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.