Scratch the surface of Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and you will discover one of the most fascinating and demented character studies ever put on film. Owing to Joseph LaShelle’s moody cinematography Laura is oft’ classified as a film noir. Superficially, it has that appeal. But Laura is much more, and, in truth, does not adhere to the most time honored of noir’s precepts. No, from its curiously homoerotic opener between a middle-aged dandified fussbudget and ultra-butch New York City police detective, to its revelation that the supposed murder victim is actually somebody else, Laura careens through its lascivious labyrinth of high society gadabouts, shifting gears and switching genres mid-way to reveal a devious and complex social study far more captivating than its traditional crime story.
Our heroine, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is not the femme fatale, nor is there another skulking about this moneyed backdrop to unravel her perfect world. Our hero, Det. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) inexplicably develops a necrophilia-esque obsession with the deceased from a portrait hanging in her apartment. Laura’s closest friend, newspaper columnist and radio commentator Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is an imperious coxcomb, more consumed with his Svengali ambition to take this lowly stenographer and mold her into a lady of culture and breeding, while Laura’s fiancée, oily gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) is a manipulative sponge, even as he procures other sexual relationships along the way – including one with Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).
Yes, Laura is an elegant film. But it defies its stylized glamour with a misleadingly pockmarked decadence; relishing the wicked betrayals and venomous duplicities that ultimately lead to murder. Based on Vera Caspary’s novel, ‘Ring Twice for Laura’, Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay retains Caspary’s air of the foreboding almost from the moment David Raksin’s lush monothematic score fades and we hear Waldo Lydecker’s solemn voice over declare “I shall never forget the night Laura died.”
We are introduced to butch NYPD det. Mark McPherson, coolly admiring the odd menagerie of art and crystal adorning the great room inside Waldo Lydecker’s penthouse apartment. At the behest of a disembodied voice calling to him from the next room McPherson opens the door and enters an even more disturbingly lavish Roman bath with Waldo, nude and soaking in his tub; a typewriter at his side. The sexual tension in their initial ‘cute meet’ is hardly subliminal. McPherson’s laconic grin as he observes the rather bony Lydecker emerging from his bath, tossing him his fuzzy robe and following his exit into an adjoining boudoir do more than suggest naughty – if slightly condescending - thoughts. And McPherson ups the ante by allowing Lydecker to shadow him to his various ports of call in the Laura Hunt murder investigation.
Their first stop is Ann Treadwell’s apartment. Ann is cordial at the outset. But when McPherson’s questions begins to infer a sexual relationship between Ann and Laura’s fiancée Shelby Carpenter – thus providing amusement for Lydecker as well as fodder for his column – Ann’s social graces lapse. Shelby appears on cue, unassuming and very willing to help in any way that he can. But even he isn’t particularly heartbroken over Laura’s death. McPherson escorts the two men to Laura’s apartment with Shelby promising to locate an extra key Laura always kept in the apartment. Unaware that the police have already taken a meticulous inventory, Shelby plants his key - in his possession all along - and McPherson wastes no time in calling him out.
Later, Lydecker and McPherson retire to a light lunch inside Laura’s favorite restaurant and through a flashback and Lydecker’s voice over we regress to the elegant Miss Hunt’s first encounter with the austere Waldo inside the Algonquin Hotel’s dining room. He glibly admonishes her for attempting to gain his endorsement on a fountain pen, but shortly thereafter arrives at Bullit & Co., the ad agency she works for, to reconcile their differences and agree to the endorsement. Since the flashback is told entirely from Lydecker’s perspective we have absolutely no way of knowing whether or not it is the truth. Yet, it seems unlikely that the ambitious Laura would allow herself to be so easily manipulated by Lydecker’s ascorbic wit – even if his endorsement of the pen is basically responsible for launching her career.
