In its factory formation belle epoque, Hollywood was infrequently blessed by calamitous serendipity—sometimes, production debacles that should’ve crashed at takeoff ended up flying high. Second only to Casablanca as a kind of code-packed accidental masterpiece, Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) began at Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox as trite pulp, was worked over by at least five staff screenwriters (including an uncredited Ring Lardner Jr.), attempted birth as a Rouben Mamoulian daydream, and finally emerged as an enigma wrapped in a perfumed handkerchief of genre tropes and mysterious desires. The nuts and bolts of the murder plot—in which morose detective Dana Andrews essentially falls in love with an idealized Gene Tierney after she’s had her head blown off—soon enough give way to underground currents, after she walks through the door an ordinary woman and the question of ID’ing the corpse becomes a decidedly secondary concern.
Quietly Godardian before the fact—does a story’s architecture matter as much as our ardor for imagery?—Laura is a hypnotic and deathlessly interpretable experience, what with Clifton Webb’s sexually contradictory presence, Vincent Price (!) as a smug paramour, and Andrews gilding the tough-dick paradigm with his own distinct brand of grieving lostness. Despite the DVD’s noir label, a film this lovesick and Freudian hardly qualifies, but Fox’s other archive releases this month don’t either: Elia Kazan’s riveting Panic in the Streets (1950), in which doc Richard Widmark tries to prevent gangsters (Jack Palance and Zero Mostel in the character actor face-off of the century) from spreading the plague, and Henry Hathaway’s ramrod Call Northside 777 (1948), wherein reporter James Stewart crusades to clear a wrongly convicted death row inmate. Extras include newsreel bits, trailers, scholarly commentaries, and from Laura, a deleted scene.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 8, 2005