Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)
Pedestals are often the enemy of artistic transcendence; 20th Century Fox’s Laura has been known for decades now as the premier example of Film Noir, and when such a reputation precedes one’s firsthand experience of a film, it can be fatal to one’s appreciation. That’s the only apology I’m going to make, however, for finding this generally decent film totally underwhelming. In fact, I first heard the term “Noir” in a television advertisement for a showing of Laura back in the mid-1990s. To my recollection, the promo got the basic idea of Noir across quite compellingly: in this tantalizing conception I was left with the impression that “Noir” meant intense sophistication, moral ambiguity, visual and conceptual darkness, and above all, textured, flawed characters. Other films ultimately fulfilled this promise for me: Notorious, Double Indemnity and The Lady from Shanghai among others. In the case of Laura itself, however, I’ve never shaken the feeling that the rapturous beauty and intrigue of Otto Preminger’s direction, Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography and particularly David Raksin’s brilliant music score paper over a story that’s finally unworthy of all three.
The premise, a conventional murder mystery with a major twist at the midway point, isn’t without merit — but as the story pans out, it makes little sense and comes across as a silly and emotionally simplistic whodunit, superior to a Philo Vance movie only insofar as it’s much slicker and more aesthetically ambitious, and inferior to one insofar as it doesn’t have William Powell. The aforementioned twist doesn’t help matters and arguably marks the moment when the film totally loses its way; and in a flourish of offbeat misjudgment, Preminger stages it so awkwardly that any shock it may have provided is deadened. At the film’s outset, a small gaggle of people — fiancé and nervous gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price, excitable as always, here probably code for something else), priggish, acid-tonged society-page columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), sinister auntie Ann (Judith Anderson, a conniving non-mysterious variant on her signature Rebecca role) and a cynical seen-it-all detective (Dana Andrews) — are all wondering who killed Laura Hunt, a young socialite recently shot in the face in her apartment. Waldo narrates, at least at first, and his arrogance is engaging in a George Sanders sort of way, but the emphasis quickly shifts to the detective on the case, between primitive games of handheld baseball, as he tries to get to the bottom of a killing whose victim he begins to find increasingly alluring. Then all of a sudden, said victim shows up right before his eyes, and while there is much to explain, the spell is broken. When Laura appears, alive and well, the film’s most interesting conceit is lost, and the remainder of the story is in many ways so ordinary it’s hard to even care what happens, though the fun, trashy interpersonal squabbling and jealousies among the characters — such tone-deaf weirdos that they throw a party when they learn Laura is alive, seemingly little caring that a murder happened in her apartment — do pull us along.
In a sense, it’s probably commendable that Laura — like Vertigo years hence — lets its big shock play out early on rather than at the conclusion, which allows more time to revel in the oddity of the situation, however illogical: an entire murder investigation has taken place revolving around someone who is not dead… and the perpetrator is fully aware of this, and fully aware the lie can’t last, but somehow continues the charade anyway, up to and including accompanying the dick on his questioning of suspects. It puts Laura, the film, in a peculiar position because it requires it to present intriguing notions in its first act then go nowhere with them: sexuality, necrophilia, the ambiguous occupation of Shelby, the ambiguous sexual orientations of both the key male suspects. There’s a moment when Clifton Webb suggests to Andrews that he is falling in love with a corpse, meaning Laura, her artifacts and her portrait, as he holds court for hours in her apartment. This potentially sets the stage for a pretty harrowing and modern portrait of obsession that would be a forerunner to any number of subsequent cinematic landmarks, but within just a few minutes the opportunity is closed off. (In some fashion, by even bringing up the topic, the film seems weaker and blander in its refusal to fully investigate.) The squandering of Laura as vague, after-death ghostly fixation might also have been forgiven if there were any perversion or resonance to the scene when Andrews and Tierney finally kiss… but no; still just a lot of Mickey Spillane comings and goings. About all that survives to make this film psychosexually intriguing is a surprisingly progressive view on the toxic age gap between Lydecker and his twentysomething charge, in a relationship which the film means us to find grotesquely paternal and manipulative, allowing heroic Detective McPherson to sweep in as the more Hollywood-appropriate love interest when the still portrait comes to life and Laura is resurrected.
