As a student I lived only a 25min train trip away from the Brussels “Cinematek”, once hailed by Martin Scorsese as the world’s best cinema repository. Among the half dozen classics screened daily, Otto Preminger’s Laura would pop up at least once a year. I watched it; and I loved it.
Soon after I first watched this movie, I had the fortune of meeting with composer David Raksin. He told me an anecdote that teaches us a thing or two about the issues that even seasoned filmmakers face. It also shows the power of the composer.
Preminger wanted to show how the main character – a detective – was falling in love with Laura. Or rather, he was falling in love with Laura’s portrait. She herself had been murdered. The critical scene didn’t work, and without it, the entire movie would fail.
The director asked the composer to fix it, by writing a suitable music cue.
Raksin struggled under the pressure. He lacked inspiration, as he was in a dark space. His girlfriend had just broken up with him … in a letter.
About to throw in the towel, Raksin sat down at the piano, and put the letter on the music rack. He read it again, while improvising a melody. Raksin ended up composing what would become one of the most recorded love themes in cinema history.
Was it all a dream?
The story is that of Detective McPherson, who investigates the murder of Laura Hunt. In the process, he realises he is more than just intrigued with the victim.
About forty minutes into the film, for the first time McPherson is alone in Laura’s flat, and while he is admiring Laura’s portrait on the wall, the famous love theme plays.
This moment sits right at the movie’s mid point, and it could have had everything of a traditional love scene, if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that the lover is in fact … dead.
At the end of the scene, the detective has a drink and falls asleep, which has spurred some to claim that the rest of the movie could be interpreted as merely a dream.
In an alternative cut of the film, the ending had a character suggest that the whole story had been imagined.
As you may know, both options are among the worst possible ways to end any story, so the original cut was restored.
In love with a painting
While McPherson gets more and more familiar with Laura, her surroundings and her entourage, a knock on the door introduces Waldo Lydecker, a close friend to Laura, and a potential suspect in the murder case.
If Raksin’s love theme didn’t already communicate what was going on between McPherson and the painting, Lydecker states it in his own acerbic manner: “You better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”
The entire film abounds in spectacular, quotable dialogue, the type Robert McKee would urge you to cut.
Admittedly, the film was made over seventy years ago and today, the lines sound theatrical. In particular the character of Lydecker boasts a language that you would now only hear on the stage. Yet it sounds sharp, to the point, and appropriate for this character, a writer of short stories – and a narcissist.
Preminger deserves the credit for bringing this delightful character to the foreground, against the wishes of the original playwright Vera Caspary.
More proof that the last thing a movie adaptation needs to do, is honouring the original.
A remake of Laura has been announced, and before you panic: the writer is James Ellroy, genius behind Black Dahlia and LA Confidential.