West Germany / 110 minutes / bw / Bayerischer Rundfunks, Riva Studios Dir & Scr: Franz Josef Wild Pr: Werner Preuss Story: Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary Cine: Günter Kropf Cast: Hildegard Knef, Adolf Wohlbrück (i.e., Anton Walbrook), Hellmut Lange, John van Dreelen, Hillie Wildenhain, Wolf Schmidtholstein, Nora Minor, K.G. Gensichen, Thomas Alder.
A while ago I wrote here about another adaptation of Caspary’s novel, A Portrait of Murder (TVM 1955) dir John Brahm, with Dana Wynter, George Sanders and Robert Stack, and, glancing at that entry just now, I couldn’t help but feel that its opening paragraph, minus a few words, is exactly apposite here:
. . . 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 . . . not her body.
The basics of the story are well known. Professional woman Laura Hunt (Knef) is believed murdered. Investigating cop Mark McPherson (Lange) becomes, through the portrait of the “dead” woman that’s hanging on her wall, infatuated with the woman herself—or at least with who he imagines her to be. But then Laura turns up very much alive, having spent a few days incommunicado in the country, and it emerges that the murdered woman, rendered unidentifiable because the shot tore off her face, was actually Laura’s friend Joyce Madden, to whom she lent her apartment for the weekend.
Mark assumes Joyce was murdered in error and that the real target was Laura. Prominent suspects include her snobbery-driven old friend Waldo Lydecker (Walbrook), a crime writer and columnist who’s quick with the sarcasm and bons mots; and Shelby Carpenter (van Dreelen), her improbable, bit-of-rough fiancé. Also in the frame is caretaker’s son Danny Dorgan (Schmidtholstein), who’s become besotted with Laura under the guise of sharing her love for modern jazz; his mother (Minor) loathes Laura for, as she sees it, subverting Danny’s burgeoning future as a classical pianist.
The other principal cast member here is Hillie Wildenhain who, as Laura’s maid Bessie, turns in an immensely engaging performance. It stands out all the more because, Knef notably excepted, some of the other acting is surprisingly ropy. Lange’s mood swings are embarrassingly overacted, so that at one moment he’s cloyingly ingratiating and the very next he’s hard-headed and gimlet eyed, without any transition between the two. Meanwhile Walbrook hams incorrigibly . . . even for Waldo Lydecker. His Waldo is so insufferable you can’t believe Laura didn’t years ago sock him one in the eye and tell him to be on his way.
Knef offers us a very different Laura from Tierney’s in the Preminger adaptation. This Laura is far earthier, far more sensual, and it’s made clear she has a Past to match. It takes Mark a little while to adapt to the fact that she’s not the ideal woman he imagined from staring in infatuation at her portrait. We thus have not one but two men who’re in some sense aggrieved that Laura refuses to conform to their image of her: Mark and Waldo. Mark very quickly adapts to the situation; Waldo, it’s clear, never will.
Rather than being translated to Germany, this version retains the setting of NYC; we even have usages like “Mrs. Carpenter” and “Mr. Lydecker” in place of “Frau Carpenter” and “Herr Lydecker.” I suppose that, it having been decided to stick with the character names of the original, it would have perhaps disconcerted a German audience to have these people operating in, say, Bonn.
The movie’s staged almost entirely on a single set: the main floor of Laura’s apartment. There are brief exceptions, as when example when we glimpse the other end of McPherson’s terse phone conversations with his boss, Hendricks (Gensichen), but otherwise we’re rooted to the same set. This gives the proceedings a very theatrical air, which led me to speculate that what we have here might be a filmed version of a stage production, a hypothetical German presentation of the play Laura (1948) by Caspary and George Sklar; that might explain some of the stagy performances, too.
Among the many differences between this treatment and Preminger’s is the lack of prominence given to the portrait. When we’re finally given a glimpse of it, it’s not hard to guess why this should be.