McPherson decides to drive out to Laura’s cottage in a perilous thunderstorm. But once there, he again encounters Shelby attempting to cover up what he perceives is a clue; the whereabouts of a rifle that might be the weapon used to shoot Laura Hunt in the face. Curiously, McPherson does not arrest Shelby, but instead allows him his freedom, returning alone and even more perplexed to Laura’s Manhattan brownstone. Lydecker accuses McPherson of compromising the case by having fallen in love with a corpse. But McPherson admonishes Lydecker for his liberties, and thereafter decides to spend the night in the apartment to come to terms with his own feelings about the case. McPherson is startled in the dead of night by the arrival of none other than Laura Hunt who is equally perplexed at finding a stranger inside her home.
After his initial shock and surprise McPherson learns from Laura that she had gone to a mountain retreat for the weekend – removed from telephones and newspapers and therefore has been entirely unaware of the maelstrom of inquiry surrounding her murder investigation. McPherson also pieces together a scenario: that one of the advertising firm’s models, Diane Redfern was mistakenly shot in the face for Laura. It seems Diane had been using the apartment at Shelby’s invitation. Determined to spring a trap on those closest to Laura, McPherson re-introduces her friends to the resurrected – each suffering their own inimitable startle as a result. Laura’s devoted maid, Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams) has a frantic breakdown while Waldo faints dead away at his first sight of her.
McPherson does some slick detecting to test the guilt of those closest to Laura, then suggests that it was Laura who killed Diane Redfern because of her jealousy over Diane and Shelby’s tryst; a revelation Laura vehemently denies. Back at the police station McPherson becomes convinced of Laura’s innocence. Returning Laura to her apartment McPherson exposes his true feelings to her and she willingly reciprocates. McPherson then tells her to forget all about the case, vowing to bring the killer to justice. In the meantime, Lydecker has evaded the police guard standing outside Laura’s apartment building and sneaks inside through the back way using his own key, determined to finish off the woman he seemingly cannot live without, yet will not allow anyone else to possess.
Lydecker confronts Laura at the point of a shotgun he has been concealing inside a secret panel in her clock ever since the night of the first murder. But at the last possible moment McPherson and his fellow officers burst into the room. Lydecker fires off a round, missing the police but destroying the clock he once gave Laura as a gift – an exact replica of the timepiece in his apartment. The police open fire and kill Lydecker; his bittersweet words of farewell whispered to her as he expires. It is interesting to note that Otto Preminger does not conclude the film with McPherson’s gallant rescue and passionate embrace of the emotionally terrorized Laura, but instead pans to a close up of the clock; its time piece destroyed, its inner workings revealed, just as Lydecker’s insidious deceit and jealousy have also been exposed by his twice failed assault on Laura.
Nominated for 5 Academy Awards and winning one for its cinematography, Laura is a sublime who done it. Yet, like the narrative complexities revolving around the discovery of who murdered chauffeur Sean Regan in John Huston’s The Big Sleep (1946) the ‘who’ in Laura is of far less importance or even significance than the ‘why’. Waldo Lydecker: the sophisticate – powerful, popular, successful cultural mandarin of his time, disseminating acidic charm and razor-backed wit to millions of sycophantically adoring fans while hobnobbing among the hoi poloi. Waldo; so obvious in his sexual predilection toward men rather than women and more likely become jealous of McPherson’s steely-edged, rough and tumble masculinity. Why should this man wish to destroy two lives (Laura’s and his own) with her murder? True enough, Waldo regards Laura Hunt as his personal property – a stylish consort he helped sculpt for a king from the raw materials of an inexperienced ingénue: not for a cop or even a gigolo. Yet, surely the platonic nature in their relationship thus far has not escaped him. Not Waldo Lydecker – a man of sphinxlike infallibility.
What of our hero, the square-jawed and equally square-shouldered hunk du jour, Mark McPherson; slowly devolving in his unflappable powers of deduction from an inexplicable affectation for the presumed dead woman he has never met? McPherson, the stolid good cop who experiences ephemeral glimpses of utter elation only twice in the film: once when he learns from Laura that she has decided not to marry Shelby Carpenter, then again after his interrogation of her leads to the unequivocal conclusion that Laura Hunt could not have murdered Diane Redfern. McPherson is investigating a murder, not the woman who has miraculously come back from the grave. Yet, she has possessed him from the beginning, even taken over where otherwise cool logic ought to have prevailed.
