Laura (1944)
1:33.1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 2.0, Monaural
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, $14.98

“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” says writer/raconteur/Svengali figure Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), as his opulent Manhattan penthouse is revealed to Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) in one of cinema’s most recognizable opening sequences. McPherson is traveling among the city’s most exclusive homes to question suspects in the brutal murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Among the suspects he encounters are jealous matron Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) and rakish cad Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). As the investigation deepens, McPherson finds himself drawn to the lush portrait of Laura that hangs in her living room. Along with the fey Lydecker and the foolish Carpenter, the no-nonsense detective becomes infatuated with the deceased woman, and makes the quest for her killer a personal mission.

Director Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Vera Caspary’s romantic mystery Laura is one of Hollywood‘s most enduring favorites. As the story unfolds through testimonials and flashbacks, we get different portraits of the enigmatic Laura from the people who knew her. The mystery evolves in the cold world of ostentatious wealth, which aptly serves to enhance the aloof qualities of the missing woman. To capture the alternately dreamlike and sinister world of the film’s socialites, Preminger collaborated with director of photography Joseph LaShelle, ASC (Marty, The Apartment). Blending a careful use of camera movement and high-contrast lighting patterns, LaShelle’s work imbues Laura with both the deeply shadowed style of the noir thriller and the sharp, elegant glamour of the Hollywood love story. The unique and sophisticated look of Laura earned LaShelle a much-deserved Academy Award for best cinematography in the black-and-white category.

Recently released as part of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s excellent “Fox Film Noir” series, Laura has been beautifully polished for her DVD debut. LaShelle’s work has been transferred with its remarkable gray scale intact, illuminating even the most minor shadings of black and gray in the smallest costume detail. Compared to some of the picture’s previous home-video incarnations, which were milky and soft, this new transfer is truly a revelation. This crisp, virtually flawless picture transfer is outstanding and could serve as a reference for future transfers of films of this period.

The audio options include a monaural track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, both of which are clear of distortion and sound very similar. The stereo-enhanced track succeeds only in giving more bass dimension to the film’s haunting score.

Enhancing the excellent feature presentation is a generous assortment of supplements. Among them is an extended version of the film that incorporates a brief sequence (which can also be viewed separately as a deleted scene) that the studio deemed “too off-putting in its decadence” at the time of the film’s release. The disc also features two commentary tracks. On track one, composer David Raksin discusses what he remembers about the scoring of the film, and film scholar Jeanine Basinger offers occasional insights into different readings of the film and its aesthetics. On track two, film historian Rudy Behlmer provides a more comprehensive and informative analysis that, among other things, traces the film’s incredibly problematic production history.

Finishing up the supplements are the picture’s original theatrical trailer and two 42-minute episodes of A&E Biography, “Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait,” which chronicles the actress’s troubled, tragic life, and “Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain,” which nicely summarizes the popular performer’s career.

Preminger’s multi-layered Laura remains a beguiling fetish piece, and this elegant new DVD is bound to attract new admirers. With its Gothic ruminations on obsession and illusion balanced in a sharp, witty script that is open to many interpretations, the film is a legitimate classic. Time has only enhanced Laura’s appeal, and with this definitive DVD, the bloom has been beautifully restored to the rose.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.