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Noirvember 2021, Episode 1: Laura (1944)

Updated: Nov 6, 2021



Laura (20th Century Fox, 1944) directed by Otto Preminger


If my Letterboxd entry is correct (and I suspect it is not), the last time I saw Laura (1944) was in 1982. I know I’ve seen portions of it since then, but perhaps this was the first time I revisited the complete film in close to 40 years. What better way to kick off Noirvember 2021?


 


The film opens with NYPD Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating the murder of a well-known advertising executive named Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Hunt’s death, the result of a shotgun blast to the face in her own apartment, casts suspicion on her fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s aunt and Carpenter’s would-be lover (Judith Anderson), newspaper columnist and radio personality Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and perhaps others. Lydecker jealously hates Carpenter, which McPherson doesn’t need a detective's badge to discover. Yet the lieutenant soon finds himself falling for Laura, or at least the idea of Laura, conveyed to him only by conversations with others and Laura’s ever-present portrait hanging in her apartment.



As I mentioned in my Noirvember preview video, most of my reviews will be short. (Writing about 30 movies in 30 days can take up a lot of time.) My takeaways from revisiting the film include an appreciation of a wonderful script (by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Eilzabeth Reinhardt, and an uncredited Ring Lardner Jr.) based on a terrific novel by Vera Caspary, brilliant cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (who won the Oscar for the film), and a superb performance by Dana Andrews.



In many ways, Laura is an atypical film noir. Filled with scenes of solid dialogue that both provide information and develop character, the script is loaded with so many one-liners you’d think they’re simply entertaining put-downs. They often are, but they’re written with a crisp intensity and delivered by actors who understand their characters. Andrews in particular delivers a quiet obsession with each fact he uncovers about Laura. You can see it in his eyes, especially when Lydecker’s jabs seemingly don’t stick, but each one is a dagger landing in the heart of the detective, reminding him that his obsession with a corpse is a dead-end street. Yet while hungering and thirsting for a ghost, McPherson still has to solve the case. The contrasts between the columnist and the cop are fascinating.



Other than a few rain-soaked streets, soaked trench coats and fedoras, Laura is largely absent of many of the visual noir motifs, but the cinematography and production design are a true feast for the eyes. The film casts just as much as spell on the audience as Laura Hunt’s portrait does for McPherson. Laura is both a terrific mystery and a film noir classic for good reason. If you've never seen it, please do so during Noirvember.


You can read more about the film in Eddie Muller’s revised and expanded edition of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.


A very affordable Blu-ray of Laura is available from Fox Studio Classics as well as a Eureka/Masters of Cinema Region B release.



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awolverton77
awolverton77
02 nov 2021

Thank you, Miriam! I hope several noir fans will visit (or revisit) Laura this Noirvember. I agree that Dana Andrews gives a wonderful performance. I responded on Twitter to someone who thought Andrews could've played McPherson as a character who should've come more unglued, and Webb should've played down Lydecker a bit. I believe the toy baseball game is McPherson's way to keep himself and his emotions in check, not letting on that he's intimidated by Lydecker. Andrews' eyes tell us everything we need to know. I think in a similar way, Lydecker's arrogance is how he tries to cover his true colors. Thanks again for reading - Always a pleasure to have you stop by!

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I totally agree with the baseball game and Lydecker's pompous ways. I think Dana Andrews had a sort of indolent way of acting, specially in noir, that was extremely fitting. I've had people told me he was inexpressive but I can very much also feel his emotions in his stoic way of behaving. What about Clint Eastwood then? It's just another way. I also love him in Fallen Angel and The Best Years of Our Lives, just to say two. Clifton Webb just owned the character so much so that he played it almost continuously. They are both great.

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Always great to read about Dana Andrews' talent and I totally agree with what you say about his work in "Laura". He is one of my favorites. The more I watch and try to talk about film noir, the more elusive it feels at times yet incredibly fascinating. You seem to hint at that as well. Such a brilliant read!

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