Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura, starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb, is one of the most stylish, moody, and witty film Noirs ever made.
Consider this scene from the film Laura, which comes about half way through the picture: Detective McPherson ,played by Dana Andrews, walks into the apartment of his beloved Laura. He crosses the hall that holds a beautiful painting of her. Like a jealous, suspicious lover he starts searching the room. He takes out her letters from the drawer, he walks into her bedroom and starts inspecting her closet; and as his ‘search’ progresses, He starts getting more and more disturbed. To calm himself down, he makes a drink and with the glass in hand he comes back into the hall and sits in front of Laura’s painting.
Well, it appears to be a scene that we have seen in hundreds of romantic dramas, But everything changes once you understand the context of this scene, which is that:
- Laura is dead
- McPherson is investigating the murder of Laura.
- McPherson has never met Laura in her lifetime
- But now he has fallen hopelessly and obsessively in love with her.
Now to get back to the scene, once McPherson had settled in front of Laura’s portrait, Waldo Lydecker(Clifton Webb) walks in to the room. Waldo happened to be Laura’s lover; her Svengali actually, who groomed and mentored her into this beautiful Ad designer. Waldo is an acerbic, effete dandy who has a way with words. He engages in some caustic banter with McPherson, in the course of which Waldo warns McPherson that if he continues in his obsession, he would soon end up in a mental asylum and perhaps even they may not be able to cure his illness. Waldo leaves and McPherson falls asleep in front of Laura’s portrait. The camera slowly zooms in on him and then slowly zooms out, and as the camera is slowly zooming out, we see the doors open and Laura(Gene Tierney) ,in flesh and blood, walks into the frame. As in a fairy tale, Laura’s portrait has come to life. McPherson wakes up and rubs his eyes. Is this his dream or is this real?
This scene in a nutshell explains the kind of film Otto Preminger’s Laura is: A strange, dreamy film noir that does not make much logical sense, but haunts you like a beautiful dream. The film mainly deals with the tumult that Laura causes in the lives of three different men. The men are at different stages in their life and each becomes obsessed with Laura in one form or the other. Suffice to say that Laura is more of an abstraction than a fully flesh and blood character. Her presence (and absence) brings out the real nature of the three main male characters in the film. The oldest of course is Lydecker: smooth and charismatic, and who would not be mistaken for a heterosexual, but is obsessed to the point of madness with Laura. He destroys everyone who tries to get close to her, but ends up unable to stop her from getting engaged to someone like Shelby Carpenter; Shelby is the second man in Laura’s life, as played by Vincent Price, he is young, tall ,handsome, and strongly built, but inside , he is just a cowardly wimp, who is ‘kept’ by Laura’s Aunt. The third man is Detective McPherson who is the classic hard-boiled detective from countless Film Noirs; buttoned-up and always pictured, dressed in a fedora with a burning cigarette on his lips. And as the above scene shows, he is quite a disturbed, sick character, pretty much a necrophiliac . He also appears to have been hurt in love before, but the most he would talk about it is that “A dame from Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once”. He appears cool and taciturn, but is quite volatile and vulnerable inside. He uses a baseball puzzle to calm himself down whenever things get too hot around him.
The film begins with Lydecker, who is a society columnist , reminiscing about Laura: “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 Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her.”. The first image visible in Lydecker’s darkly lit room is a sculpture, an Asian-looking, upright figure with an impassive expression, its left hand raised in an open palmed peaceful gesture. This museum piece, ensconced in a niche, is suddenly seen in bright light that reveals glass showcases of precious objects. The camera slowly pans across the shelves to an ornate standing clock, which would play an important part in the story later. It is clear from these opening scenes that Laura is dead (even before the film begins). She was shot in the face in her apartment. So now Lydecker and Shelby are the chief suspects. McPherson has come to Lydecker’s apartment to question him. A camaraderie of competitors ensues: Lydecker delights in denigrating McPherson, who contently amuses himself with carefully watching Lydecker. First act of the film is mainly Lydecker narrating Laura’s story from his perspective. After questioning Lydecker, McPherson agrees to Lydecker’s proposal that he accompany the detective on a round of interviews – an improbable development that nevertheless prolongs the pleasure of watching these two actors jousting with each other. We also meet Shelby during this process. We can see Lydecker trying his best to put the suspicions on Shelby for the murder of Laura. We can also see that, as more and more he gets to hear about her, McPherson is slowly getting entangled in Laura’s web; we feel the animosity Lydecker feels for the young detective who has started taking an interest in Laura.
