Laura: Classic Film Noir, Starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb

You would better watch out McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.
Clifton Webb to Dana Andrews

With time, “Laura,” Otto Preminger’s 1944 masterpiece, has become richer in texture, deeper in meaning, and more problematic, both thematically and stylistically, than most noir films of that era.

Cult Status

“Laura” has achieved the status of a classic for several different reasons. First, it was one of five films that French critic Nino Frank identified as film noir, when he coined the term in 1946 to designate resemblance between some dark and somber Hollywood pictures and the hard-boiled detective fiction, which was published by Galimard as part of its Serie Noire.

Second, the film boast a score and song that have become legendary. Composer Raksin’s lush tune contributed immensely to the film’s popularity. However, few know that the famous song, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, was commissioned by Fox several months after the film was released to increase the visibility of the movie that had already been popular.

Finally, there’s the deliciously nasty performance of Clifton Webb, as the effete journalist-commentator and Laura’s mentor, who’s given the script best lines, such as the one above.

DVD Edition

“Laura” is part of Fox’s Noir DVD Collection that also includes Henry Hathaway’s terrific crimer, “Call Northside 777” (1948) and Elia Kazan’s worthy political drama, “Panic in the Streets” (1951). Since the essay on “Laura” is rather long, Ill review the other films in the collection on another occasion.

The DVD showcases both a widescreen and extended version of the film. Additionally, there is commentary from legendary composer David Raksin and historians Jenaine Basinger and Rudy Behlmer. The disc also contains one deleted scene, the original theatrical trailer, and two biographies, “Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait” and Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain.”

Behind-the-Scenes

A troubled production from beginning to end, “Laura” serves as a case study for the notorious battles between strong directors, such as Preminger, and even stronger studio executives, such as Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of Fox. Initially, Preminger was assigned to produce “Laura,” and Rouben Mamoulian to direct. However, Zanuck hated the dailies and, after firing Mamoulian, let Preminger also become the director, which was all along his goal.

Preminger had to fight Fox because the studio didn’t want Clifton Webb to play the part of Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s mentor. Webb was reportedly was too effeminate and tended to flaunt his homosexuality in public. Nonetheless, in this first film of him, the British thespian gives such a marvelously idiosyncratic performance that he dominates every scene he is in, overshadowing all the other performers, including that of the tale’s nominal hero, detective Marc McPherson, played by Dana Andrews.

Oscar Winner

Nominated for five Oscars, “Laura” won one, for the evocative black-and-white cinematography of Joseph LaShelle. This was LaShelle’s first nod and only Oscar, though he was nominated eight more times. The film’s other nominations were: Director, Preminger (the winner was Leo McCarey for “Going My Way”); Supporting Actor, Clifton Webb (who lost to Barry Fitzgerald in McCarey’s comedy); Screenplay, credited to Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt (the winners were Frank Butler and Frank Cavett for “Going My Way”); and Interior Direction, Jay Wheeler and Leland Fuller, art direction, and Thomas Little, set decoration. The Art Direction Oscar went to George Cukor’s Hitchcockian thriller, “Gaslight,” toplined by Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning turn.

Laura as Film Noir

The story is rather simple: McPherson is investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a woman allegedly killed by a shotgun blast to the head. He goes to see Waldo Lydecker, an acid-tongued radio and newspaper commentator, who knew Laura well. Together, they visit Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson), Laura’s aunt, who’s attracted to Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who’s Laura’s fianc.

Uncharacteristically to the noir genre, “Laura” contains a happy resolution. At the end, Laura leaves with detective McPherson. Noir purists fault the film for being a romantic melodrama than a quintessential noir, which usually ends in defeat and death, or at least a more somber note. “Laura” posits a world in which every player is implicated, since each one has the motive and capacity to commit the murder. Laura herself becomes a suspect in what turns out to be the murder of a friend who had been found dead in her apartment. Given such a premise, the ostensibly happy ending seems all the more incoherent. Fortunately, for most of the film, ambiguity prevails.

Structurally, “Laura” is divided into two equal parts: In the first half, the viewers are led to believe that Laura is dead, and in the second, that she is alive. The transition between the two parts occurs when detective McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment, and she walks in the door; Laura was going to spend a weekend in the country.

Stylistically, the movie is clothed in the sumptuous, dream-like atmosphere of LaShelle’s cinematography. The smooth yet probing camera is the perfect visual analogue to Lydecker’s perversions and Mark’s obsessions. Preminger makes the audience complicit with McPherson’s insatiable curiosity. One of the film’s best scenes shows McPherson moving around Laura’s apartment, peering into her closets, examining her possessions, poring over her letters and diary.

McPherson and Lydecker represent two men with vastly different temperament and personality. Yet both are enthralled by an elusive woman who reveals little of herself to either of them. McPherson is clearly the desirable male, whereas Lydecker is the villain, the undesirable homosexual. Nonetheless, both men are driven by the same obsession, the Laura that each creates in his fantasy, which has little correspondence to reality. This theme recalls the central ideas of obsession and male control in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Vertigo,” in the imagery that Jimmy Stewart tries to impose on Kim Novak

McPherson is a flawed hero, pragmatic yet romantic. When asked by Lydecker if he’s ever been in love, he replies: “A doll in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once.” Is McPherson only capable of loving the perfumed ghost of a woman he believes is dead, and who becomes a dream expressed in a portrait In another scene, Lydecker accuses McPherson of falling in love with a dead woman, before asking: “Have you ever dreamed of Laura as your wife”

As was noted by several scholars, anti-intellectualism is a theme throughout film noir and American film in general. Real men should never show interest in books, music, or fashion. Lydecker is depicted as an effete intellectual who’s savage murderer, a man unloved and unwanted by beautiful women like Laura. At the end, Laura prefers the company of a dull cop to that of an intellectual art critic.

For a detective mystery, the film doesn’t follow a linear evolution. In fact, the visuals distract that detract the viewers from a direct involvement in the story. “Laura” allows the spectator to transgress the prohibitions against voyeurism and fetishism in classic Hollywood cinema, but it does so cautiously by grounding them in a concrete, realistic setting.

It’s also worth noting the shifting POVs in the story, centering on two perspectives: Initially that of Lydecker, and subsequently that of McPherson. The dividing point comes after the restaurant scene in which Lydecker relates to McPherson his friendship with Laura through a long series of flashbacks. At the end, when the mystery is resolved, the film drops the use of individual POV and present the final events from a more objective and omniscient angle.