Detective Mark McPherson investigates the killing of Laura, found dead on her apartment floor before the movie starts. McPherson builds a mental picture of the dead girl from the suspects whom he interviews. He is helped by the striking painting of the late lamented Laura hanging on her apartment wall.
But who would have wanted to kill a girl with whom every man she met seemed to fall in love? To make matters worse, McPherson finds himself falling under her spell too. Then one night, halfway through his investigations, something seriously bizarre happens to make him re-think the whole case.
Gene Tierney ... Laura Hunt
Dana Andrews ... Det. Lt. Mark McPherson
Clifton Webb ... Waldo Lydecker
Vincent Price ... Shelby Carpenter
Judith Anderson ... Mrs. Ann Treadwell
Rashomon-like, Vera Caspary's clever suspense novel Laura falls into five sections and five separate voices, telling its story from the viewpoint of each of its principal characters. It was too cumbersome a structure for a 1940s mystery, so the script (by Jay Dratler and others) simplifies and concentrates the narrative for director Otto Preminger to play with.
Judith Anderson as Laura's aunt Ann Treadwell, a vain and silly society dame, and Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter, a 'male beauty in distress' and on-again, off-again paramour both to Treadwell and to Laura, find themselves demoted to supporting players (if still a couple of satisfyingly kippered herring). Caspary's pentacle gets rejigged into an old-fashioned triangle, with viper-tongued newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and wise-mouthed police detective-lieutenant Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) locking horns over the elusive Laura (Gene Tierney).
Elusive isn't the half of it. For the first half of the movie, she's presumed dead, her face obliterated by a load of buckshot when she answered the door of her apartment one stifling Friday night in New York City. MacPherson's on the track of her killer and pieces together her story: How through brains and determination (not to mention looks) she rose in the advertising industry, how she met the powerful Lydecker by seeking his endorsement for a fountain pen (first meeting a rebuff on the grounds that he writes with 'a goose quill dipped in venom'), how they became a high-profile, May-December couple in Manhattan society. But to Lydecker's sniffy chagrin, Laura didn't see herself as his exclusive chattel. There were other men: The painter who did her portrait that hangs over her fireplace, for instance (out of spite, Lydecker demolished him in the press), and then the indolent hulk Carpenter.
MacPherson learns most of this while interviewing Lydecker in his bath, where the feared and lionized wordsmith fashions his prose on a typewriter perched atop a trestle across his marble tub ('It's lavish but I call it home'). With his imperious – queenly – airs, Webb takes his performance as Lydecker into a rarefied realm that can't have failed to register even in 1944, that of the closeted, piss-elegant gentleman critic using the glamorous Laura as his beard (it's a dimension that was far fainter in the novel). But his full-tilt camping makes his desperate obsession with Laura – if taken at face value – too perfumed a lozenge to swallow.
MacPherson's obsession, however, looks like the real McCoy. The testimonials to her beauty, her vibrancy, her elegance start to work on him, until he finds himself holed up at the crime scene – her apartment – gazing at her portrait while drinking himself into a trance (to David Raskin's entrancing title song) and falling asleep in her armchair. (As Lydecker puts it, he's fallen in love with a corpse.) When he awakens, it's to find Laura, come back from the dead – actually from her country place where she's spent the weekend, oblivious to her supposed murder. (The victim turns out to be a model who worked at her agency.)
Laura's eerie reemergence reactivates all the tensions and antagonisms slackened, or frozen, by her presumed death. With Laura now among the living, Lydecker finds in MacPherson a more formidable – 'disgustingly earthy' – rival than the penniless playboy Carpenter, while MacPherson finds himself working not on a remote case but seeking the perpetrator of the attempted murder of a woman he's infatuated with (who, since there was in fact a corpse, finds herself a suspect as well)....
One of the more perdurable movies of the 1940s, Laura nonetheless remains perplexing. Set in the upper-crust New York of terraced penthouses and chic boîtes and the Algonquin Hotel (where Lydecker's prototype, Alexander Woolcott, held court at the fabled Round Table), it gives off more than a whiff of the Gothic, of tales set on the moors or craggy seacoasts. (Echoes of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca abound, above and beyond the presence of Judith Anderson, as do those of a more contemporary New York story, I Wake Up Screaming). It's a stylish and stylized murder mystery that finds the tangled liaisons among its characters more absorbing than what clues may be hidden inside the grandfather's clock.
