Director: Otto Preminger; Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt based on the novel by Vera Caspary; Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle; Music: David Raksin; Producer: Otto Preminger; Studio: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt), Dana Andrews (Mark McPherson), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter), Judith Anderson (Ann Treadwell)
- “I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes…”
Paraphrasing a response made by Goodfella’s regular Doniphon (who runs the outstanding The Long Voyage movie blog) in discussions concerning Martin Scorsese’s latest release Shutter Island, I remember him saying that there is something incredibly romantic and appealing about a man’s obsession with a lost or unattainable love. He made the remark while commenting on the fact that many of his favorite films are centered on such a theme. Our taste is quite similar in this regard and probably accounts for our passion for some of the same movies – Vertigo, The Black Dahlia, Shutter Island. This theme might be even more forceful in Otto Preminger’s classically elegant noir Laura. The degree to which Detective Mark McPherson wants to believe in the idealized portrait of the flawless Laura Hunt is unreal, to the point that whenever I watch the film I can’t help but wonder whether the second half of the film is in fact a fantasy.
Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is called into investigate the murder of advertising executive and New York City socialite Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He begins his investigation with the noted gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the man known to have “discovered” Laura. Gleaning all of his information through flashbacks, Lydecker recounts for McPherson how he met Laura and how the two grew incredibly close. Lydecker as the older uncle-like figure and Laura as the impressionable, bright-eyed newcomer to the big city. From Lydecker, McPherson then begins to hear the stories of the others closest to Laura. He meets Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s supposed fiancé, and the archenemy of Lydecker. The enmity between the two potential suitors is obvious. Also thrown into the mix is Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who is alarmingly close to her niece’s boyfriend. Each person paints a glowing picture of Laura, representing themselves as devoted to her. But there is something being buried by each witness, key details they want to keep from McPherson. Still, McPherson is infatuated by the portrait that has been painted of the victim. Accepting this romanticized idea, he actually begins to fall in love with this woman (or at least the personality) that he has never met. At the same time, the deeper that McPherson digs into her past, the more that he realizes any one of those around Laura could have been responsible for her downfall.
Vertigo seems the most apt comparison, at least to my mind. Stylistically, Laura is nowhere near as dark or expressionistic as a number of other noirs that appear in this countdown. The noir credentials are established by the uncertainty swirling around _everybody_ in the film. Is Laura really the angelic woman that each person seems to claim her to be? If so, then why would anybody plot her murder? The fact that everyone around Laura is trying to hide something, however innocuous, makes things even more ambiguous. The uncertainty of it all can be felt. Even though the actual character of Laura Hunt doesn’t appear in the flesh until well into the movie, the power of the presence dominates everything. The idea of what Laura represents becomes an obsession for every character. Lydecker obsesses over the doe-eyed young woman that he discovered. Shelby is a schemer, but he undoubtedly becomes fixated on the opportunities that Laura can open for him. McPherson quickly becomes mesmerized by Laura, for what exact reason I have never completely unraveled. But something about her completely consumes him. Obsession hangs over everything.
Otto Preminger is completely in control throughout. His camera moves with an Ophüls-like grace at times – just watch the times when it glides throughout Laura’s or Lydecker’s apartments, following everything that McPherson does as he performs his detective work. Things are so smooth, in fact, that I think it’s easy to take everything completely at face value and read the movie as one well-made whodunit. At the same time, I don’t know how popular such a view is, but I can’t help but at least see the possibility that Laura’s reemergence, very much alive, as being an extension of McPherson’s obsession. The way that Preminger films her entrance, with McPherson drifting off to sleep while staring at Laura’s portrait and then suddenly she appears as if from a dream, seems like a fantasy to me. I haven’t watched it closely enough to say whether such a reading actually holds up to real scrutiny, but I can’t help but feel a dreamlike quality to everything that happens after Laura’s hallucinatory entrance.
There isn’t a single weak performance in the film. In fact, there are a number of superlative ones, with Clifton Webb turning in one of the best aristocratically sleazy performances in all of noir. Laura remains a shining example of the studio system of the 1940s and a wonderful noir.