LAURA – David Raksin
Original Review by Craig Lysy
Director Otto Preminger came upon a story authored by Vera Caspary titled “Ring Twice Laura” which he sought for a theatrical release on Broadway. He was attracted to the high society setting and plot twist. Unfortunately the project never came to fruition. Caspary later expanded the story into a novel, with the sequel titled, “Laura”. 20th Century Fox purchased the film rights for both and Darryl Zanuck tasked Preminger with producing the film – they had clashed in the past and he out of spite would not allow Preminger to direct. After repeated clashes between Preminger and Director Rouben Mamoulian over casting Laird Creagar for the pivotal Waldo Lydecker role, Zannuck relented, fired Mamoulian and turned over the directing duties to Preminger. He immediately brought is a fine cast, which included Gene Tierney as Laura Hunt, Dana Andrews as Detective Mark McPherson, Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker, Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell, Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter and Dorothy Adams as Bessie Clary.
The story is a classic mystery thriller, but also a romantic tale. Detective Mark McPherson is called to investigate the murder of Laura, who has been found brutally murdered by a shotgun blast to the face in her apartment. During his investigational interviews with all the people in her life he gains an understanding of who Laura was, assisted by her strikingly beautiful portrait, which hung in her apartment. He comes to understand Laura as a woman of singular beauty for which every man she met seemed to fall in love. Yet, who would be so motivated as to kill her? As the film unfolds McPherson finds himself falling in love with Laura. In a bizarre twist of fate, one night he is exhausted and falls asleep in her apartment under her portrait. To his shock and amazement he is awakened by Laura who returns, taking a dress in her closet belonging to Diane Redfern! Apparently one of her models Diane Redfern was the actual victim. McPherson arrests her for the murder, but over time becomes convinced of her innocence. Suspicion grows that Lydecker is the actual murderer, and this is revealed when he finally tries to murder Laura when she rejects him for McPherson. He is shot dead by McPherson’s sergeant and dies uttering “Goodbye Laura, Goodbye, my love.” The film resonated with the public, put Otto Preminger back into the good graces of the studio, and was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, winning one for Best Cinemotography.
Preminger offered scoring duties to Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann who both refused. Newman already had too many assignments on his plate and was loathe to work with the temperamental director, while the ever cantankerous Herrmann was singularly unimpressed with the script. So Newman, who was Director of Music at Fox, assigned Raksin to the project. Raksin started with controversy when he challenged Studio executive Zannuck by suggesting further cutting of the pivotal scene of McPhearson wandering through Laura’s apartment. Raksin relates; “But if you cut the scene, nobody will understand that the detective is falling in love with Laura.” Zannuck, who was unaccustomed to being challenged was impressed by Raksin’s insight, and relented. Yet things continued on the wrong foot when the relationship with Preminger ran aground quickly. Preminger’s vision was to interpolate either Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” or George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as the main theme for the film. Raksin insisted on his creative vision and dug in his heels, arguing that these pieces were unsuitable for the film because “of the accretion of ideas and associations that a song already so well known would evoke in the audience”. Newman intervened and convinced Preminger to give Raksin a week to come up with an original theme. Raksin relates that time was running out, he had writer’s block, and was desperate, as the love theme was needed the next day. As it turned out fate intervened unexpectedly as his estranged wife sent him a “Dear John” letter. Well this letter served as a catalyst for a remarkable catharsis. The theme for Laura was born from the pathos of his yearning, despair and unrequited love. Well, the next day Raksin faced Preminger who loved the melody, relented, and the rest is history.
Worth noting is that the score offers a haunting, and recurring minor modal melody with descending chords, that is never articulated in its entirety. Raksin, relates that he did this purposely so as to create a connection between ”the ephemeral girl and the interrupted melody.” Additionally he sought to alter the melody’s articulation during the flashback scenes versus her return in life. He created an eerie vibrato effect using altered capstans of piano chords on a recording device. Worth noting is that Laura’s theme was also rendered as a song with Johnny Mercer providing the lyrics. The song became an instant success, becoming the second most recorded song of its time following “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmicheal. Indeed, it was an enduring favorite of Cole Porter, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitgerald and Frank Sinatra. We also have Waldo’s Theme, a serpentine line carried by sinister woodwinds, which perfectly capture his persona. Lastly, Raksin also used a recurring five-note theme for McPherson, which supports the workings of his deductive mind and investigation. Succinct in construct and carried by a flowing line woodwinds or horns, it perfectly reflects his impenetrable and impassive affect.
