A twisted and twisting tale of obsession and murder, Otto Preminger’s Laura is film noir dynamite. This 1944 motion picture was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor. It eventually scooped the award for Best Cinematography thanks to the scintillating work of Joseph LaShelle.
Because Laura is a film about obsession, it takes liberties with little details like common sense. Characters don’t act rationally around the titular character and her presence is a continual sparkplug for damn near everyone she encounters. Her searing presence goes so far as to impact the construct of the picture itself, as the identity of the murderer and the details of the crime seem almost incidental.
Dana Andrews stars as New York cop Mark McPherson. He’s investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). McPherson first visits the columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a haughty sort who was Laura’s mentor and wanted to be so much more. Laura was however engaged to Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a playboy sort benefitting from the monies of his aunt (Judith Anderson).
McPherson works through the case, learning about Laura from Lydecker. The columnist advanced Laura’s career in advertising and turned her into a social figure, but he grew jealous of her suitors and ripped them apart in his articles. McPherson’s obsession grows and soon Lydecker accuses him of falling in love with the dead woman. And everything changes when Laura makes her presence felt again.
The characters are the thing in Laura, a psychological maze of a motion picture that deepens in its complexities and perversities as it rolls along. David Raskin’s score plays this to the bone, with uneasy and haunting movements offset by the odd drive of nostalgia. And the performances are spot-on, for the most part.
Webb is the clear highlight as Lydecker and he narrates the film in what can best be termed an ironic bit of work. His tendency toward the effusive serves him well, especially considering his self-obsession. The only person he obsesses over more is Laura, but even that was a tenuous sell at first. He details her initial approach to him while he dines, obsessing over his lunch and ignoring the lovely lady at his table.
Price’s Carpenter is an interesting contrast in that he’s, to use Lydecker’s description, a “lean” threat to all that the writer holds dear. He’s innocuous to an extent, like a puppy dog, and he wants Laura like every other man in the movie does. Price plays the part well, volleying his time between fixating on Laura and “maintaining the fiction” of his own quality.
Andrews’ McPherson first stands as the audience’s guide to sorting through this mess, but he quickly becomes enmeshed in the ether of Laura as well. He hangs out in her apartment, the scene of the crime, and reads her letters and private diary. He sits below a big portrait of her, drinks from her glass. He wants the dame, but she’s dead. Unattainable. Right?
Most film fans know the answer to the above question. The object of such a trifecta of obsession is played by Tierney with a sort of removed glory, which suggests her allure comes from other forces. Perhaps that’s part of the allure, that Tierney’s Laura isn’t irresistible to the naked eye but is absolutely and irreversibly enticing in the eye of the hurricane.
There are so many interesting scenes in Laura, so many moments that pack in gallons of subtext. Consider McPherson’s initial meeting with Lydecker. Dude’s in the bathtub and the cop looks at him with a glimmer of amusement. Dude gets out of the bathtub, asks for his robe, obscured from the audience by the typewriter. But the policeman gets the full Lydecker, an odd move to say the last.
There are no answers to these odd moves, to Preminger’s flaring intimations. The ambiguities add to the atmosphere of Laura, creating a miasma of eccentricity. The movie is unnerving, from the shards of music that barely curve into range to the performances to the interior of the apartment wherein the crime and punishment takes place.
Is Laura a perfect film? Yes and no. It’s impeccable because of its flaws and the total mania adds to the disconcerting thrust of the proceedings. It’s troubling and tenacious without being overt or coy about it. It’s an askew diorama of a woman’s life and its upshots. There’s nothing remarkable about this woman, yet everything’s remarkable about her. Trying to sort through these convolutions is the name of the game.