Director Otto Preminger (middle) on the set with his cameraman Joseph LaShelle
The various looks of actress Gene Tierney
USA (88 mi) 1944 d: Otto Preminger
I shall never forget the weekend that Laura died.
—film’s opening line spoken by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb)
While generally regarded as a prominent example of film noir, placed on all the best noir lists, found at #20, The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Slant Magazine, listed at #15 by Graeme Ross at The Independent, 20 best film noirs: From Double Indemnity to Shadow of a ..., listed at #9 by Andy Crump, The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Paste - Paste Magazine, while the American Film Institute rates it at #4 in their mystery film category, AFI's Top Ten Mystery - AMC Theatres, and while it does contain extreme angles and dramatic lighting, this wasn’t shot with the German Expressionist film style that is at the root of noir, with stark contrasts between shadows and light (What is Film Noir? - The Film Noir Foundation), feeling more like a hybrid of noir and romance fueled by a murder mystery. It does, however, provide the pervasive overall mood of fatalism and doomed romanticism, including the death of the entitled character at the opening of the film. Released just a month after Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), which generated plenty of box office excitement and critical acclaim, the studios ushered in a new style of crime thriller shrouded in dark themes and a pervasive aura of cynicism. While Wilder’s film unpeeled layers of concealed treachery in the sunlit Southern California locale, Preminger took aim at the witty and urbane East coast, as exemplified by the smug and sophisticated newspaper columnist and radio host Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), seen typing out his spoken narrative while naked in a bathtub, living in an extravagant penthouse apartment defined by its ornate décor, giving it a museum appearance, with a drawing room accentuated by a large oil painting of “Laura” hanging over the fireplace, presenting the façade of an illusion as one of the prevailing themes. Under the Hays Code (Hays'd: Decoding the Classics — 'Laura' | IndieWire) censorship that regulated film content for nearly 40 years, depictions of homosexuality were forbidden, so gay characters were cloaked in innuendo. Intruding into this perfumed world comes hardened New York police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), a working class stiff (never once seen at the police station) investigating the brutal murder of Laura, shot before the movie began in the face by a shotgun blast. In contrast to Lydecker’s flowery language and effeminate style, seemingly pulled from the latest Noel Coward play, McPherson speaks the tough guy noir language, frank, directly to the point, like something right out of a Raymond Chandler novel, though the film is adapted from a serialized novel by Chicago crime author Vera Caspary, who typically merged a woman’s quest for identity and love with murder plots, introducing the story over seven installments in Collier’s magazine in 1942, republished in book form the following year while also turning it into a play, finally selling the book rights to Fox studios on the cheap after unsuccessfully shopping it around, becoming a box office smash hit. Caspary was outraged at Preminger’s portrayal of Laura, largely defined by how men perceived her, symbolized by the towering presence of that painting, which is barely mentioned in the novel, claiming the film omitted her strong individualism, which is the centerpiece of the story. Preminger was quoted with describing Caspary’s Laura as “a nonentity with no sex,” which prompted a Caspary response, “Do you mean she never got money out of men or mink or diamonds? That doesn't mean a girl’s sexy, Mr. Preminger, it just means she’s shrewd. My Laura knew how to love, enjoyed more than one lover, and enjoyed her lovers lustily.” These differences led to a feud, resulting in an infamous shouting match between the director and the writer at New York’s prestigious Stork Club.