“Main Title” offers a score highlight, which launches Raksin’s immortal Love Theme in all its sumptuous glory. It plays against the backdrop of her stunning picture as the opening credits roll. At 0:53 narrations by Waldo Lydecker begin and he recalls her life and murder as inspector McPherson explores Lydecker’s art gallery in his apartment. Raksin transmutes Laura’s Theme into a subtler and mysterioso variant adorned with woodwind auras, which perfectly establish the film’s mood. In “The Phonograph” Lydecker, Carpenter and McPherson travel to Laura’s apartment in search of clues. We are offered a brief sumptuous expression of Laura’s Theme rendered by a phonograph, which Carpenter states was Laura’s favorite melody. “The Café” reveals Lydecker and McPherson dining at a local café. He relates that it was here that he first met Laura and we bear witness to a flashback to their first meeting. He is pompous, rude and insufferable, while she emotes both innocence and sweetness. She fascinates him, despite his off-putting veneer. Laura’s Theme underpins the scene and flows with many forms and renderings, yet never strays too far from its melodic core. The scene is scored perfectly, and Raksin captures Laura in the notes.
“Waldo Walks Away” reveals another flashback where Lydecker relates how his endorsement of her company’s pen advanced her career, how he bought her dresses and introduced her to high society. Raksin offers more renderings of Laura’s Theme, which passes to and from one primary instrument to another. In “Theatre Lobby” Lydecker relates to McPherson tales of their blossoming social life. While at the theater Raksin offers source music, which flows with the grace of a gentile waltz. At 0:42 we segue into a rendering of Laura’s Theme, which supports a montage of their social life. “Night” is a complicated multi-scenic cue, where Raksin is tasked to seamless support the film’s shifting narrative. We open at a café where Lydecker is relating his memories of Laura to McPherson. We see jealousy when Lydecker resolves to investigate Laura to determine why she has been cancelling their dates. A plaintive flute line, deconstructed from her theme carries his progress to her apartment on a cold snowy night. Waldo’s Theme plays as he discovers she was with another man. We segue at 0:39 to Lydecker’s apartment where we again see him typing an article while in his bath. The music becomes animated and spritely, reflecting his vengeful glee. As we scene shift at 0:58 her theme supports his musings. At 1:14 we segue to a dance party in Treadwell’s apartment where Lydecker and Laura dance. Laura’s Theme is rendered with the sensibility of a source cue as a wonderful dance, which perfectly supports the ambiance.
“The Café” offers a languid source music cue, which supports the café setting. At 0:44 we have a scene change to Lydecker’s apartment. We segue into “Waldo’s Apartment” on a bridge of her deconstructed theme carries her to a Laura discloses that she intends to marry Carpenter and we discern a subtle tension in the notes due to his jealously, which entwine with repeated phrases of her theme. Lydecker sows seeds of doubt about Carpenter and convinces Laura to seek the truth by traveling with him to Ms. Treadwell apartment. The music for this cue perfectly supports the tête-à-tête between the two characters. In “Laura Leaves” she calls to cancel dinner with Lydecker as she is distraught. She relates that she is leaving for the country for a few days to sort things out. Repeated phrases of her theme with string and xylophone adornment support the scene. “The Portrait” is a score highlight, which features fine interplay of McPherson’s and Laura’s themes. We see him returning to her apartment at night and Raksin supports his progress with repeating phrases of his theme on horns. As he enters the apartment, dominated by her stunning portrait, her theme emerges cloaked in tension and darkness as he we see his mind working to solve the crime. At 2:05 her theme entwines with his in a tête-à-tête colored in mystery, yet also, sensualness. The cue culminates at 2:49 with him walking up and gazing mesmerized at her portrait. We see that he is clearly taken by her beauty and Raksin informs us of this by emoting her theme on emoted by piano, tremolo strings and twinkling xylophone.
“Mark” offers the film’s critical scene, where Raksin informs us that McPherson has fallen in love with Laura. He has been drinking and his impenetrable façade is finally unshorn as he sits captive under her portrait and falls to sleep. Raksin offers repeated fractured phrases of Laura’s Theme, which never coalesce into a cogent statement. The next unscored scene offers a remarkable revelation as we see Laura unlock the door and walk into the apartment. McPherson is stunned and after an awkward introduction he begins to question her. Eventually he poses the nagging question, did she still intend to marry Carpenter, to which she answered, no. He leaves and she calls Carpenter to meet at the cottage. McPherson is aware, as he has tapped her phone and heads to the cottage. “Apartment House” is a tension cue where we see Carpenter who walks to the fireplace and takes down a shotgun, only to be surprised by McPherson who subjects him to a withering cross-examination. Raksin informs us of McPherson’s presence with his theme, which joins with harsh and disquieting orchestral auras. “Radio” offers a source music big band rendering of Laura’s Theme by saxophone. “The Party” also offers source music, an extended big band rendering of Laura’s Theme, which supports a return party thrown for Laura at her apartment. Instructive is how Raksin transfers articulation of his theme across the orchestra.
