Machiavelli wrote that “it is better to be feared than to be loved.” The title character of this film should have read more about political philosophy and less about fashion. Too many people just loved her to death…or at least tried.
A classic psychological film noir, Laura is one of the best films Otto Preminger ever made. Yet, the plot of Laura seems quite simple when you compare it to the behind the scenes plot that unfolded daily at 20th Century Fox. First Preminger was to direct; then studio head Darryl Zanuck fired him and replaced him with Rouben Mamoulian. Then Mamoulian was fired (nothing new for him) and Preminger was rehired. Then they argued over the cast. Zanuck wanted John Hodiak to play Detective McPherson and Preminger wanted Dana Andrews. Zanuck also tried to put the nix on Clifton Webb (who ended up being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and first-time cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (who won the film’s only Academy Award for his photography), who replaced Lucien Ballard after Mamoulian was fired. In the end, Preminger won most of the battles and his film garnered five Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, Best Art Direction (Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, and Thomas Little), and Best Screenplay (adapted from the Vera Caspary novel of the same name by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt).
There are many elements that make this a prime example of a film noir. Parasitic and morally bankrupt characters run (well-heeled) rampant through the posh drawing rooms of New York City while an unconventional detective tries to unravel the sordidness of it all. There is a chilling theme song, “Laura” (which was inspired by a Dear John letter that composer David Raksin’s wife left him), that is unforgettable. And then there is the pristine black and white cinematography of LaShelle, which incorporates both shadows and an ethereal essence. And to top it all off, you have some of sharpest and outright acidic dialogue ever imagined. All of these elements combined make it one of the best film noirs ever.
The film opens with that haunting theme song and a shot of an even more haunting portrait of a woman we soon learn, via voiceover by society columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), was named Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney in a role turned down by both Jennifer Jones and Hedy Lamarr)—was being the key word, as she is now dead (sort of). After waxing poetic in his bathtub about his relationship with the recently murdered beauty, Lydecker invites Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) in for a friendly chat, where Lydecker nominates himself as the most logical sidekick in hunting down the murderer (even if he himself is a suspect!).
Next suspect: Laura’s rich, spinster Aunt Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson). We soon learn that Aunt Anne has a thing for Laura’s would-be fiancée Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a Southern gentleman who deposits a lot of checks with the the aunt’s name on them. A classic line from Lydecker suggests the proper aunt lost money playing craps, but it is quite obvious to the audience that she pays for Shelby’s favors. On cue, Shelby enters and is insulted by Lydecker, who reveals that Laura was rethinking “throwing her life away on a male beauty in distress.” Thoroughly insulted (and insinuated as yet another suspect), Shelby accompanies Lydecker and McPherson to Laura’s apartment. At the deceased’s residence we find two identical items from Lydecker’s apartment in Laura’s apartment: a grandfather clock and that eerie portrait of Laura.
Later, Lydecker and McPherson head off to dine at Waldo and Laura’s special table, where Lydecker reminisces (via flashback) of happier days. They’d met five years earlier when career-minded Laura had asked him to endorse a pen promoted by her advertising agency. At first he had snubbed her, but then he changed his mind and not only endorsed the pen but decided to make her his protégé. From that point on, Lydecker was in the business of molding Laura into the most unforgettable woman ever. The problem was he didn’t want to share her with anyone, so if someone came into the picture he got rid of them. First, it was the portrait painter Jacoby, whose artistic talent (or lack thereof) Lydecker ridiculed in his column. Then, there was Shelby, who Lydecker found utterly reprehensible and suggested to Laura that she look into his background before marrying him. It was soon revealed that Shelby was a cad of the first order, carrying on an affair with Diane Redfern, a model at the agency, and also cozying up to Aunt Anne. Soon after these revelations, Laura decided to go to her country home to reconsider her marriage plans. Alas, it was the last time Lydecker heard her voice.
Back at Laura’s apartment, McPherson encounters the maid, Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams), who reveals she found a cheap bottle of whiskey in Laura’s bedroom the night she was killed. He also encounters the gruesome threesome who have come to determine what belongs to whom. Lydecker wants a few things back that he “lent” Laura: an antique fire screen, a “priceless” vase, and the same grandfather clock he already has in his own apartment.
