Sep 261944

Laura is a stylish, funny, occasionally poignant film that makes little sense. It says a lot but means nothing, which works out just fine.

Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt, Ring Lardner Jr. (from the novel by Vera Caspary)
Produced by: Otto Preminger
20th Century Fox 1944
Runtime: 88 min

Cast: Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt), Dana Andrews (Det. Lt. Mark McPherson), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Ann Treadwell)

A Few Thoughts

Laura is a film about contrasts. First there are the rich Manhattan sophisticates verses the common-man. Then there are the pure, iconic genders verses the sexually ambiguous. The second one is where this movie gets interesting.

Oh, it has a plot, but it’s best not to dwell on it too intently. Beautiful Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been murdered and taciturn detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) sets out to solve the case. For much of the film (until the obvious twist), that means questioning the three suspects. His style of interview is odd to say the least. Most policemen don’t take along one of the suspects when they interrogate other suspects, but McPherson does. Most don’t leave a murder weapon at the crime-scene, but McPherson does. It is doubtful that director Otto Preminger, or any of the writers, spent even a minute attempting to make the criminal investigation realistic. The film might be better with a bit more consideration for actual police behavior, but probably not; this film isn’t about reality.

If Laura is about anything (and there is some question there), it is about gender roles. Laura represents a “perfected,” ultimate female. Her beauty captures all who gaze on her (or in the case of McPherson, gaze on her picture), but it’s more than her appearance. She has an aura of femininity that affects all. She is an idol to be worshiped for no other reason than simply because. McPherson represents masculinity. Testosterone oozes from him. He shows no emotion. He barely speaks and controls situations simply by his “manliness.” It is obvious that these two icons belong together and together they will make the dullest couple the world has ever seen.  Of course they have the problem of Laura being dead, but that’s just a detail.

The three suspects are everything our “heroes” are not.  Acerbic columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is a diva queen.  Playboy fiancée Shelby Carpenter (perfectly portrayed by Vincent Price) takes on both genders, while Aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) is a middle-aged woman far more masculine than feminine.  These three steal the film. They are caricatures, and a lot of fun, which makes this an unusual Film Noir, with the three interesting characters having much more to do with comedy than drama. Lydecker’s lines could be swapped with those of Sheridan Whiteside from The Man Who Came to Dinner with no alterations (and that film is no drama).

Laura would be a comedy of manners, if it was a comedy, but it prefers to tread a middle ground. It’s as if Preminger expected us to take the story seriously while giving us a cast of clowns and icons.

But there is a serious, almost haunting moment. McPherson sits alone in Laura’s apartment, gazing at her picture, and falls in love with a ghost. This man, who has loved no one, loves the dead goddess. It’s quite moving. It doesn’t mean anything, but it is the only time in the film when I could feel anything for McPherson, so that’s enough.

The film is also about obsession. The murder is committed due to an obsession, but it’s also solved because of one, so like the contrasts, Laura isn’t saying anything about obsession; it’s just presenting it.

Laura is a stylish, funny, occasionally poignant film that makes little sense. It says a lot but means nothing, which works out just fine.