In 1990 I showed my drawings for the first time, at Dito Gallery in Sacramento CA. A few days after the reception, my mother told me about a conversation she had had with a gentleman there regarding one of the pieces, one which depicted an attractive young woman. She also asked if I was familiar with the film Laura; I was not. She told me it was about a police detective who falls in love with a painting of the titular murder victim, and that the way the man spoke about my drawing had reminded her of it.
It wasn’t until several years later, after I was given a used VCR, that I was finally able to see Laura. I’m not really a movie guy; I can be in possession of a DVD I want to watch, and it can sit around for months before I put it in the player. However, there are some movies I like very much and can watch over and over again. Laura, directed by Otto Preminger and based on the novel by Vera Caspary, is one of those.
The conventional but attractive portrait, which is an integral plot device, is actually not a painting at all – a photograph of Gene Tierney was retouched to appear as one. There was a painting done, by original director Rouben Mamoulian’s wife-to-be Azadia Newman, but when Preminger took over the directorial role, he decided it didn’t possess the mystery and allure required, and had Tierney sit for studio photographer Frank Polony. Although I haven’t seen Newman’s Laura painting, I have seen her portraits of Bette Davis and Carole Lombard, which are a bit stilted – it’s obvious why Preminger made the decision he did. In the film, the portrait is the work of Jacoby, one of Laura’s would-be suitors. According to Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s mentor/benefactor, Jacoby is a second-rate artist at best, one who “never captured her vibrance, her warmth.” The painting itself belies this assessment, and calls into question Lydecker’s reliability as a narrator.
Although considered a film noir classic, Laura doesn’t employ many of the genre’s usual trappings – there is a lot of cigarette smoking and some nighttime rain, but very little in the way of skewed camera angles or stark shadows. Most of the scenes take place in lavish, well-lit apartments, not seedy residential hotels; the detective isn’t crooked or cynical, he’s amiable and often plays with a children’s puzzle; Laura wasn’t a femme fatale, at least not in any traditional sense – she was, as Bessie, her domestic, describes her, “a real fine lady.” Her charm and kindness engendered an obsessive dedication in the people who knew her, and her portrait has a similar effect on Detective McPherson.
Some portraits do seem to hold this power: based on Ingres’s stunning 1845 painting of her, I have no doubt that Comtesse Louise Albertine d’Haussonville was a woman I would have wanted to know. It’s one of my favorite portraits – one of my favorite paintings – ever done. I’m not sure exactly what effect my drawing had on the gentleman with whom my mother spoke, but according to her, he was overcome by a certain ardor regarding the woman in the piece. While I don’t think of the drawing as a portrait, per se, it is of a specific person, a captivating young woman with whom I was quite smitten. It was a good likeness, but more importantly, it felt like her; it captured some of “her vibrance, her warmth.” I haven’t seen her in well over twenty-five years, but nobody was rubbed out with a shotgun loaded with buckshot, so I’m one up on Jacoby.