Gene Tierney was "undeniably the most beautiful actress in movie history" according to her boss at 20th Century-Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck. Indeed, she was one of the screen's most gorgeous stars, with a persona of elegance and cool sophistication. It was this graceful elegance which lent itself perfectly to Laura (1944), the stylish and sophisticated murder mystery that made her a star and is the movie with which she is most readily associated. Unusual in one respect, compared to most films of its time, the main character, Laura, doesn't appear on screen at all for the first quarter of the movie, except in the representation of a portrait above her fireplace, and for the next quarter, only in flashback.
The film begins in the plush New York City apartment of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an acid tongued, poison-penned columnist and radio personality who is being questioned by detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) while typing his newest column in his ornate bathtub (Thank goodness its not an electric typewriter....say, what's a typewriter). Detective McPherson is investigating the murder of beautiful Laura Hunt (Tierney), successful ad executive and protegee of Lydecker. McPherson's investigation finds a menagerie of decadent, amoral Manhattenites with various relationships to Laura. As the case progresses, the tough talking, hard boiled detective becomes infatuated with the portrait of the victim and obsessed with her via personal interviews and the dead woman's private papers. Falling asleep one night in Laura's apartment, under her mezmorizing portrait, he is awakened by none other than the object of his obsession. Laura is alive and it turns out that the dead woman, whose face was obliterated by the gunshot, is a model at the ad agency who was using Laura's apartment the night of the murder. So who tried to kill Laura and is she now safe?
The film was wrought with problems and delays from the outset. According to Tierney's autobiography, Jennifer Jones was originally offered the title role but refused (as did Hedy Lamarr). Stylistic director Rouben Mamoulian was originally assigned to oversee the picture but fired well into production. Producer Otto Preminger was then allowed to produce and direct the film, a job that was first denied him by boss Darryl Zanuck, due to an old grudge between the two. It turned out to be, what some call, Preminger's finest work, and the bald headed Austrian was nominated for an Academy Award.
Prissy and effete stage actor Clifton Webb was Preminger's choice for the prissy and effete character of Waldo Lydecker. Zanuck, however, didn't care for Webb, a known homosexual. After a test revealed that Webb's mannerisms were perfect for the character, Zanuck relented and the actor won both an Oscar nomination for the role as well as a long term contract with the studio. It is hard to believe that Webb's aging dandy would actually lust after the young and nubile Tierney~and even harder to believe that she would have any physical attraction to him. His interest would be seen as having more of a controlling rather than romantic nature, despite what the script might try to imply. It is also hard to imagine Laura's romantic involvement with her fiancee, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a weak, sponging Southern gigolo, who plays pattycake with Laura's wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). Her vitality and vivaciousness is much more suited to the virile detective McPherson and an immediate attraction can be felt between these two. Both Tierney and Andrews had rather mediocre careers before they made the noir classic, but the films popularity made instant stars of both.
Besides the Oscar nomination for Preminger and Webb, the movie also raked in nods for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (B&W) and Best Cinematography (B&W). The latter won the coveted prize for Joseph LaShelle. Composer David Raksin's score was also very notable including the haunting title tune which became a beloved standard. On the strength of her performance in Laura, Tierney was cast in the plum role of Ellen in the dark Leave Her to Heaven, the following year and received her own nomination from the Academy.