Synopsis: This is gripping and lushly photographed film noir, one of the most acclaimed mystery thrillers of all time. Jealousy, passion and blackmail surround the murder investigation of the stunning Laura (Gene Tierney), leading to one of the most surprising twists the screen has ever seen.
eyelights: its delightful cast. its enigma. its third act twist. its cinematography.
eyesores: Laura’s fickleness. its unlikely bits. its simple whodunnit quality.
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.”
Laura Hunt is dead. Not just dead: she’s been murdered.
But who killed her?
Is it Waldo Lydecker, her closest friend? He who seems to know too much, wants back some of the gifts he gave her and seems in love with her?
Is it Shelby Carpenter, her fiancé? He who is cash-strapped, manipulative and dishonest?
Is it Ann Treadwell, Shelby’s lover? She who supports Shelby but plays second fiddle to Laura?
Is it Bessie Clary, her maid? She who is utterly devoted to Laura, if not downright obsessed?
Is it Mark McPherson, the police detective? He who mysteriously develops a crush on her?
Or… is it Laura herself? She whose story simply doesn’t add up?
‘Laura’ is a 1944 film noir by Otto Preminger based on the eponymous novel by Vera Caspary. It’s one of the most acclaimed murder mysteries in cinema, having been nominated for a handful of Academy Awards and recognized by the U.S. National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.
It’s a classic.
The picture essentially follows the investigation of Laura’s death, from Detective McPherson’s first encounter with Lydecker, to his interviews with all the other potential suspects, one by one, with Lydecker in tow – who wants the information for his journalistic reports in the paper and on the radio.
Through these interviews, we get to know not only the people in Laura’s life (in as much as they’re willing to reveal themselves to a flatfoot) but Laura herself, as they collectively paint a portrait of her. What we find is an ambitious advertising agent with a knack for falling for the wrong men.
In a scene that was inexplicably abridged by the studio at the time, we are shown in flashback that Laura first approached Waldo for his endorsement of a product she represented and how that led to him taking her under his wing. With his connections and knowledge, she quickly blossomed.
Interestingly, the extended version is only one minute longer than the theatrical version, and yet it more properly fleshes out Laura’s development at Waldo’s hands. Not only that, but the edited version is abruptly cut and feels a bit wonky. So the extended version is quite clearly the better of the two.
(Thankfully, both versions are available via seamless branching on the DVD and BD releases)
The performances in ‘Laura’ are theatrical, but since this is to be expected from the period, they are contextually excellent. I was pleasantly surprised by how skillfully Vincent Price made Shelby congenial yet smarmy, given how often he’s played villainous roles or hammed it up in his illustrious career.
But the most interesting performance has got to be Clifton Webb’s as Waldo Lydecker; he gave the journalist enough authority and self-assuredness that his entitlement and snobbery seemed natural. What’s interesting about his turn, though, is that there’s an underlying sexual ambiguity about Waldo.
It’s hard to know what to make of him, given his attachment to Laura.
Laura is played by Gene Tierney, who makes her mysterious but doesn’t truly justify everyone’s adoration. Meanwhile, Judith Anderson offers a forceful turn as Ann – so much so that Preminger had to tone her down. And Dana Andrews transforms McPherson into a plodding gumshoe with little charm.
Ultimately, McPherson decides to hold a large gathering, a cocktail party to which all of Laura’s friends are invited so that he may reveal the killer. This is a trope of the genre but it’s given a small twist that added freshness. Though at first we’re expecting a run-of-the-mill whodunit, there’s a bit more to it.
The dialogues in particular are like fresh ground pepper, adding spice to the proceedings. While they’re not of ‘The Thin Man‘ caliber, there are a number of noteworthy witticism, frequently from the sharpened tongue of Waldo, who is clever and sardonic; his observations and put-downs are a delight.
And that’s partly why ‘Laura’ remains enjoyable to this day. Granted, some minor plot elements are dubious, but it nonetheless holds up and rises above its peers. And though none of the cast and crew expected it to stand out in any way when it was made, over 70 years later it remains highly-regarded.
Unlike Laura’s murder, its longevity is no great mystery.
Date of viewing: March 30, 2017