Laura August 28, 2016
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” narrates Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) at Laura’s introduction. “For when she died, I was alone.”
Like the majority of the characters to have crossed our eponymous tragic heroine’s (Gene Tierney) path before her untimely demise, the aging columnist Lydecker was not merely in love with this woman: he was also infatuated by her every move, hypnotized to the point of teetering on insane-asylum-sanctioned madness. His creeping voiceover doesn’t give off the effect of a man distraught by suddenly crippled admiration — he sounds like a formerly raging, white Persian-stroking Svengali whose demeanor has cooled now that his control has withered away. Lydecker might underline our first impression of the film, but his disembodied, Shakespearean eloquence gives off distinct unease.
Laura, released in 1944 and produced and directed by the incomparable Otto Preminger (Fallen Angel, Anatomy of a Murder), concerns itself with the investigation of the titular figure’s murder, sliding along silkily as Agatha Christie-esque puzzlings pervade the atmosphere. Here, the question isn’t who murdered Laura Hunt. Why she was murdered is more apposite, considering all interrogated by Detective (and protagonist) Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) seem to comparably look at Laura as if she were some sort of angel put on Earth for all to gawk at. Like Lydecker, the crowd of suspects is characterized by their individual airs of arrogance, sneakiness. Innocence isn’t so clear, and that unclarity is one of Laura’s many pleasures.
It is a quintessential film noir, a personification of what The Big Sleep might have been if convolution weren’t so prevalent and if straightforward storytelling were foremost and not attitude. And yet its central mystery is not necessarily its most fascinating feature (the much sought-after killer is fairly obvious once the ball gets rolling and we begin to better get acquainted with the involved). Most compelling is its analyzation of obsession, and how its many forms, from detrimentally all-encompassing to dysfunctionally functional, can incur danger and can invite the unhealthy psychological practice of romanticized idolization.
Laura can be enjoyed both as flavorsome popcorn entertainment and cerebral commentary, but I think I like it best when viewing it strictly as a pitch-perfect exercise in the film noir genre — its scorching dialogue, hauntingly melodic score, pulp novel photography, and unsettling sheen of sophistication are all scrumptious and beautifully icy to the touch.
It’s a melting pot of Preminger’s artistic dexterities, sinfully elegant one minute and competently cryptic the next. But the film, deservedly beloved as an untouchable classic, came fairly close to being produced as forgettable studio fare. Initially, Laura served as a passion project for Preminger, who had only recently discovered the Vera Caspary novel of the same name and was eager to adapt it into a film. Enamored with its studying of the bourgeoisie and its famed plot twist, he was set to direct and produce the work for 20th Century Fox, which was temporarily being run by William Goetz (veteran chief Darryl F. Zanuck was fighting in WWII). But after Zanuck came back to Hollywood and discovered that Preminger, whom he despised, was the person in charge of the production of a potentially massive movie, he immediately fired him, choosing to replace him with reliable blockbuster churner Rouben Mamoulian (Grand Hotel, Queen Christina).
But Mamoulian’s melodramatic approach, paired with his undernourishment of his actors (he was of little help to Andrews and Tierney, who were relatively new to the industry, and alienated Webb, whom he openly thought was miscast), brought in meager rushes devoid of any sort of emotional flourish. It wasn’t until then that Zanuck realized that his enemy was the best man for the job all along. The rest is history.
In store seventy-some years later is an attractively rendered procedural, enlivened by its thorough investigating of its characters, its simultaneously eloquent and sinister screenplay, and its critiquing of the psychological effects power and wealth can have on people who’ve never quite known what it’s like to be the smallest person in the room, to be a victim of struggle or an object of working one’s way up to the top. It’s a whodunit with the good sense to try to find the emotional centers of its suspects, to see its focal victim as something besides worshipped prey without a voice.
As Laura, Tierney is a woman of will and wit, an alluring being to her admirers because of her strength. Andrews, a toughie who’s never known a lady as anything other than a doll or a dame, is exceptional as a man of resolve covering up the fact that he’s smitten with the woman he’s investigating the death of. Judith Anderson, as Laura’s stone-faced aunt, is bewitchingly mystifying; Vincent Price, as the latter’s kept-man also engaged to marry the fawned over femme, tries desperately to appear as everything but the wolf in sheep’s clothing that we’re so certain he is. But Webb, whose journalist Lydecker insists that he writes with a goose quill dipped in venom and insists that no man will ever love Laura as well as he did, makes the utmost impression as a supposed man of pristine confidence who’s actually deeply vulnerable.
And we’re just as vulnerable to the spells of Laura as Lydecker is to his adulation — with its iconic title tune swaying from scene to scene, it haunts, existing in a ghost world where love can never be easily returned and where success will never be enough so long as emotional emptiness is endless. A