Rates: * * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? I stumbled across this in my own library and had not seen it for a while.
Laura Hunt is an advertising executive at the top of her field; clever, funny, stylish and talented, she is the toast of New York. She also finds herself caught between two men; the cynical Waldo Lydecker, an older man of letters who helped her career, and likeable ladies man Shelby Carpenter, a handsome cad who catches her eye. Then: Laura is found brutally murdered. Can the world weary detective on the case determine which of her two suitors dunnit?
An absolute classic of early noir; lightning paced and razor sharp, with indelible characters, memorable lines, and top notch performances. Like the best of the genre, this one also sports a labyrinthine, well constructed mystery; the central twist, which I won’t reveal, is a doozy.
Clifton Webb, a versatile character actor who mostly appeared on Broadway, is the standout as Lydecker. Sitting in his bathtub, typing his vitriolic missives, raging against his enemies, this is a man whose elevated position has corrupted his soul. Lydecker sees himself as above everyone else, and beholden to nothing but a moral code of his own devising. A memorably famous character, and a flamboyant performance. A young, and unrecognisable, Vincent Price also makes his mark as Carpenter. This character appears to be the opposite of Lydecker; a disarmingly straightforward and unrefined charmer, with a genial good nature. But beneath his appealing facade, a very dark soul; an archetype the actor would spend the rest of his career exploring.
These two trample all over each other to win Laura’s heart, without ever stopping to consider her perspective. They flat out tell her, in multiple scenes, what she should be doing, and how she ought to feel. That she is a self made woman with the world at her feet, and so considerably more accomplished than any of them, never occurs to these guys. They want to possess her, claim her, in a way that is just about their own egos. Gene Tierney offers a fine performance, depicting someone who is trying to get on with their own life, while being objectified. You imagine women have been putting up with nonsense like this since year dot.
The film is mounted with unruffled simplicity by Otto Preminger, a top notch director who could turn his hand to any genre. He shows his facility with the stylistic conventions of noir; the film is mostly shot at night, in a series of shadowy rooms, as the characters circle each other and spar. The director is aided by the sumptuous cinematography of Joseph LaShelle, a veteran who would come into his own towards the end of his career, shooting a number of films for Billy Wilder, including ‘The Apartment’. His standout work here would win an Academy Award.
A lively classic, fun, and surprisingly contemporary. And that run time! Modern Hollywood take note.