Hard to believe this film was made during the war years, as there’s no sign of it anywhere, yet the film has a dazzling narrative style, filled with convoluted plot twists that are simply ingenious, along with expertly drawn characters, yet there’s an overall air of sophisticated romanticism that pervades throughout, elevated by a lush musical score written by David Raksin that weaves its way through the film. While Lydecker serves as a central narrator, providing the engaging backstory of Laura’s life, a successful advertising executive loved and respected by all, revealed in flashback sequences, the story expands, eventually told from the viewpoints of several narrators. What stands out, however, is the razor-sharp dialogue along with superb direction, casting a spellbinding allure over the audience, as every man seems to fall in love with Laura (Gene Tierney), even though she’s dead. Inventively leading viewers down multiple storylines, the common element seems to walk us through the threats and hazards a woman must confront in negotiating her way through a male world, where even McPherson seems to fall under her charms, as what he’s really investigating is the story of her life, caught in the web of a murder mystery, similar to Jimmy Stewart’s role in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), particularly his mad obsession with a dead woman, becoming a psycho-thriller exploring class, crime, and sexual politics. The enveloping characters stand out, including Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), exuding the smarmy sleaze of effete Southern charm, yet he’s a rich playboy (with bisexual suggestions) that never worked a day in his life, leeching off the success of Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell, played by Judith Anderson, admittedly gay, known for her role as the devious Mrs. Danver from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), in order to maintain his privileged lifestyle, yet viewed with suspicion by Lydecker, who suspects him all along. Carpenter spews derogatory comments at Lydecker, claiming he’s interfering in his relations with Laura, where their homoerotic in-fighting grows personal, developing a detestable odor. Lydecker’s supreme arrogance is key to unraveling his world, where his narcissistic behavior always centers around himself, with suggestions of homosexual leanings, as his only interest in Laura is strictly platonic, where she is more like arm candy, drawing attention to himself when seen together in public, so he takes her out as often as he can, keeping him in the public eye, jealous of any man she takes an interest in, wanting her all to himself. McPherson is more like the referee between these two sparring partners, where his sanity is perceived as the voice of reason. Nonetheless, he’s losing himself in all the drama and romantic mystique swirling around this woman, who’s too kind and polite, perhaps even angelic to be considered a femme fatale, yet it’s curious how much attention she draws even from the grave. So it comes as a bewildering surprise when out of nowhere she simply walks into the room, startling McPherson and viewers, changing the entire perspective of the story, which must be reevaluated in a different light, altering how we view each character, with everyone now seemingly suspect in a case of mistaken identity. It’s a bizarre plot twist that is exceedingly rare in Hollywood movies, elevating the stature of the film, even with an emotionally flat performance from Dana Andrews and a miraculous build-up of Laura’s idealized character that few actresses could live up to, including Gene Tierney, who’s a bit too wholesome and naïve, not truly aware that she’s running in the company of sharks.
Caspary’s criticisms are justified, as Laura can be assertive, but remains overly passive, continually defined by the men that surround her, lacking the fierce individualism that they exhibit, or even other comparable women of the genre, like Barbra Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Joan Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE (1945), Lana Turner in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), or Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), all of whom tower over her in stature, which actually prevents this film from more consideration into the hallowed grounds of cinema. Still, Laura’s saving grace, just like the others, is to be underestimated by men who wrongly view her as inferior. The tenets of film noir allow these female characters to expand their roles, becoming part of the collective American consciousness, challenging the romantic notion of love and marriage as a fantasy, given the extreme postwar disappointment of having to live in a cruel and nightmarish world, offering instead a grim or fatally-tinged notion of romanticism. There is a certain ambiguity surrounding ambitiously flawed noir women, more detached, no longer complacent, yet capable of savoring the fruits of their labor, earning money with regularity and enjoying the empowerment it brings. This newfound independence can be an eye-opening revelation or a confusing threat to men who still view women “in their place,” as power overall is still defined by men, remaining a patriarchal society, yet there’s something altogether attractive about the idea of a better or more equitable balance of power, where women’s behavior is legitimized as equal in every sense. Laura is a beautiful career woman, but remains misunderstood by every man in the film, as if she’s simply too mystifying, yet she strives to break out of that stranglehold of misconception, continually defined even throughout history as a femme fatale, suggesting a fatalistic outcome. While she is mentored as a businesswoman by Lydecker, not that different than how men succeed in business, receiving help from influential people, she quickly rises up the corporate ladder, eventually living on Park Avenue, yet it’s harder for her to be accepted into “the boy’s club.” For most of the film it remains unclear not only who committed the murder but who the real victim is, where this same mystery surrounds Laura’s interior motives, rewritten by Hollywood screenwriters into a sexless creature, seemingly attracted to the wrong type of men, a closeted homosexual and a gigolo fiancé, both attracted to her beauty, but clueless to her other traits. Men in noir films see themselves as the protagonists, men of action, with visions of heroism, while women are seductive, more pliable and passive. When the women stand up for themselves with their own plan of action, there is inevitably a meeting of the minds, a dramatic impact, where people react to failure and disappointment differently, as some are immediately threatened, as it changes their view of themselves, altering their behavior. How this plays out is through a fatal attraction, where it’s most curious that the leading male suspects may themselves be queer, an unconventional portrait of masculinity, particularly in a noir film, though representative of the cultured upper class, with each behaving like jilted lovers, veering more into an Agatha Christie whodunit, where someone is disturbed enough to go off the rails, violating all moral boundaries, where they’re perfectly capable of committing crimes, even murder. This descent into the moral abyss is at the heart of film noir, offering a malignant view of existence, though there are incredulous suggestions of a happy ending.