Those characters have been written off as superficial, and their liaisons as implausible, a point which carries some validity. The making of the movie was troubled, with producer Darryl Zanuck replacing Rouben Mamoulian with Preminger, then clashing with Preminger over his casting of the flamboyantly gay Broadway star Webb. Preminger was a shrewd and worldly man who surely knew how Webb would 'read' even to audiences in the boondocks (not to mention his casting of Price and Anderson, two more actors about whom rumors persist). So there's little getting around the fact that Laura stands as what has come to be called a 'coded' movie, brimming with subtext.
But coded how? Preminger saw his movie as less about heterosexual passion gone homicidal than about a superficial culture of celebrity and hype and image. Lydecker's obsession was not so much with Laura's flesh as with fantasy – a rising star to which he could he hitch his jaded wagon. He's a demented fan who fancies that only his own enthusiasm and puffery make her shine. It's the only version of reality that the narcissistic, grandiose Lydecker can accept, with himself as both creator and custodian of her legend. It was the world Laura, too, occupied and enjoyed, if fitfully, a world which she departed for meatier trysts, albeit with lovers who lived in the same fairyland of ritzy illusion. Until she met (and almost too late) MacPherson, a prole without affectation who came to love her as a physical organism rather than as a creature of publicity, a fabulous freak of the zeitgeist.
Under a veneer of arch sophistication (aptly captured by director of photography Joseph LaShelle), Preminger found an affirmation of bedrock American values. But he burrowed into that bedrock by the most oblique and unlikely of routes, having himself a great deal of perverse fun along the way. As crafty in his own way as Caspary was in hers, Preminger managed to satisfy wartime ticket-buyers, and he continues to satisfy decadent cinéastes six decades later.
The first time I saw this film, about eight years ago I ended up almost losing a friend because I was hoarding the VHS copy he had lent me for about two months. After seeing it, I quite simply didn't want to give up the tape because in doing so, I wouldn't be able to watch it anytime I wanted to; and I did watch it anytime I wanted to, and often, until he threatened to call a Noir Intervention. I may have loved this film from the first viewing, but I wasn't prepared to deal with something like that, as entertaining as it may have been.
I fell in love with `Laura' because it is biting and evil, intelligent and surprising. The unfathomably gorgeous Gene Tierney plays the title character, an advertising executive whose best friend Waldo Lydecker (played by the always wonderful Clifton Webb) and fiancée Shelby, (a really young Vincent Price) are some of the prime suspects in her murder. The gruff detective leading the case (Dana Andrews) is Det. McPherson, and he quickly essentially falls in love with a ghost while he is trying to solve her murder.
`Laura' has one of the great Noir scripts in that just as the audience thinks they have the case solved, another curve ball is thrown at them which blows that theory out of the water. The acting is pure delightful melodrama, but Clifton Webb's performance is simply show-stopping. His character is a vicious snit of a writer who uses his column as a weapon against anyone he doesn't like or even tolerate. Even upon multiple viewings I can't help but howl at some of his lines and mannerisms.
If anyone was to request suggestions for good Film Noir movies, I would prescribe a heavy dose of `Laura' because it has something for everyone in that it is romantic, thrilling, mysterious, wickedly funny and above all, thoroughly entertaining.
This is film noir played in part as a comedy of manners. (Incidentally, a comedy of manners gets its name from the satirical possibilities in the differing class views on proper behavior--manners--exploited by playwrights to the delight of an audience placed in a superior position--they think--of social discernment. Here we can see the differentials, but they are not played for comedic effect.)
Gene Tierney (at twenty-four) stars as Laura Hunt, a beautiful career girl who, as the picture opens, has been murdered. (Shot in face with a double barreled shotgun, a point of information not dwelled on by director Otto Preminger. Today's directors, of course, would have begun with a full facial shot of the corpse.) Dana Andrews is the leading man, playing Mark McPherson, a hard-boiled police detective with a soft heart. Vincent Price, who before he became a maven of horror, was actually a soft-spoken, hunkish ladies man, plays Shelby Carpenter, who could afford to have his reputation blemished, but not his clothes. He is a man about town who would fit nicely into a British comedy of manners at the turn of the nineteenth century.
