Laura (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

December 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s rare to see a film that’s feels both highly improbable (almost an urban fable of some kind) but absolutely perfect, so that you wouldn’t want it any other way. In Laura, Dana Andrews is excellent as tough New York detective Mark McPherson, slowly falling in love with the portrait of murdered advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Hunt was an astonishingly beautiful woman killed at point-blank range with a shotgun, making for an odd balance of beauty and ugliness (or gracefulness contrasted with horrific behaviour) right from the beginning. McPherson begins by interviewing one of her closest friends, influential newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who provides most of the witty lines, and begins the spell by describing Laura, the woman that’s certainly the one thing he’s allowed in, past his penetrating caustic wit, in many years. In an early role in his career, Vincent Price is perfectly fine, though less comfortable in the part and less convincing as a young man who claims to have been engaged to Laura, and the one she truly loved. Without giving too much away, it becomes clear quite soon that while various people speak about the highest and most noble aspirations, they operate according to base desires for possession, wealth and status. Detective McPherson seems to be capable of movement the other way around — he begins with cold statements (when asked if he has ever loved, he replies “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur outta me”) but is somehow inspired to something better, even if only by a ghost he’s getting to know through others.

The first time I saw Laura five years ago, I thought it was a well-produced drama with a good score, cinematography and performances. And then I forgot about it. But I recently returned to it after seeing Where the Sidewalk Ends, with Andrews as another tough detective, this time an extremely violent one trying to overcome his harsher instincts and working desperately to cover up his accidental killing of a prime suspect. Tierney returns as his love interest, in a supporting role where she’s nevertheless memorable as someone that represents the kind of life he can manage to have if he wriggles out of his current situation. It’s also a very well-produced film, though closer to the kind of film noir that visits gritty city streets repeatedly, and doesn’t have the presence of any character along the lines of an intellectual newspaper columnist. Once again, Andrews is excellent. Where the Sidewalk Ends certainly doesn’t manage to feel like any kind of fable, and is closer in tone to something like Panic in the Streets (1950), but is still a solid drama, putting the viewer in the curious position of pulling for a cop that’s trying to cheat the system. While Laura is another murky journey towards truth and redemption, most of the conversations are in living rooms and various fairly affluent homes. Looking back on the careers of Tierney and Andrews, it’s easy to see how they could’ve been tremendous stars (both weren’t, for various reasons), though I  hope they were content with interesting careers, and in Laura, at least one remarkable film.

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