The screenplay (with three credited writers, based on a Vera Caspary novel) has a certain dime-paperback thinness that extends beyond its lazy plotting and into its relatively rote characterizations and motivations. We are told, for instance, that Laura is a wonderful person, but we never learn anything remotely of interest about her, quite a crime when you consider her amount of screen time; Rebecca De Winter was never on the screen but managed to dominate a movie. That’s because Rebecca was gorgeous, domineering, mysterious, possibly evil, and probably a lesbian. Laura is, from what I can tell, none of these things or anything that would make up the difference. She’s a sickeningly harmless mouse, a generic starlet as Cleopatra. Similarly, it’s insisted to the audience that Dana Andrews, as McPherson, is — stop me if you’ve heard this one — growing obsessed with Laura’s portrait, but the movie’s way of getting this across is by having him walk around her apartment drinking a lot and occasionally staring up at it. Whether the guilty party is Laura herself (vacantly played by Gene Tierney), Lydecker (an over-the-top character more suited to a comedy picture, tapping away at bitchy op-eds in the bathtub while the world disintegrates) or Price’s Shelby Carpenter (all incomprehensible motivations and shady half-truths, with the strong suggestion of a sexual interest in nearly everyone except the woman he’s supposed to marry), the viewer feels no difference, because these characters, disparate though they may be, are flat cartoons with no real personalities, even though they hardly stop talking for the full duration. They’re not conflicted or intriguing, they’re just chess pieces with lines to fit their given stereotypes. As for who actually got buckshot injected in her face, she’s a character we never really meet, learn much about, or have any desire to know. Her one purpose in the story is to be killed. Therefore, why should it matter to us who killed her? Is it the possibly gay egotistical writer (who has all the best lines but never raises himself above the zillion similar characters from Twilight Zone episodes)? Is it the possibly gay layabout who is going to marry Laura? Is it Laura herself, who we are told is, like, the coolest person ever but who actually is less interesting than a lead pipe? It’s not easy to care, even after the suddenly melodramatic conclusion answers the question for us.
Perhaps the most crushing problem with the movie is that Dana Andrews, as more or less the protagonist, never does much more than bark at the other characters and stand around brooding. Constant moodiness, inexplicable behavior, and bizarre actions don’t really make for a compelling hero; and although he’s kinda-sorta rugged, he’s never brutal enough, or restrained and emotional enough, to actually function as either a full-fledged character or an object of desire. There are shades of a person there, a pathology, a victim (would that this movie followed their lives together after all this blew over and Laura let some evil at her core out to play, or maybe I just wish Anne Baxter played her so we wouldn’t have to wish for that; just something, please, to make us understand why the world revolves around her in this film) like the victim Fred MacMurray was in Double Indemnity, but the movie just skirts past all that, and so does Andrews.
In all fairness, this is a decent mystery thanks to its amusingly offbeat gallery of well-off screwups; but as a story it’s ridiculous and unsophisticated, painted in bold and straight lines, full of humor that is bright and sassy but never really witty or devilish, and it hasn’t a single character who is any different from (or less suspicious than) the person you think you see when s/he first appears. And it’s a shame such great visual and aural ingredients are wasted on nothing more than a movie about a woman whose only point of interest is that she’s dead, who then turns out to be alive. What a crock. I respect that others see the very apogee of Noir here but given how many films, made before and after it, render it obsolete and redundant, it seems to me that its slick, falsely romantic luster is all that’s really allowed it to endure; and while it has merit, you can plumb the true depths of the lost soul much more effectively elsewhere in the canon.
[Overhaul and rewrite of a review first posted in 2005.]