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DVD Pick: "Laura"

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"Laura" (1944) is one of the great classic Hollywood movies. It's a stylish film noir with an exceptional cast that includes Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Judith Anderson. Elegantly directed by Otto Preminger, the movie won an Academy Award for cinematography, and the costuming and art direction are outstanding. The film is famous for David Raksin's haunting music.

In form, "Laura" is a murder mystery, but I think what makes the movie unforgettable is its undercurrent of brooding romanticism. This is expressed by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in one of his radio broadcasts when he says, "Love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout centuries. Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death."

As I see it, the story is really about two very different men who are obsessed with the same woman. One of those men is Lydecker, a caustic newspaper columnist and radio commentator who is effete, witty, and cultured. The other is homicide detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who is ruggedly masculine, down-to-earth, and a bit crude. For example, when asked if he's ever been in love, McPherson replies, "A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur outta me."

I have never thought of Gene Tierney as being particularly good at acting, but she was one of the most gorgeous women in the world, and in this movie she is perfectly cast in the title role. Laura is an exotically beautiful young woman with exquisite social skills, and I believe she represents the male longing for the feminine. I find it quite credible that both Lydecker and McPherson, each for reasons of his own, would be besotted with her.

For me, Webb's Lydecker is one of the most memorable characters in all of cinema. He's a slightly built, rather fey man who attacks Laura's suitors with words. When it becomes clear that she has fallen for the detective, Lydecker tells her, "If McPherson weren't muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, you'd see through him in a second." He goes on to warn her, "I hope you'll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly earthy relationship."

In fact, Lydecker gets most of the film's good lines. My favorite is when he is solicited to endorse a particular brand of fountain pen, and he retorts, "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom."

On DVD, "Laura" comes with two feature-length audio commentary tracks, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend either of them. Both are adequate in terms of supplying facts about the movie, but to my way of thinking, neither offers much in the way of analysis or insight.

The first commentary is primarily by Jeanine Basinger, a film professor at Wesleyan University, and composer David Raksin chimes in every once in a while with a brief comment. Basinger makes a few worthwhile observations, but for me, she spends too much time pointing out the obvious.

I preferred the second commentary, which is by film historian Rudy Behlmer. He bombards the listener with a ton of behind-the-scenes information, but I have to admit he is amazingly knowledgeable, and he sometimes provided details that interested me.

The DVD also contains a pair of A&E biographies, one on Gene Tierney, the other on Vincent Price. The one on Tierney covers her career, her battle with mental illness, and her two marriages, as well as her romances with Prince Aly Khan and John F. Kennedy. The one on Price sketches his professional life, his three marriages, and his involvement with art. Each is 44 minutes long, and I found them both quite enjoyable.

Also on the DVD is a slight variant of the movie that includes roughly one extra minute of footage. This is the so-called extended version. You can also watch the extra footage separately by selecting "Deleted Scene." Behlmer claims the footage was cut from the 1944 theatrical release for fear that the lavishness of the lifestyle depicted might alienate members of the audience suffering deprivation because of World War II. I would say the extended version is slightly preferable because it helps us understand Lydecker's relationship with Laura.

Below I've listed the details for the "Laura" DVD.

DVD Details:

Release Date: March 15, 2005
Feature Run Time: 1 Hour 27 Minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Full-Screen (1.33:1), Black-and-White
English Stereo 2.0
English Mono 2.0
Spanish Mono 2.0
English Subtitles
Spanish Subtitles
Audio Commentary by Film Professor and Composer
Audio Commentary by Film Historian
A&E Biography "Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait" (44 min.)
A&E Biography "Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain" (44 min.)
Deleted Scene
Theatrical Trailer

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