As time passes, McPherson, who has taken to sulking in Laura’s apartment alone, starts to become obsessed with the portrait. On one of his many visits, Lydecker accuses the detective of falling in love with a dead woman and predicts that he’s headed for the asylum. Oh, but wait…she’s not dead, as we and the detective soon learn when she returns to her apartment one stormy night to find a strange man asleep in a chair next to her portrait. She is surprised to learn that she is dead, since she seems to be still breathing. Evidently the face that had been blown off by the shotgun wasn’t hers. But whose was it? Well, when Laura finds one of Diane Redfern’s dresses in her closet the obvious choice seems to become clear. Now, Laura is a suspect for the murder of Diane. McPherson orders Laura not to contact anyone, but like any “dame” she does the opposite and calls Shelby. This tips McPherson off to the fact that Shelby might be the killer and he follows him to Laura’s country home, where he finds him with a shotgun in his hands. Shelby admits that he took Diane to Laura’s apartment to break it off, but that he was out of the room when the doorbell rang. Whoever was at the door Diane answered was the killer.
The next day at Laura’s apartment, Lydecker is in for a shock when he finds Laura alive and well. It’s such a terrible shock that he faints straight away. Soon after being revived a party is planned, where all the depraved guests suspect one another of murder. Yet, only one is arrested: Laura. Escorted to the police station by McPherson (who is obviously obsessed with having her to himself), Laura finds herself given the standard bright light interrogation. The problem is McPherson only wants to find out if Laura is in love with Shelby. Really!!! Once he ascertains that she’s not, they leave. Really!!! The lighting in this scene is marvelous and conveys oodles about both McPherson and Laura’s motivations. First, the use of the two bright lights spotlight the intense beauty of Laura. Then, after the lights are turned off, Gene Tierney just seems to glow.
While McPherson is checking out Lydecker’s apartment and finally realizing that the grandfather clock in Laura’s own apartment might hold the murder weapon, Laura is being verbally reprimanded by Lydecker in her apartment for her possible attraction to the detective. So, when the detective arrives at her apartment and Laura gives Lydecker the heave-ho, Lydecker is politely furious. When he leaves the apartment he casts a large shadow on the wall—foreboding? As soon as Lydecker’s gone, McPherson checks Laura’s clock and finds the gun. Setting off to arrest Lydecker, McPherson leaves Laura with a kiss and tells her to get some sleep. Believing the detective gone, Lydecker (who has been hiding in the hallway) creeps back into the apartment to murder Laura. For some reason, the detective put the gun back in the clock! Anyway, as he’s reloading the gun he hears his own voice on Laura’s radio; it’s his broadcast on History’s Great Lovers. With the cops beating down the door, Lydecker points the gun at Laura and says they will be together forever…fortunately for Laura she has good reflexes and she deflects the gun as it goes off. What I find particularly odd about what transpires after the police fatally wound Lydecker is that Laura runs to his side to console him. Really? This man has tried to kill you twice and you run to him? Anyway, with Lydecker’s dying words, “Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love” and another haunting still shot of the Laura portrait the film ends.
The story itself is marvelous. You have a case of mistaken identity with the murder and the shocking reappearance of the murder victim. I would have liked to have been in the audience when Gene Tierney turned that light on back in 1944—I’m sure it startled some.
Besides the wonderful plot, you have a no-nonsense detective who becomes obsessed with his beautiful dead victim and a whole cast of venomous creatures. The callousness of Judith Anderson’s Aunt Anne is both appalling and delightful to watch. Vincent Price’s interpretation of a Southern ladies man is quite comical. Gene Tierney plays the femme fatale well by exuding an icy coolness that just scorches the screen at times. And, when it comes to Clifton Webb, it is difficult to believe this was his first sound film. Webb is just delightful as a bitter, homosexual who hates all masculine men and will stop at nothing to keep them away from his Laura. There are many ways to look at his obsession with Laura. Personally, I think he created her to be the woman he wished he could be (his other self) and didn’t want anyone to come between them because he would be separated from his one true love: his feminine self. But that’s just my theory, I’m sure you have your own. Whatever may be the case, this is a classic film noir.