I’ve always associated the American actor Vincent Price (1911–1993) with horror films. His work in Gothic features like House of Wax (1953), The Tingler (1959), and Pit and the Pendulum (1961) seem to align perfectly with his creepy voice and slithering screen persona. And I mean slithering as a compliment, because he brought a lot of skill to acting lecherous. In the 1944 Twentieth-Century Fox film Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, Price takes unctuous to a whole new level.
Laura is a film noir classic starring the gorgeous Gene Tierney as Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive who is murdered—at the start of the film. Laura’s murder is being investigated by the circumspect detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) who questions just about everyone in Laura’s circle to uncover clues to her death. Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is the bon vivant newspaper columnist who took a young and unsophisticated Laura under his wing, showing her how to dress, interact at social engagements, and build her fame. Laura was thankful for Waldo’s guidance, but she made it clear her affections were of the platonic sort and nothing more. The next suspect is Laura’s oily fiancé, Shelby Carpenter. Vincent Price’s Shelby is a gigolo and con man rolled into an ill-fitting double-breasted suit. He’s somewhat soft all over; his lips are pillow-like, his speech is honey-dripping, and he prefers fine food, fine wine, and rich women. It’s difficult to figure out why the self-sufficient Laura, who always shoots from the hip, would even look twice at this sycophantic loser. Not only is Shelby about to marry Laura, he is also the not-so-platonic companion of Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who hands over a monthly allowance to Shelby in exchange for his intimate attentions.
Vicent Price is hardly a romantic figure in Laura, and director Otto Preminger was canny to cast him totally against type, reinforcing Shelby’s mendaciousness. Price’s pairing with the lithe Gene Tierney seems incongruous, all broad shoulders and massive hands to her delicacy. And Price, at 6’4″, also stands a shoulder taller than most of the actors, forcing him to look down on the others, further isolating him from his co-stars. Finally, there is a languid, lingering drawl that oozes out of Shelby’s mouth, in stark counterpoint to the clipped, rapid, smart speech of the other actors, all playing sophisticated New Yorkers. Price was no Southerner, and the drawl he developed to underscore his character’s drowsy speech pattern is deliberately artificial and annoyingly fawning. He’s utterly convincing as a penniless, unemployed, stereotypical, film noir Kentucky colonel who is drawn to Laura’s money.
One of the hidden thrills of Laura is watching Price wonderfully cast against type as a destitute Kentucky aristocrat. Shelby Carpenter is everywhere in this movie. He turns up at all of the glossy parties, cocktail hours, and gracious open houses looking for a new patroness, gourmet meal, or glass of expensive wine. When detective McPherson is around, Shelby always looks guilty. So is he, or is it just the malleability of Vincent Price’s long face? With every alibi—and they tend to be whoppers—Shelby digs his own grave deeper and deeper. Imagine recasting Shelby with Gregory Peck, William Holden, or Robert Mitchum, who could all convincingly carry out the Southern accent and wear a dinner jacket with elegance and ease. With these other fellows in the role of Shelby Carpenter it would seem much more plausible when Aunt Ann slips him a considerable allowance each month for his attentions!
Price was flawless in the many horror films that came to fill his long résumé. As Politico’s Ben Parker attests, “No one plays a confused wreck of a former aristocrat like Price.” But alas, we’re left with Vincent Price as Laura Hunt’s dodgy main man.