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Laura

Wowza!

Laura (1944)

     For me, Laura is the quintessential film noir. In reality, however, it is quite different from the standard flick of that genre. Whereas most noirs dealt with seedy underworld types and a blonde vixen,Laura’s setting is high society and focuses on a pretty brunette out to destroy no one.

     The title character, played by Gene Tierney, is absent for the majority of the flick, shown primarily in flashbacks as the movie paints a picture of her rise to professional wealth and of those around her who are now suspects in her murder. Dana Andrews plays Detective McPherson who seeks to unravel who unloaded a barrel of buckshot in the woman’s face in her own doorway one night.

     He starts his sleuthing with snide newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who accepts McPherson’s visit while he is at his typewriter … in the bath. Waldo is an absolutely unkind man who defends against an accusation of callousness with the response: “I would be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves.” He, who was responsible for launching Laura’s career and courted her platonically, glimpses no sign of guilt. Fascinated with the psyche of a murderer, however, he insists on joining the cool McPherson in his interviews.

     Next up are Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) and Laura’s fiance Shelby, played by a young and handsome Vincent Price. Shelby has been distraught, unable to sleep (is that a sign of grief or guilt, Waldo inquires), but his alibi of attending the symphony is shoddy as he inaccurately reports the program, defending himself by saying he fell asleep. Ann, meanwhile, is looking shady because she has been withdrawing large sums of money that appear to be resurfacing in Shelby’s coffers, and we learn the two were having an affair.

     It is impossible to go further into the plot without giving away a fantastic twist that transpires about two-thirds in. The change throws all theories out the window as McPherson considers a different suspect and a different body. Director Otto Preminger gives us a masterpiece in Laura. It seems impossible to determine a true motive for the murder and we and McPherson have a difficult time knowing who to trust.

      The dialogue is intelligent, witty and sharp, especially that coming from the literary Waldo. Webb fantastically plays the acerbic writer whose insults flow so gracefully off his tongue. The story, however, is not just a mystery; it also has shades of romance. As McPherson learns all about Laura and we view her through flash backs, the man gradually falls in love with her ghost and her portrait that hangs above the woman’s mantle. Andrews gives a wonderfully controlled performance. He never raises his voice and his demeanor of near disinterest has the suspects overly willing to offer up information or point out where they have been dishonest and why. He lets Waldo rile up accusations and spark arguments while he bows his head to play with a handheld puzzle game.

     Tierney, meanwhile, paints Laura as a woman we cannot help but admire and ourselves fall in love with –reserved, gentle, elegant, forthright– while Andrews portrays his detective as a perfect mate. Anderson gives her typically perfect performance, and Price is fascinating to see in his charming youth before becoming a master of horror flicks.

     Laura won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and the black and white picture really is a work of art, full of creative shadowing that instills the sexy, mysterious mood. This movie is yet another example of how Otto Preminger never disappoints.Laura is not as long as his other lengthy but worthwhile mysteries, but it packs the same wallop. I cannot recommend it enough.

Advise and Consent

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Advise and Consent (1962)

     The movie Advise and Consent is about exactly what the title says: the U.S. Senate’s power to “advise and consent” on a presidential appointment to a certain administrative position. This process and the general proceedings of at least state-level government have become all too familiar to me in the last two years as I have been a reporter covering state government. I have seen the Ohio Senate use its advise and consent power to essentially fire someone who had been doing a job for many months but because of a scandal, the pick by a Democratic governor was not longer fit in the eyes of the Republican Senate. I, too, have been watching from afar as the U.S. Senate presently stalls on approving an Ohioan picked by President Obama to direct a new consumer protection bureau because lawmakers do not like the agency itself.

     So even though Otto Preminger‘s Advise and Consent takes place 50 years ago, the procedure still seems a bit like I was sitting at work, yet that did not negate its impact. In this fictional account, a president, played by an older Franchot Tone, has selected Henry Fonda‘s Robert Leffingwell to be his secretary of state. The selection raises much turmoil as Leffingwell has made a handful of enemies in the Senate, chief among which is Charles Laughton‘s Sen. Cooley. A special committee is formed to consider the appointment and is chaired by young Sen. Anderson (Don Murray). During the hearing, Cooley sits in and berates Leffingwell with questions about his involvement in a communist group while a college professor. He even brings in a witness who testifies that he saw Leffingwell at these meetings, but the appointee fires back by questioning the witness into admitting he had a mental breakdown in the past and indicating the address of these supposed Red meetings is actually a fire station.

     Things get hairy, however, when Cooley starts digging into this new evidence and Chairman Anderson’s wife receives threatening phone calls. The chairman is being blackmailed into pushing the approval ahead and his fate is to be a bleak one. As the story progresses, it is nearly impossible to determine from one minute to the next whether Leffingwell will be confirmed as SOS.

     The plot of Advise and Consent is packed full of heated exchanges. It’s 140 minutes are filled to the brim with a wide smattering of characters that are, frankly, difficult to keep track. Unlike other Congressional movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, much of the drama takes place away from the Senate floor. In fact, it is interesting to view how government works, with a majority of empty seats in the chamber when much of its business takes place. It is easy to pick protagonists and villains, although they are not all from the same party nor even on the same side of the argument as it pertains to Leffingwell. I am not sure Preminger’s telling of the story either glorifies or condemns the confirmation process for appointees but is more focused on painting the drama that could surround what is often such a quick and thoughtless process.

     I think it might go without saying that the performances in Advise and Consent are superb. An older Laughton really stands out as the southern Senator who has spent more time in the chamber than probably any other in the film. He is unpleasant and unreasonable but in a way unlike all of his other villainous characters. I was surprised to see Franchot Tone’s name associated with the president role as I know him best for his plethora of light-hearted romances, but he plays an amiable –and ill– president well. His health condition prevents the character from engaging in any grandstanding speeches or getting heated over the situation, which is absolutely doable for Tone. Gene Tierney also makes a return to the screen after a seven-year hiatus for poor mental health as Washington socialite Dolly Harrison; Peter Lawford plays bachelor Sen. Smith; and Walter Pidgeon is perfect as the president’s advocate in approving the appointment, Sen. Munson.

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