And then there is Ann Treadwell – the devilishly clever socialite, perfectly satisfied to remain the object of sexual and financial exploitation until her niece takes a fleeting romantic interest in the same destructive man – Shelby Carpenter. In one of Laura’s most revealing sequences, Ann confronts her niece in the powder room; unapologetically outlining the rather tawdry reasons why she, and not Laura, must wind up with Carpenter in the end.
Finally, there is the title character of Laura to consider – the outwardly glamorous, though hardly fatal vixen: mere veneer for an otherwise forthright, if ambitious, though completely honest and utterly hard-working lady of substance. In spite of Lydecker’s promotion of the pen, Laura is self-possessed. She has seen through both Carpenter and Lydecker’s façades. Moreover, she is her own woman; not to be managed or manhandled or even worshipped by a lover, but respected and loved for herself with whomever she ultimately choses for herself; an undeniably progressive approach to the 1940s Hollywood heroine.
Otto Preminger’s stroke of brilliance in Laura is that he never takes sides with any of these characters. Traditional fare of this ilk and vintage always clearly delineated the righteous from the evil. But Preminger makes no judgment call on any of the goings on or peccadillos exposed throughout this story. Instead, he charges the audience with enough sophistication to read between the lines, to quietly observe and make their own assessment of each character’s motives and reactions. And from a purely empathetic perspective, we do just that. Consider this: that Waldo Lydecker – despite his flawed obsession to control Laura Hunt – is never entirely despised for it; that Mark McPherson’s personal involvement in the murder investigation never leads us to conclude he has compromised his moral principles or even his police ethics for the sake of his own carnal lust; that Ann Treadwell’s need to steal Shelby from her own niece is predicated on conflicted ideals that strangely enough seem high-minded and sincere – albeit, in a very insincere way. Preminger makes us aware that each character is neither entirely pure of heart nor destructively evil. These characters are merely – and occasionally, very tragically – flawed.
In the final analysis, Laura is a seminal masterwork of melodramatic magnificence whose influence in American movies can be extrapolated in everything from Leave Her To Heaven (1945) and Vertigo (1958), right up to L.A. Confidential (1997) and The Black Dahlia (2006). It is a peerless film noir – if one chooses only to regard it as such – and an extraordinary glimpse into the pitted willfulness of self-destructing lies, treachery and deceit.
Fox Home Video gives us a handsome Blu-ray indeed; dual layered with a solid bit rate and remarkably clean transfer. Laura’s original camera negative has long been lost and previous DVD incarnations were very gritty, somewhat dark and riddled with age related artifacts. All of these shortcomings have been corrected on the Blu-ray. In fact, it becomes apparent immediately following the 20th Century-Fox logo that the print master in this restoration is different. David Raksin’s emblematic Laura theme had always begun rather abruptly following the Fox trademark, the result of several frames missing at the start of the main title. Now, we get a very smooth fade up and transition – as it should be.
The gray scale has been impeccably rendered: the B&W image considerably brighter than I expected. Never having seen the film on film I cannot say with any degree of certainty that this is how Laura looked back in 1944. But if contrast has been artificially boosted, the results are not detrimental to the overall presentation. In fact, Laura’s visuals are clean, sharp and very solidly represented. There remains an occasional blip of edge enhancement here and there – nothing terribly distracting on the whole, but noticeable nonetheless. Overall, there will be no complaints from the cheap seats. Laura looks fabulous. The DTS mono audio has also been cleaned up to reveal very delicate sonic textures in the original tracks. Raksin’s iconic underscoring has never sounded more vibrant.
Extras have all been teleported over from the DVD and include two distinct audio commentaries: from Fox historian Jeanine Bassinger, the other from Raksin – who has remarkable recall. We also get two A&E Biography Specials (with their A&E Biography intros lopped off): one on Gene Tierney, the other on Vincent Price. Finally, there’s a fabulous piece on ‘the obsession’ of Laura in which contemporary historians and film makers affectionately wax about the influence of the film. We also get a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)