A Portrait of Murder (1955 TVM)

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“What a terrible way for a beautiful dame like that to die.”
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vt Laura
US / 43 minutes / bw / CBS Dir: John Brahm Pr: Otto Lang Scr: Mel Dinelli Story: Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary Cine: Lloyd Ahern Cast: George Sanders, Dana Wynter, Robert Stack, Scott Forbes, Johnny Washbrook, Gloria Clark, Gordon Wynne, Robert Williams, Harry Carter.

Done as an episode of The 20th Century–Fox Hour, this is not so much a remake of Otto Preminger’s classic Laura (1944), which featured Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson and Dorothy Adams, as a re-adaptation of Caspary’s novel for the screen. There’s a visible (and visual) awareness of Preminger’s version, but really this is its own entity. Much of the narrative complexity of the earlier movie is missing—gone are the extended flashbacks, gone indeed are some of the characters (such as Judith Anderson’s sexually hungry Ann Treadwell, Laura’s aunt), and gone is the narrative undercurrent based on the fact that Lydecker considers Laura his artifact and wants to possess, by entitlement, her essence, her soul, her spirit . . . if not her body.

Dana Wynter as Laura.

The result of this considerable simplification is a TV movie—I use the term a tad loosely—that’s, at least superficially, if anything marginally more noirish than the Preminger precursor, even though its lack of subtext means it’s significantly less likely to stick in the mind.

Robert Stack as McPherson.

As before, we start with NYPD cop Mark McPherson (Stack) haunting the apartment where a murdered corpse, presumed to be that of Laura Howe, was discovered a few days ago. It’s clear from the outset that the detective has become obsessed by the woman he’s come to know through her correspondence, her diaries, her possessions, the recollections of those who knew her and most specifically her portrait, which hangs over her mantel:

“What a terrible way for a beautiful dame like that to die. I’ve seen ‘em murdered in all kinds of brutal ways, but this dame, that face, blasted at close range with a shotgun . . .”

Johnny Washbrook as Danny.

After some badinage between the cop and janitor’s son Danny Morgan (Washbrook), a character who serves to remind us that the saintly Laura suffered even the little children unto herself, we’re introduced to her old pal and mentor, journalist Waldo Lydecker (Sanders):

Danny: “. . . and as for that drip Lydecker.”
Waldo (entering):Mister Drip Lydecker to you, sonny.”

We’re told about Lydecker’s role in “creating” the successful businesswoman Laura by means of a quick riffle through her photograph album—McPherson tells the journalist he personally prefers the original Laura to the groomed version she became. Soon Laura’s fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Forbes) is on the scene, along with her maid, Bessie Clary (Clark, in a splendid but alas far too brief role).

Gloria Clark as Bessie.

On the finding of a half-consumed bottle of cheap bourbon in Laura’s otherwise uppercrust drinks cabinet, Bessie breaks down and admits that, after she came across the corpse and phoned the police, she discovered the offending hooch and two glasses by Laura’s bedside and cleared them away in order to protect her beloved mistress’s posthumous reputation.

George Sanders as Lydecker . . . in his bath.

Anyone who’s seen the Preminger movie—and I assume that’s all of us here—will know what happens next. Laura (Wynter) turns up very much alive: she spent the long weekend at her country cottage and, sans newspapers and radio, was unaware of the sensational murder case. As to the identity of the dead woman, it’s soon revealed that Carpenter—whom we’ve already sussed out as a cad—“borrowed” Laura’s apartment for naughtiness with one of the models at her firm, Diane Redfern (uncredited). Wearing Laura’s negligee, Diane answered an insistent buzzing at the apartment door and was rewarded by a shotgun blast in the face, which effectively disguised her identity—even from the murderer.

Dana Wynter as Laura.

McPherson’s suspicions as to the killer are in a constant state of flux—Lydecker? Carpenter? even Laura herself?—but eventually a lucky break reveals the truth . . .

McPherson (Robert Stack) subjects the woman he loves to the third degree.

As I’d anticipated, Robert Stack finds his feet are large enough to fill the big shoes worn by Dana Andrews in the earlier movie, and to my surprise I found that a similar assessment could be made of Dana Wynter’s performance in the role made iconic by Gene Tierney in Preminger’s adaptation. I’d expected to find myself dismissing Wynter’s portrayal as just a pale if well intentioned shadow of Tierney’s, but in fact it’s really quite effective in its own right.

Scott Forbes as Carpenter.

As for George Sanders as the substitute for Clifton Webb? In this aspect the later movie is less successful. I’m normally a great enthusiast for Sanders, and initially I thought he made an excellent Lydecker, through the simple gambit of playing the part in his usual George Sanders persona rather than attempting to compete on Webb’s own turf. Later in the movie, though, a certain hamminess comes to the fore, and it turns what should be some moments of high drama into, well, standard TV fodder.

Lydecker (George Sanders) hides in a cupboard.

Which is a pity, because otherwise A Portrait of Murder offers us a lot to like, not least Mel Dinelli’s screenplay, which contains a fair measure of wit—in both senses of the word. The movie’s obviously a must-watch, just because of its curiosity value alone, for any serious fan of the Preminger original; but it scores too as an enjoyable entertainment.

Stack and Sanders would reprise their roles in the much later Laura (1968 TVM) dir John Llewellyn Moxey and co-scripted by Truman Capote, with Lee Radziwill as Laura. For some while this version was thought to be a lost movie, but copies have since emerged. Obviously I’d be fascinated to watch it, as I would the German adaptation Laura (1962 TVM) dir Franz Josef Wild, with Hildegard Knef as Laura, Anton Walbrook as Lydecker and Hellmut Lange as McPherson.

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6 thoughts on “A Portrait of Murder (1955 TVM)

    • Wynter and Stack definitely hold their own against Tierney and Andrews. I’d expected Sanders to do better in the contest vs Webb than he does. But, all in all, it’s a more than creditable adaptation.

    • I was aware of this one and the German one, but was a bit surprised to learn of the later TVM. Sanders isn’t actually bad here; it may be that I was setting my standards unrealistically high for him while not expecting quite so much from the other two.

  1. I found this review surprising in a few ways:
    1. More than one version of “Laura”? Had no idea.
    2. I was expecting you to be contemptuous of this version, but was pleasantly surprised to read Stack and Wynter were very good – which shouldn’t be surprising at all.
    3. George Sanders gives way to hamminess? Say it ain’t so! That is too bad – he ought to know better.

    • I too expected this version to be pretty poor, but was pleasantly surprised. As for Sanders, it’s as if the others were fully aware of the stature of the original and he wasn’t, or perhaps he didn’t feel the original should be remade for a cheapo TV series and so was just taking the money and running. All just baseless conjecture on my part, of course.

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