Some films are like coming home; this home sits at the end of a dark, dank alley.
We know the characters so well, they become family; this family is host to a killer.
And the script is imprinted upon our memory until the dialogue drips from our lips without thought, for indeed, they have become our own thoughts.
One of these films for me is Laura (1944). Like the eponymous heroine, this elegantly crafted Film Noir leaves an indelible impression with every viewing. As summarized on its IMDb page: “A police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating.”
Directed by one of the “Old Hollywood” greats, Otto Preminger, Laura is a classic ‘whodunit’? A beautiful dame has been killed, a gumshoe-with-gumption starts asking questions, skeletons rattle in their proverbial closets, and then the first act ends, and nothing is what it seemed.
Remember, spoilers are tagged in blue.
As a precocious preteen, I took great pleasure in discovering something new (that was old) on Turner Classic Movies. Having exhausted the supply of classic flicks at the local library and Blockbuster, TCM was my yellow brick road to the great and powerful Wizards of Tinseltown. I would flip there in search of my favorite actors, which is how I first stumbled upon Laura, which stars the darkly handsome Dana Andrews as Detective Mark McPherson. As one might surmise from my previous posts, the first course of my films-feast consisted of multiple musicals, including Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s State Fair, in which Andrews also starred. Having developed a bit of a crush on the actor, and always one for a good mystery, I settled in for my first viewing of Laura.
Murder mysteries tend to follow the same formula: Suspects + Secrets = Trouble. However, it is the parts, rather than their sum, that are most compelling in a good noir. Sorting through everyone’s dirty laundry is the real “fun” of watching a mystery, as the audience is challenged to piece together the clues faster than the cinematic sleuth. This is especially true in classic films, where the “action” is largely confined to the mind, thanks to the Hays Code, which outlawed the genre’s more gruesome elements. Funnily enough, this censorship is what may persuade parents that film noir is suitable for younger viewers: there are “adult” themes, but rarely is anything explicitly stated or shown.
In a crime film, the suspects are only as good as the actors playing them, and this is where Laura really shines. Directly after the opening credits, a dulcet-toned narrator (voice-overs are a staple of film noir) informs us that “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone…”
This is Waldo Lydecker, played by the brilliant Clifton Webb. Lydecker is a renowned national newspaper columnist, and would be the first to tell you that he is the smartest guy in any room. Through Lydecker we are introduced to every character that follows. What makes Webb’s performance worth savoring is Lydecker’s venomous verbosity: this is a man who truly wields his words like weapons. We discover the gentleman in his bathtub, a typewriter suspended over the water. In short order, he bids the police detective waiting outside to enter. In walks McPherson (Andrews), who is so no-nonsense, he is only ever addressed by his surname. Unfazed by Lydecker’s aquatic state and constant condescension, McPherson questions him about his alibi for the murder of Laura Hunt. It is during this scene that we first glimpse this detective’s particular “quirk,” as he plays with a small, handheld pinball toy (we learn later that the activity keeps him calm as he questions irate suspects). It is little touches like this that make Laura a standout noir film; the characters are more than a pile of tropes, and the subtleties of the actors’ performances reward repeat viewings.
This also applies to the eponymous heroine. Played by Gene Tierney, Laura is both femme fatale and innocent. At first, all we know of Laura is what we are told by the men in her life. Lydecker narrates an extended flashback that spans the course of his relationship with our doomed heroine. He credits her transformation from wide-eyed kid to sophisticated woman-about-town to his exclusive mentoring. In addition to witnessing Laura’s outward transformation (she wears more stylish gowns, changes her hair, and so on), we also see her advance in her advertising career. What I found striking about this was how, in addition to Laura’s beauty, the movie takes time to champion her professional savvy. In fact, we are told, by Lydecker, by Laura’s fiance (a young Vincent Price, sans mustache and menace), and others, that what made Laura the toast of New York was her wit, ambition, and kindness. And then at the film’s midpoint, Laura re-enters her own narrative and we see that indeed, she is as formidable as she is lovely. Not perfect, of course, but certainly a woman who knows her own mind. And even though she still winds up in a romance that is hardly worth considering a “subplot,” I believe Laura Hunt is a multi-dimensional character that deserves celebrating.
Beyond the puzzles of its plot and the charisma of its characters, critics also acclaim the movie’s inescapable ambiance. Of note is the musical motif that haunts its score; its lush orchestrations soar over scenes of glamorous parties and vignettes of a life well-lived. This combination of sight and sound connects us, on some psychological level, with the events un-spooling before us. Director of Photography Joseph LaShelle floods Laura’s lavish apartment with shadows, leaving an exhausted McPherson literally in the dark to gaze obsessively at the woman’s magnificent portrait. The music is soft, the camera zooms in as his head droops in slumber, and then it slowly pulls back. We hear a door open, and there is a pan up to the portrait before Preminger cuts to another shot that reveals a very-much-alive Laura Hunt. She snaps on the lights, shocking McPherson into wakefulness and the remainder of the film. Is what follows reality? Or are we seeing McPherson’s dream of “rescuing” Laura from her fate? One thing is certain: LaShelle won the Oscar that year for his cinematography, which showcases a masterful manipulation of light, decor, and clever camera angles to convey that classic film noir sensibility.
In closing, here is what Laura has to offer:
- The film is a sterling example of the Film Noir genre; it features an intriguing plot, memorable characters played by a top-notch cast, and is a bloodless crime thriller (that manages to be suspenseful in spite of the restrictions placed upon it by the Hollywood Production Code)
- A 1940s heroine who is more than just a pretty face; she uses her talent and intelligence to make her own way, on her own terms
- A showcase of the film techniques that make a noir, a noir: light and shadow continuously at play, odd camera angles that put the audience ill at ease, and environments that serve as reflections of the central characters
Head’s Up: This a murder mystery, so there is talk of a corpse, a shooting, and secrets that the suspects would rather remain hidden. However, as noted above, nothing is ever explicitly shown or stated. A beautiful woman is menaced, but this then serves as a great opportunity to discuss “red flags” in any relationship. As a product of the 1940s, there is also no swearing, although there is (very mild) violence.
What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!
As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”