Otto Preminger, 1944
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Andersom
Detective Mark McPherson is investigating the murder of advertising executive Laura Hunt, who was shot in the face with a shotgun in her New York apartment. The two main suspects are Waldo Lydecker, a famous newspaper columnist and radio personality, and Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s gold digging fiancé. It seems that Lydecker was obsessed with Laura and helped “make” her, picking out her clothes, bolstering her career, and introducing her to society. He became jealous when she met the younger and more attractive Shelby, helped get him a job at her ad agency, and began spending time with him. Shelby, in addition to his greed, selfishness, and questionable past, was likely having an affair with Ann Treadwell, Laura’s wealthy, older aunt, and Diane Redfern, a model working at Laura’s advertising agency.
As he immerses himself in her life, McPherson becomes obsessed with Laura and begins to fall in love with her. HERE COMES A BIG SPOILER, SO SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM. One night when he falls asleep in her apartment, Laura returns, much to his shock. It turns out that Diane Redfern was killed, either by Laura or accidentally in her place. McPherson must wade through his feelings for Laura, her story, which is full of lies and misdirection, and the remaining suspects in order to find the murderer.
Based on the novel by Vera Caspary, Laura started out as a very different film than it wound up becoming. Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was lined up to direct and allegedly George Sanders and Laird Cregar were supposed to co-star in the film (possibly replacing Price and Webb?). Otto Preminger was initially signed on as a producer, but was promoted to director after Mamoulian was fired. When Preminger took over the film, he rewrote part of the script and expanded Lydecker’s role, essentially making him the focus of the film. Thanks to Preminger, Laura was a success and remains his most beloved film next to Anatomy of a Murder (1959), about another woman named Laura. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (Fallen Angel) won an Academy Award for his wonderful work, Preminger was nominated for Best Director, and Clifton Webb was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, among other award nominations for the script and art direction.
Possibly the best thing about Laura is its complex script. None of the characters behave the way they are expected to, including the titular dead woman. It may initially seem strange or even incredulous that McPherson allows two of the key suspects to accompany him on the case and allow them to look for clues, but it is just more evidence of things going on beneath the film's surface. In many ways, this is more a film about style than substance and though certain elements may not make a lot of sense or may seem absurd, I think Preminger was intentionally using these to create a unique and pessimistic film about human obsession and perversion, in keeping with much of his later work.
There are also a number of powerful performances. Though somewhat quiet and reserved throughout the film, Dana Andrews (The Best Years of Our Lives, While the City Sleeps, Night of the Demon) is memorable as Detective McPherson. Though he is the most masculine force in the film, his character is overshadowed by the unabashedly effeminate Lydecker and Shelby, at least until Laura’s return, when he comes more to life. He and Tierney would again co-star in Where the Sidewalk Ends, another noir film where he stars as a detective in love with Tierney’s character.
I have read other critics complain that Gene Tierney (Heaven Can Wait, Tobacco Road, Leave Her to Heaven) drags down the film a little, but I think she is excellent and represents the main problem with Laura’s character: no one, including Laura, can tell the difference between the fantasy and the reality. In a sense, Lydecker has created her and the other characters in the film lack the ability to distinguish the real woman from the fantasy, McPherson and Shelby included. The ending is particularly pessimistic, because Laura is essentially exchanging Lydecker’s controlling and somewhat perverse, asexual fantasy of her for McPherson’s more hetero-normative fantasy.
The men obsessed with Laura are a strange and disturbing bunch. At times, Lydecker and Shelby seem gay, both in terms of mannerisms and behavior, though they both wish to possess Laura. They are concerned with their clothing, accouterments, and appearances. Both Vincent Price and Clifton Webb (The Razor’s Edge) play their roles with gusto, chewing scenery, throwing fits, and all around being as dramatic as possible. This was one of Price’s early roles, before he became a horror star, and in the formative years of his career he was in a number of noir films, including Fritz Lang’s When the City Sleeps, also with Dana Andrews. Though much of Price’s dialogue is basically Oscar Wilde-lite, he is an ineffectual womanizer, desperate for attention (and money) from anyone who will give it to him. Judith Anderson (Rebecca, And Then There Were None) is excellent as Ann Treadwell, another strange and perverse character who hopes to win Shelby from Laura despite their age difference. Shelby’s greed and infidelity makes no difference to her.
At its heart, this is a basic murder mystery dressed up with a noir elements, an unexpected twist, and some unusual and witty dialogue. Laura was one of film noir's precursors and it plays with the developing noir format, toying with some genre conventions and eschewing others (for example, there is no traditional femme fatale). The cocktail party at the end of the film where McPherson "reveals" the killer is taken from '30s detective fiction and cinema, such as The Thin Man series. Fans of neo-noir, such as Twins Peaks, will definitely want to watch Laura due to the obvious connection between the murder of Laura Hunt and the murder of Laura Palmer and the other characters’ fantasies and idealizations about both women -- portraits also play a major role in both.
Laura is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox and comes highly recommended. Though horror fans may not think it will appeal to them, this is an excellent, dark film about murder, identity, obsession and many themes also explored in the best of horror cinema.