Laura (1944)


(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriters:from the novel by Vera Caspary/Jay Dratler/Samuel Hoffenstein/Betty Reinhardt; cinematographer: Joseph La Shelle; editor: Louis Loeffler; cast: Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt ), Dana Andrews (Mark McPherson), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter), Judith Anderson (Anne Treadwell), Dorothy Adams (Bessie Clary), James Flavin (McAvity), Clyde Fillmore (Bullitt); Runtime: 85; 20th Century-Fox; 1944)
“Laura is an elegant but campy B&W Who-Dun-What.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Laura” is an elegant but campy B&W “Who-Dun-What,” noted for its witty dialogue and exquisite romantic atmosphere depicted among the upper-class society types being confronted by a detective from the proletarian class. It is the first major film Preminger directed and arguably his best, in a film that he was originally fired from by 20th Century Fox’s studio head, Darryl Zanuck, only to be rehired after his replacement Rouben Mamoulian didn’t pan out. This didn’t stop the constant bickering between Otto and Darryl as the studio head wanted John Hodiak for the Dana Andrews part and he did not want newcomer Clifton Webb in the villain role, nor did he want first-time cinematographer Joseph La Shelle to do the photography. It is a good thing Otto won his argument, because his choices all did great jobs. Webb, LaShell, and Preminger all received Oscar nominations, with only the cinematographer winning. It should also be noted that Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt were nominated for best screenplay.

The French reviewers in the 1940s were the first to call this kind of dark thriller, a noir film. It is one of six or so films they named, with the prime model for noir being “The Maltese Falcon.” Though “Laura” was different in nature–it was not based on a hard-boiled novel–it still became a prototype for this emerging genre.

Laura” has a majestic bent to it exhibited from the very first scene, where a self-centered, debonair columnist/radio personality, with an acerbic wit, Waldo Lydecker (Webb), provides the voiceover as he sits in his bathtub writing Laura’s biography in his swank Manhattan penthouse. He also immediately impresses the viewer with his unsavory characteristics and sexual obsession with a woman who was just found murdered. He is being questioned about his relationship with Laura by the detective, Mark McPherson (Dana), who is his complete opposite. Mark is a ruggedly handsome, muscular type, who speaks in the common-man’s vulgar tongue as compared with the snobbish effete lingo of Waldo.

The efficient Detective McPherson wants to know about the details in the relationship between Waldo and the beautiful Laura, believing he can nail the murderer by knowing something about the woman killed. Waldo is portrayed as being obsessed with her, but their relationship was not a sexual one but one of friendship where she got her first break through him and she quickly moved up in the advertising world into a position of prominence through her own ability. She could now afford a luxury townhouse apartment and a maid. When the question of love gets kicked back to the detective by Waldo as he asks the detective if he’s ever been in love and he snappily retorts, “A doll in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once.”

In Laura’s place Mark sees the portrait of her and finds her to be captivating, but when asked by Waldo what he thinks he can only say: “Not bad!” Waldo volunteers information about how obsessed he is with her and jealous of her other boyfriends in the 5-years he knew her. He tells of Laura falling for the artist who painted her portrait and how he broke up that relationship by doing a hatchet job on the mediocre artist in his newspaper column, thereby getting Laura to come to her senses and see what a second-rate fellow he was. He also talks about her current boyfriend, Shelby Carpenter (Price), whom he despises as being someone who is a weakling, a scoundrel and a scam artist. Laura’s older aunt, Anne Treadwell (Judith), is in love with Shelby and doesn’t care if his character is rotten, even supporting the bankrupt society person from Kentucky with funds.

These three: the aunt, Shelby, and Waldo, are suspected by the detective, who in his relentless quest to get the murderer keeps digging into Laura’s life. He reads the love letters Waldo wrote her, her diary, and is curious about the gifts Waldo gave her such as the big clock in her parlor. He wonders about Shelby’s alibi and the lies he gets caught telling, and he wonders about the key to Laura’s apartment that Shelby said he didn’t have but which turns out he did have. He wonders if the aunt is capable of murdering someone to marry the man she wants.

The sexual nature of the three suspects also seems deviant, as homosexual aspects to their character furtively emerges in their mannerisms. The only straight people are the dead Laura and the cop who fell in love with her portrait.

The film brought out the following observable things about the suspects: Ann seems more masculine than feminine, Shelby appears to have stereotypical “gay” tendencies, while Waldo is a flaming bitch. They all exhibit, in the very least, a certain amount of sexual ambiguity.

The plot twist occurs when Laura returns home Monday evening and Mark is sitting in her living room, startled to see her. Recovering from his shock, he learns the body discovered was of the model. He quickly puts the puzzle together and learns that Shelby was with the model in the apartment and that when she answered the door the intruder fired a shotgun at point-blank range disfiguring her, which is why when the maid discovered the body it was wrongly identified. He now adds Laura as a possible suspect, believing jealousy could be her motive, as he catches her calling Shelby and secretly meeting him when she leaves her apartment after saying she wouldn’t.

This leads to a maddening melodramatic conclusion as the prissy lovers who both seem to be, oddly enough, sexually attracted to Laura — become the two most likely suspects. The film’s theme of obsession ends on a psychopathic note, showing which one is not willing to give up his ideal woman to the other. As for Mark, Laura was his ideal woman when he viewed her portrait thinking of her as dead but now that she is alive, the strong-willed and imperfect decision-making woman becomes a greater challenge; though, of all her other lovers, he probably stands the best chance of succeeding.

The performances of both Andrews and Webb were magnificent. The former’s charm coming with a subtle wink of an eye. His no-nonsense one complementing the caustic performance of Webb, who is viewed as someone ailing from a Pygmalion complex. Also adding to the film’s pleasing aesthetics was Preminger’s impassive direction and the arresting cinematography of La Shelle, creating a moody atmosphere and a provocatively twisted mise-en-scéne. It is hard to find fault with this very satisfying seductive thriller. The film even had a great theme song, written by David Raksin especially for the film, which takes the same name as the title.

The character Clifton Webb plays is remarkably similar to the daunting New York critic Alexander Woollcott, who presided at the famous Algonquin Round Table. In one scene, Webb is shown seated there when he first meets the self-promoting Gene Tierney.