But the surprising star is Clifton Webb who plays Waldo Lydecker, venomous columnist and radio personality, who against his first impressions, falls madly (and of course hopelessly) in love with Laura and becomes her mentor. This was before the genteel and very precise veteran of the musical stage was Mr. Belvedere, and before his triumph in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), that is to say, before he was typecast as an irascible but lovable middle aged man--but not before his fiftieth birthday; strange how the fortunes of actors may go. By the way, George Sanders's Oscar-winning performance as the cynical critic in All About Eve (1950), owes something to Webb's work here.
The strength of the movie is in the intriguing storyline featuring surprising but agreeable plot twists, and especially in the fine acting by Webb, Andrews, Tierney and Price. Webb in particular is brilliant. I think this is another example of Otto Preminger getting a lot more out of his actors than he is usually given credit for. See Anatomy of a Murder 1959, starring James Stewart and Lee Remick, for another example. Known for turning commercial novels into commercial movies (e.g., The Man with the Golden Arm (1955); Exodus (1960); Advise and Consent (1962)) Preminger is at his best when he lets the material have its way. I call that the invisible style of directing and he follows it here. Add the beautiful score by David Raksin and this movie is a special treat.
As a mystery however it is a little predictable. We know from the beginning not only who will get the girl, but with a very high probability who pulled the trigger. What we don't know in the first case is how, since she is presumably dead, and in the second case, why. The lack of motive hides the killer's identity from us. But rest assured, all is unraveled in the final reel.
See this for Clifton Webb whose improbable Hollywood success, beginning with this movie, started when he was in his fifties and ended when he was in his sixties. If I were a thirty-year-old actor running to auditions, I would call that inspiration.
* The film was begun by Rouben Mamoulian, but Otto Preminger, who initiated the project as producer and took over the direction, brought on a new cameraman and scrapped all of Mamoulian's footage.
* The character of Waldo Lydecker appears to be based on the columnist, broadcaster, and "New Yorker" theater critic Alexander Woollcott, a famous wit who, like Waldo, was fascinated by murder. Woollcott always dined at the Algonquin Hotel, where Laura first approaches Waldo.
* Darryl F. Zanuck was opposed to casting Clifton Webb because of his known homosexuality, but Preminger prevailed and the 54-year-old Webb, making his first screen appearance since the silent era, was nominated for an Oscar.
* The portrait of Laura is, in fact, a photograph done over with oil paint.
* The original choice for the role of Laura was Jennifer Jones, who turned it down
* One of the film's most durable legacies was its theme song "Laura," composed over one weekend by David Raksin. Otto Preminger had originally wanted to use Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."
* The haunting theme melody was inspired by a "Dear David" letter that composer David Raksin received from his wife. The lyrics were added later by Johnny Mercer.
* This movie is famous for the haunting "Laura Theme". When asked why she had turned down the part of Laura, Hedy Lamarr said, "They sent me the script, not the score."
* Rouben Mamoulian directed "Laura" at first, but was replaced by Otto Preminger, who also produced the picture. He immediately destroyed all of Mamoulian's footage, including a scripted ending where everything was revealed to be a dream, and brought a new cameraman onto the set.
* David Raksin ended up scoring the film only after Alfred Newman determined he did not have time to score it, and Bernard Herrmann subsequently turned the project down.
* The portrait of Gene Tierney as "Laura" turned up first in _On The Riviera (1951)_ (in color) co-starring Danny Kaye. Then later in the 1954 film _Woman's World (1954)_ , which starred Clifton Webb, the frustrated Waldo Lydecker of "Laura". In "Woman's World" the painting hung on a wall amid portraits of several other women who were supposed to have been former romantic interests of Webb's character.
* This film was intended to be narrated by Waldo, then Mark, then Laura, respectively. Mark's and Laura's narratives were later dropped.
* With Johnny Mercer's poignant lyrics, David Raksin's "Laura" theme was the basis for notable recordings made in 1945 by Woody Herman and His Orchestra (vocal by Woody) on Columbia, Dick Haymes on Decca, Johnny Johnston on Capitol, and in 1947 by Frank Sinatra on Columbia.