“The story of a love that became the most fearful thing that ever happened to a woman!”
Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb
Synopsis: A police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating.
Otto Preminger’s film noir Laura (1944) is one of those movies that really shouldn’t be as good as it is. The story makes little practical sense, even for a movie made in the 1940s, when the depiction of accurate police procedures wasn’t allowed to get in the way of a cracking good yarn and a movie detective’s breaking of the rules usually painted him as a bad guy rather than a maverick. In Laura, the hero is something of an insipid dullard with little character or drive, and the heroine has no more personality than the portrait of her that hangs above the fireplace of her swanky apartment. He pursues an investigation into her apparent murder with all the professionalism of the Scooby Doo gang, mopes around the murder scene to drink the victim’s liquor, and leaves vital evidence lying around to pick up next time he’s passing. But two things raise Laura above the ordinary: Clifton Webb’s wonderfully vitriolic Waldo Lydecker, and Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s unlikely penniless suitor.
Dana Andrews is the detective in question. His name is Mark McPherson, and we first meet him as he looks disapprovingly around the apartment of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an acidic society columnist (‘I don’t use a pen,’ he claims at one point. ‘I use a goose quill dipped in venom.’). Lydecker was a friend of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who was shot in the face at close range by an unknown assailant. In fact, he was more than a friend, although Lydecker is quite possibly gay (he was based on theatre critic Alexander Woollcott who, despite having many female friends, was believed to be impotent) making unlikely the possibility of any sexual relationship with Laura. When we — and McPherson — first meet Lydecker he’s typing naked in the bath. It’s a scene that serves notice of the ambiguity of his nature and makes him such a rich and fascinating character. He is slight, almost puny, but he possesses a super-human arrogance which blinds him to any impression he might make on those around him. That he should fall under the spell of the colourless Laura is perhaps one of the few mysteries the movie fails to address satisfactorily.
Although Lydecker is clearly a suspect in the murder of Laura Hunt, McPherson obligingly allows the writer to accompany him as he pays a visit on society hostess Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), another suspect, and while at her apartment he encounters Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a third suspect. Depending on whether you believe Lydecker or Carpenter, the Southern gent may or may not have been Laura’s fiancee at the time of her death. He’s eager to help but McPherson keeps catching him in small lies which are at odds with his ingratiating manner, suggesting that perhaps Laura had jilted him. Meanwhile, Ann makes no secret of her infatuation with Shelby — even though he seems oblivious to it — making her another prime suspect.
The big twist in Laura comes while McPherson, who, having heard from Lydecker the story of how he and Laura became friends, mooches around her apartment one night. He is troubled, and it slowly becomes apparent that he has fallen for the dead woman. Slumped in her armchair, he briefly falls asleep, only to be awoken by the murder victim herself, nervously demanding to know who he is. Although it seems that McPherson must be dreaming it soon becomes apparent that Laura was not the woman murdered in her apartment a few nights before…
The plot’s as daft as it reads on paper, and the fact that it takes itself so seriously should be a fatal flaw. But somehow it draws us in and allows us to overlook just how nonsensical its plot is. Webb, in his first movie role in fourteen years, dominates every scene he’s in, thanks to the kind of part that comes along only once in a career — and even then only to the very fortunate. He embraces the part with relish and casts aside any attempts at parity with the savage wit of his withering put-downs. Andrews, normally such a reliable actor, plays his part like a sub-par Bogie, barely parting his lips to speak his lines. Perhaps he’s in character, but his performance just leaves us with the impression that here’s a man who simply wouldn’t be able to work up the enthusiasm to fall in love. Tierney is an unfortunate casting choice. She looks gorgeous, but never convinces us that she possesses that spark which draws men so effortlessly to her flame. Like Webb, Price is a touch too effeminate but gives an alluring performance as the penniless playboy. Can there be any doubt that, with Laura no longer available, he’ll settle for the wealthy comforts of the wretched Ann Treadwell?
Laura is one of those movies that they just don’t make any more — largely because anyone trying to pass off such an outlandish plot as serious drama simply wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. For this reason, it’s exclusively of its era, and serves as a sumptuous reminder of how Hollywood could once dress up any old nonsense and pass it off as finest gold.
(Reviewed 11th May 2013)