In “Outside Waldo’s House” McPherson has released Laura, confident that she did not commit the murder. He breaks into Lydecker’s apartment and his theme on woodwinds supports his investigation of the grandfather clock, which reveals a dark secret. A warm Laura’s Theme joins his and the cue escalates, ending is tension as McPherson deduces a break in the case. In “Waldo” Laura, McPherson and Lydecker are in her apartment, and she finally sums up the courage to ask Waldo to leave and that she never wants to see him again. His theme supports his obvious disappointment as he exits her apartment. As he pauses outside her apartment his theme becomes sinister and menacing. At 1:51 Inside the apartment the music becomes impassioned upon her theme, finally softening and finding expression as her love for Mark is at last revealed. A florid ascent upon her theme supports the kiss and their parting. “End Title” reveals Lydecker entering Laura’s apartment through a side door and obtaining the shotgun from the clock. He loads it and confronts Laura explaining that if he cannot have her, no one will. She deflects the first shot flees into the living room where McPherson’s partner shoots Lydecker who fires and misses with his second shot. He dies uttering “Goodbye Laura, Goodbye, my love.” We open with Laura’s Theme offered in free flowing waltz form, which is severed by a cacophony of orchestral violence as Lydecker is killed. We conclude with a final dramatic statement of Laura’s Theme. Bravo!
“Laura’s Theme – Test Demo” first offers a flute rendering of the theme supported by lush strings and kindred woodwinds, followed by a second statement that features saxophone. “The Laura Suite – Theme and Variations” is a wondrous score highlight, which offers a superb twenty-seven minute concert suite with multiple expressions of her timeless theme carried by an array of different instruments. Classical composers would at times compose pieces, which offered variations of a great theme; this piece is one of those marvelous creations. One realizes just how wondrous this theme is, how versatile and how enjoyable as we hear it rendered by sumptuous strings, tenderly by accordion violin and piano, in waltz form, by saxophone with a big band vibe, by flute and kindred woodwinds. The serpentine Waldo’s Theme is also presented on woodwinds, as is McPherson’s Theme. I highly recommend taking this in, as I believe you will discover something new with each listen.
Please allow me to commend Bruce Kimmel and Nick Redman for this splendid restoration of Laura. The mastering by Mike Matessino from the mono source tapes was excellent with only a couple small imperfections, which for me did not distract from the listening experience. Laura has been crying for restoration and reissue for decades, and I am very happy that this legendary score has once again found voice. Laura offers one of film score art’s immortal themes, one that rightfully earns David Raksin immortality. Laura’s essence is realized in the notes and in scene after scene the music is perfectly attenuated to supporting the film’s narrative. Raksin expertly provides love, suspense, mystery and betrayal, in one of the finest marriages of film and music to be found. This score is a classic and I believe an essential purchase for lovers of film score art – highly recommended!
I have embedded a YouTube link for a wondrous 15-minute suite for those of you unfamiliar with the score: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIWTqMoTUM8
Buy the Laura soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title (2:19)
- The Phonograph (0:25)
- The Café (4:07)
- Waldo Walks Away (1:01)
- Theatre Lobby (1:28)
- Night (3:06)
- The Café/Waldo’s Apartment (4:14)
- Laura Leaves (0:59)
- The Portrait (3:23)
- Mark (1:05)
- Apartment House (1:22)
- Radio (1:25)
- The Party (3:41)
- Outside Waldo’s House (1:27)
- Waldo (4:31)
- End Title (1:23)
- Bonus Tracks
- Laura’s Theme – Test Demo (1:44) – BONUS
- The Laura Suite – Theme and Variations (27:20) – BONUS
Running Time: 64 minutes 53 seconds
Kritzerland KR-200224-9 (1944/2013)
Music composed by David Raksin. Conducted by Alfred Newman. Original orchestrations by David Raksin. Recorded and mixed by Murray Spivack and Vinton Vernon. Score produced by David Raksin and Emil Newman. Album produced by Nick Redman and Bruce Kimmel.