Sunday, October 11, 2009

Movie Quote of the Day (Clifton Webb in “Laura,” on a Very Different Kind of Love)

Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb, to detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews): “You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”—Laura (1944), screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt, based on the novel by Vera Caspary, directed by Otto Preminger

Now, if you want to get technical with me, I suppose you could argue that Clifton Webb, even though he is speaking the above lines, is nowhere to be found in the accompanying image, and that Gene Tierney, whose character is not speaking or even being addressed, does appear (though not in the flesh), and that there is something incongruous about the pairing of the text with the image.

But I suspect that any argument you’re going to put up will be half-hearted, for these reasons:

1) The situation Lydecker is talking about—in reality, a portrait that McPherson has fallen in love with, rather than the corpse per se—is rendered very nicely here.

2) Throughout the first half of the film, Laura doesn’t appear at all, but she’s certainly the dominant presence.

3) Who would you rather look at, Clifton Webb or Gene Tierney?

Thought so.

Laura, like another out-of-left-field love story, To Have And Have Not, premiered on this date in 1944. Both directors, Laura’s Otto Preminger and To Have’s Howard Hawks, had a devil of a time figuring out how to adapt the novel that served as their source material to the screen.

Hawks’ solution was twofold: a) Junk the Ernest Hemingway plot (not one of Papa’s best, anyway) and let William Faulkner come up with something different; and b) Pattern 19-year-old ingenue’s Lauren Bacall’s sexy-beyond-her-years character on his own elegant wife, “Slim” Keith, even borrowing the same nickname. (The romance that bloomed between Bacall and Humphrey Bogart was a happy accident.)

Preminger had been working with three different writers on Laura when Darryl Zanuck awarded the project to Reuben Mamoulian, with the Central European remaining only as producer. Or that’s how it seemed until Zanuck got a look at the rushes and groaned. You’ve got to do better than this, he told Preminger.

The émigré—who felt, according to a fine David Denby retrospective in The New Yorker last year, that “most of my friends are these kind of people” (i.e., café society)—was only too willing to give Mamoulian the bum’s rush off the film. He imposed a very cool, nonjudgmental style (e.g., lots of two-character shots rather than close-ups) to complement a story with a theme (as hinted at by Webb in the quote, necrophilia) that could have given the censors fits.

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