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Laura (1944)

by on 2011/03/04

“Love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout history. Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.”

* * * *

Although Laura is directed by Otto Preminger, and based on a novel by Vera Caspary, it nonetheless reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In its broadest strokes, the story involves a detective whose investigation of a murder victim leads him to fall in love with her mystique.

It all begins with a visit to Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a writer, broadcaster, and the very definition of self-absorption. He’s crafting a memoir of Laura, his recently murdered protege. He recalls their first meeting, and his subsequent control of her image, career, and social standing.

The investigation continues with Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), an effete rogue with playboy tastes, if not funding. Laura was one of at least three women he strung along, a dubious group including fading socialites and budding models alike.

Both men act as extremes between whom a tug of war takes place. The central player, prize, and victim: Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Torn between her elderly sponsor, Lydecker, and silver-tongued dandy Carpenter, she seems to be on the verge of a decision when she’s suddenly, senselessly murdered.

Despite a shotgun blast to the face, she is soon identified by those who know her, each questioned in turn by investigator Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). This injured hero cop is relegated to “second rate detective”, a man who tries to focus and play it cool, while crossing many boundaries himself.

He practically traumatizes his informants to observe their true reactions, attacks one in full view of an audience, breaks and enters, and destroys personal property. His greatest misjudgment, the tale’s central conceit, is that he falls for Laura, even after she has died. He is seduced by her portrait, the remembrances of her peers, the music in her collection, and her personal letters and journals.

He seeks solace in her home, a refuge he can’t find in baseball games or cigarettes. In time, the testimonies overwhelm, or mismatch, or change. His idolatry of Laura becomes the only pure truth, in a world where everyone makes things up as they go.

The same criticism can not be leveled at the production. A smoothly intricate tour of personalities over time, Laura also struck me as reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The narrative is compelling, the plotting clear, and the dialogue highly refined. The script’s quality is such that narrowing down the “good” lines may be more difficult than narrowing down the “average” ones.

By and large the actors are effective, and yet even the most inept of thespians would have trouble misreading these cues. Not only does the writing impress, but it rings true for the appropriate character. How each speaks is as distinct as what they say.

  • McPherson: “When a dame gets killed, she doesn’t worry about how she looks.”
  • Carpenter: “I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.”
  • Lydecker: “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified.  I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”

Of course, in keeping with its reputation as a celebrated noir, the film bears all the customary standards: an absence of innocents, frequent action by night and in the rain, the distinctive employ of high contrast light and shadow, and melodramatic strings describing a memorable recurring theme. This work is less a landmark for exemplary execution than for meeting expectations, and then exceeding them.

Imperfect characters, a morbid subject, and sensory seduction. In retrospect, we might find similarities to Vertigo but, to be contemporaneous, this mannered piece combines the structure of Citizen Kane with the scripting of The Thin Man. Laura employs an interesting concept, well realized. Being smart makes it respectable. Being smart alecky makes it fun.

* * * *

Not rated

87 minutes

  1. I just watched Laura for the first time last night, really enjoyed it, though I found it highly problematic.

    Here are my thoughts, if you’re interested in the thoughts of a newbie!

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