Now coming back to the scene i mentioned at the beginning of the piece; whether Laura’s return was a dream or reality?; well it is for real. Turns out that Laura had gone for a holiday to the country and Shelby had brought his secret lover Diane Redfern to the apartment in her absence. So on all accounts it was Diane Redfern who was murdered in her apartment. When we become aware of these chain of events, the perception that we had of Laura undergoes a transformation. Someone whom we considered an innocent victim is now suspected to being the femme fatale who did away with her fiancée’s secret girlfriend. McPherson arrests Laura and interrogates her. But it’s less a police interrogation and more of a lover’s inquisition: where he is trying to understand her true feelings for him as well as for the other men in her life. McPherson and Laura had started getting close after her return, but he was confused about her feelings for the other two men in her life. This was the only way (he knows) to clear the confusion. Finally, satisfied that
- She did not murder Redfern
- That she has no special feelings anymore for Shelby
- (and most importantly) She is now fallen in love with him (that’s McPherson)
He lets her go and escorts her back to her apartment, where they are confronted by Lydecker. We see the smooth veneer of Lydecker slipping away when he realizes that Laura and McPherson are in love. He tries to talk her out of it but in vain. Soon enough, we realize that it was Lydecker who attempted to murder Laura earlier, and he tries to do it again, but this time, he is shot dead by McPherson. Lydecker dies in front of Laura’s portrait chanting “Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love.”
As i mentioned before, the film has lot of logical loopholes like a detective tagging along one of the chief suspects at every stage of his investigation. But this device livens up the atmosphere of the film throughout, because Waldo Lydecker is one of the most witty, sophisticated and charming antagonist ever to be seen in movies. A lot of the allure of Laura is thanks to Clifton Webb – in his first role in a talkie, with screenwriting trio of Dratler, Hoffenstein and Reinhardt crafting some of the most wittiest one liners for him.
In my case, self absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.
Young woman, either you have been raised in some incredible rustic community where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from the common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct.
And this verbal duel between Lydecker and McPherson is priceless
Laura considered me the wisest, the wittiest… the most interesting man she’d ever met. I was in complete accord with her on that point. She thought me also the kindest… the gentlest… the most sympathetic man in the world.
Did you agree with her there too?
McPherson, you won’t understand this… but I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest… the most sympathetic man in the world.
Have any luck?
Let me put it this way.
I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.
Need i say more?.
Though it is not overtly stated, the film drops enough hints that Lydecker is gay and his obsession with Laura is mainly his desire to be ‘her’; that she is essentially the outward representation of a femininity he keeps closeted. His relationship with Laura is driven more by Power and control, rather than lust. The screenwriters also does well in shifting our loyalties towards the characters and about who could be the real killer. Since its Lydecker who begins the narration, we find an instant empathy with him, A lot of Laura we see is also from his perspective. Above all, he is charming and witty, and quite old and weak; he collapses when he sees Laura after her return, shocked to see, she is still alive. In the beginning, the Screenplay, like Lydecker, sets up the viewer to believe that Shelby may be the culprit, but then again, it goes on to reveal his wimpy side in the pre-climax scenes. In the end, the charm of the film does not lie in in its suspense; of Whodunit? or even Howdunnit? , it’s the unique mixture of all the following elements: Mystery, romance, wit and style, that makes the film memorable.
