Friday, March 26, 2010

#30: Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

Released: October 11, 1944

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.

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.


  1. The idea of the second half of this film as a dream makes sense. I need to see it again to see if it holds up. That possibility though may elevate this movie into even higher territory. I consider this Preminger's best picture. The comparison to Vertigo is apt and there is some definite similarities. I love films that have a dreamlike vibe and both Laura and Vertigo possess that. When Waldo enters Laura's apartment while his voice is speaking on the radio really has a great creepy vibe. Vincent Price also needs some praise as he does a great job in his role.
    On a different note I have been looking over older posts on your blog and noticed that your a big fan of The Assassination of Jesse James. I've been telling anyone that would listen how great this film is. Top Ten of the last decade. I reserve my number one spot though for another movie that came out in 2007 (a wonderful year for hollywood) Zodiac.....M.Roca

  2. What a great review Dave, very nicely done. LAURA certainly deserves prominent recognition. Preminger is probably one of the more erratic directors around, quality wise with great works (Anatomy of a Murder, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face) middle of the road stuff (River of no Return, Exodus )and just plain bad ( Skidoo, Such Good Friends). Toward the end of his career, his films really went down hill.

  3. Although at first glance, a #30 placement for this justly famous film (probably Preminger's absolute masterpiece, but it's a safe and popular choice) seems an injustice, but we've hit the creme de la creme at this point, so there are no slights or unfair positionings. There is really so much to say here, but there's nothing that you, I are anyone else hasn't said at other times. I love the suggestion of Preminger being imbued with an "Ophuls-like grace" and the masterful control throughout. And this is David Raskin's most celebrated score. It's funny, but it's uncertain noir credentials make it's inclusion on the countdown a debatable one (but it would be on mine too without a doubt) but it would place comparitively on a list of the greatests films in any genre.

    This is out and out one of your finest essays for this countdown for all sorts of reasons.

  4. Ah, a wonderful movie this most certainly is. I really liked Laura, not just because of the acerbic dialogues that were quintessentially noirish, but also because of the brooding presence of the supposedly dead pretty dame for most parts of the movie.

    In fact a number of critics have even stated that the latent necrophilia in McPherson. Though I feel that's stretching it too far, there's no denying the sexual tension that Laura created between the male characters, not just when alive but also when supposedly dead.

    By the way, I just loved the way you begun the piece, stating how the movie strongly conforms to the kind of movies you (and a lot of us, including yours truly) loves. Superb stuff there, Dave.

  5. Dave, I'll second Sam J. in citing Raksin's remarkable score, the theme being a kind of noir anthem. It practically opens a new topic of noir music that might best be saved for another time. As for the film, I'm surprised to see it this low, but it's been so long since I've seen it that I'm not sure where I'd rank it myself.

  6. Thanks for the shout-out Dave! I love Laura, and the idea that the second half of the film is some sort of fantasy or dream has to be at least half-true. What makes it such a great film, I think, is that the more times you watch it the more mysterious it becomes, and the harder it gets to discern what's real and what isn't.

  7. Dave, I hope you will forgive me for self-promotion, but here's my take on "Laura"'s weirdness:

  8. M.Roca - Thanks for the comments about Laura, they are excellent as usual. As for The Assassination of Jesse James, it is an all-time favorite film of mine. Zodiac is as well. I place Jesse James at #2 for the decade and Zodiac at #5, so I think very highly of both of them.

    John - Agreed on Preminger's spottiness... but when he's on top of his game, his films are outstanding.

    Sam - I agree, it's noir credentials are not the strongest. But it's another case where, it is so ingrained in the definition of noir that it simply belongs here. And yes, the rankings are ridiculously hard at this point. From here on out, the positioning is going to say more about my own taste than "greatness" or any other completely objective assessment. Thanks very much for the wonderful compliments on the article - it certainly is one that I am very proud of!

    Shubhajit - Interesting on the necrophilia. I agree, it seems like a definite stretch. But in terms of the general feeling, I think you're correct.

    Samuel - Rankings at this point will likely shock folks, as there will be some traditional classics a little lower than expected. But it's nothing but the best from here on in... luckily I get to rank them according to my own tastes!

    Doniphon - No problem... apologies for carelessly typing The Long Voyage "home". I do that often when typing about your blog, it's like an involuntary word that I add on to the end of it.

    Quirky Character - Not a problem at all... I will check out your article tonight.

  9. I just watched Laura for the second time today, and I'm glad that I'm not the only person who considered the chance of the second half being a dream. I was looking for extra hints to confirm that argument this time, but couldn't find enough to convince myself. Oh,'s a cool interpretation, still.

    I'm making an effort to watch more noirs (they're so good), so stumbling across your top 100 list will give me some other titles to dig up.

  10. Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) is the most incredible noir film I've ever seen in my whole life!