When advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is murdered shortly before her wedding day, police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) must figure out who’s responsible. Among the suspects are her fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a man with a shady past and possibly a shady present as well; her aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), whose house Carpenter frequents; and columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who acted as a sort of Pygmalion to Laura and was fiercely possessive. He had no shortage of potential rivals. “Wherever we went, she stood out,” he tells McPherson. “Men admired her. Women envied her.” As McPherson delves into her life, interviewing the people who knew her and sifting through the items in her apartment, even he, despite his cynicism, finds himself falling for her.
Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, is considered one of the quintessential examples of film noir, but I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by it. High expectations may be to blame, or maybe it was the fact that I’d seen other movies — later movies, generally — with similar themes and plot elements, so it didn’t seem as fresh as it must have upon its release in 1944. It’s a solid, well-made, entertaining film, one that I enjoyed watching; it just felt too much like noir by the numbers, at least much of the time, to live up to the hype.
If anything distinguished Laura from run-of-the-mill film noir for me, it was the character of Waldo Lydecker. At first, he reminded me of All About Eve‘s theatre critic Addison DeWitt: snobby, vain, witty, contemptuous. (“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom,” he says to Laura in a flashback.) But unlike Addison, who never seems in danger of losing control, Lydecker has an Achilles’ heel in the form of Laura herself. According to him, she considered him a paragon of both cleverness and kindness, and he tried to be the man she thought he was. When McPherson asks if he had any luck in this endeavor, he replies, “Let me put it this way: I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.” Still, it’s evident that Laura was capable of drawing out his tenderer feelings, otherwise carefully concealed under a shell of misanthropy. Unfortunately for her, it’s also evident that he wanted to control her, to keep her all for himself as his perfect woman — picking out her hairstyles and clothing, sabotaging her romances with other men.
Like the movie that bears her name, Laura, when she’s shown onscreen, doesn’t really live up to the hype, most of which comes from Lydecker. In retrospect, there’s a certain logic to this: He’s built her up into an impossible ideal in his mind. Whether or not this was intentional is another question, but it’s something I’ll have to consider if I watch Laura again someday. Now that I have some idea of what to expect, I might be pleasantly surprised by what it has to offer.
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.