The big disadvantage the film possesses is that the two lead characters: Laura and McPherson, happen to be the least interesting characters in the film. Dana Andrews plays more of an archetype than a character, though McPherson has a lot more depth than Laura, and Andrews makes the most of it. Andrews’ understated acting style and the tough nobility of the character makes it interesting. He effortlessly projects a tough, taciturn recalcitrance that made him perfect for the Noir hero characters. The role would turn out to be a star-making one for Andrews who (until then) has been steadily climbing the steps of stardom. As for Gene Tierney’s portrayal of Laura; as i already mentioned, the character of Laura is more of a concept, a symbol of this fantasy women; a canvas on which the viewer’s and the three male character’s emotions are projected; and Gene Tierney embodies her exquisitely; it’s very much her film, even though she has very little screen time, but her presence is felt throughout the film. Laura finds the gorgeous Tierney at the height of her beauty and her career; she was coming off a great success in Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait and was headed towards another the following year in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. Laura was her comeback film after a brief hiatus; she had taken a year off with her pregnancy – and had given birth to her child in the interim – and wanted to be sure this very strange role would be right for her. It rankled her that she was the second choice for the role – Jennifer Jones was the first choice and she had turned it down. Eventually, after a lot of convincing, she listened to Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck and agreed to take the part. In hindsight, Jennifer Jones’ instincts proved to be wrong, as Laura became Tierney’s signature role; and Otto Preminger spared no expense in presenting his star at her glamorous best. With an unprecedented $15,000 costume budget, the designers had a field day in creating the most luxurious costumes; even Tierney’s underwear was meticulously designed with black lace panels threaded with baby blue ribbon. As for the legendary “Laura” painting – which is a character by itself in the film – Preminger sent Tierney to studio photographer, Frank Polony. Several portrait shots were taken, and the best shot was enlarged to the size of a painting. After it was framed it was lightly airbrushed with paint, giving the appearance of brush strokes. The result was a movie prop that has become as legendary as Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The actors’ performances benefit significantly from the mystique created around this image of a beautiful woman, enclosed in a gilt frame and flanked by sconces suggesting the sumptuousness of the world they inhabit. More than Tierney’s performance in the film, it was the ‘portrait of Laura’ – the movie’s idealization of the character – that counted most. The Laura painting is one of the main reason why Preminger chose to direct this film. Originally, Preminger was only going to produce, but later he took over the direction himself, because he was disappointed with the painting that was commissioned by the film’s original director. Indeed, Laura is the most important film Preminger made in his career. The film has a style and economy that none of his other films can claim to posses. On its release, “Laura” proved to be a smash hit with the public. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was also enchanted by the film, bestowing five Academy Award nomination; Otto Preminger was nominated as Best Director.
Another major feature of the film is composer, David Raksin’s superb music score; he worked on this mournful music over a weekend after he learned his wife was leaving him. His Laura theme is simply extraordinary, to say the the least and gives the film much of its gravitas. The lyrics were by Johnny Mercer, and It took him just 62 words to complete Raksin’s 72-note theme. Raksin’s music inspired Darryl F. Zanuck to keep that brilliant dreamy scene (which i mentioned at the beginning of the piece) intact. In fact. Zanuck was going to cut it down drastically, but once Raksin laid music over the scenes, he realized how beautifully they played. The scene is the heart of the movie and without it, the film, and the character of McPherson, would not be the same. The music (and the above scene in particular) contributes immensely to the dreamy feel of the film; something that distinguishes it from the dime a dozen dark Film Noirs that were made in the 1940s. Watching the film again recently, i was quite struck by how moving the film still is. The film looks fantastic even today. It is very stylishly shot, with all the visual elements of film noir intact; the chiaroscuro lighting and fluid camera moves. The Oscar winning cinematography by Joseph LaShelle and Oscar nominated Production design are two other highlights of the picture.