she was a pretty girl on the make and on the rise in New York advertising. She was Gene Tierney, and she dressed better and picked up smoother manners once Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) took her on as his protegee and his beard. But Laura Hunt is dead, shot in the face with a shotgun. She was a mess. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is the detective on the job, and for 30 minutes or so he prowls around the old life of Laura, examining her unappealing friends and being gradually affected or impressed or impregnated by her atmosphere. This is what Otto Preminger could do.

Mystery woman: Laura returns (Click to enlarge)

We know nothing about McPherson except that he smokes and chews gum in Laura's apartment and he has a silly game, based on a baseball diamond, where you have to get silver balls to sit in little holes. He is morose, a bit sluggish — or is it depressed? He gives hints of being a pretty good, hardened detective, but it's hard to miss his incompleteness or unhappiness. It makes him faintly hostile to everyone he meets, and Andrews' lazy, Southern speech suits the character.

And then, about 30 minutes into the film, McPherson elects to spend the night in Laura's apartment. There are several rooms — including a salon and a bedroom — and a lot of expensive antique furniture with silk lampshades. It's classy and feminine and the way Andrews, or McPherson, walks around in it tells us he has some contempt for the place, and some yearning. He could tell himself he is looking for clues, of course (and there are clues in the apartment), but it's clear that he's trying to conjure up the feeling of the dead Laura. The scene is actual, factual (the detective on the job), but it is also mythic, voyeuristic — it's a man falling in love. This is what Otto Preminger could do.

There's music, too, a tune called "Laura" written by David Raksin, and it's on a record on the turntable in the apartment. Once established, it can come in at odd, stealthy moments and in different arrangements depending on McPherson's gloomy rapture. There are mirrors in the apartment — why not? She was a beautiful woman, but they keep showing McPherson his drab self and that leaves him angry. He drinks her liquor and sits at her desk, goes through the drawers and tosses bundles of her letters and her diary around as if they were stolen cash and he was the robber.

There's a picture on the wall, a portrait of Laura done in what you'd have to call a chocolate-box style, and in McPherson's long gaze you feel he might want to eat it. Then Lydecker appears from out of the night — he wants some of Laura's furniture back. It was his, he says, and he only loaned it to her. But he tells us something he has learned, that McPherson wants something too: The sour detective has already put in a bid for the portrait of Laura. We are not surprised. The necrophilia was there in the helpless way the detective moved about the picture, like a fly in its space.

Lydecker withdraws and McPherson is left alone. He sits in Laura's armchair, drinking still, and he begins to read her letters. The camera sucks in on a close-up as he slips into sleep or a dream. The liquor bottle is as large as his head. Then the camera backs away and we hear a clicking sound. The door to the apartment is opening. A figure in white stands there. It is awfully like Laura Hunt.

And this is about five or six minutes of screen time in a film called Laura.

It was made in 1944 and it was Preminger's breakthrough. It's of unusual importance in that he was originally just the film's producer. Yet one way and another, he persuaded Twentieth Century Fox that the assigned director — Rouben Mamoulian — was not quite up to it. So Preminger horned in on the story, just like McPherson. It's intriguing, too, in that it's a film made in the middle of the war which simply refuses to admit its existence. This is normal or ordinary love, envy, terrible desire and luxury apartments. Yes, the mystery of who killed whom will be settled, and good luck if it's what you want. But here, for a few minutes, a director discovers his metier and fills the screen with furtive life.

It's what Otto Preminger could do and the reason for a tribute to him and his work at the American Cinematheque. You have to watch everything, not just every film they're showing but every frame of each, because Preminger knew that film was a natural corridor into desire and violence.

OTTO PREMINGER: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre | Through Thurs., Jan. 31 | www.americancinematheque.com