Laura (1944): Preminger’s First Masterpice, Oscar Nominated Melodrama, Starring Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb

With time, Otto Preminger’s “Laura” gets richer in texture, deeper in meaning, and more problematic than most noir films of the 1940s.

An intense meditation on the nature of love and control, “Laura” tackles such taboo issues as voyeurism, fetishism, and necrophilia, a whole decade before Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Vertigo,” which bears some thematic resemblance to the 1944 film in its disturbing depiction of obsessive love initiated by an encounter with a portrait and a presumably dead woman.

A troubled production from beginning to end, “Laura” serves as a case study for the notorious battles between strong directors and even stronger execs, such as Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth-Century Fox. Initially, Preminger was to produce, but Zanuck hated Rouben Mamoulian’s dailies and Preminger got his wish to direct the movie.

“Laura” has achieved its classic status for several 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 suggest similarities between a cycle of dark Hollywood pictures and the hard-boiled detective fiction published by Gallimard as part of its “Serie Noire.”

Contributing to the film’s distinctive mood is David Raksin’s lush tune, to which lyrics were added by Johnny Mercer, months after the film’s release, at the behest of Fox. The haunting theme song that resulted made “Laura” even more popular at the box office.

Finally, Preminger had to fight to cast Clifton Webb in the crucial part of Waldo Lydecker, the shrewd columnist and Laura’s mentor, due to Fox’s concerns that Webb was too effeminate. Preminger won, and “Laura” became the first major film for the British thespian, who gives such an idiosyncratic and deliciously nasty performance that he overshadows the other actors.

The storyline is deceptively simple. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), presumably killed by a shotgun. He goes to see Lydecker, an acid-tongued radio and newspaper commentator who knew Laura well. Together they visit Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), Laura’s aunt, who is infatuated with Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s fiancé.

Thematically, “Laura” depicts a cynical world in which every player has a motive and capacity for murder. Given such a premise, the ostensibly happy ending –Laura and McPherson embark on a new life together – is strange and incoherent. That is the reason purists fault “Laura” for being more of a romantic melodrama than a quintessential noir, whose innate pessimism usually leads to loss and defeat.

Structurally, “Laura” is divided into two equal parts. In the first half, the audience believes that Laura is dead, and in the second, that she is alive. The transition occurs when McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment beneath the gaze of her portrait, and she walks through the door. You can see the influence of the seminal “Citizen Kane,” whose story of the investigation of a complex figure and convoluted temporal structure likewise depends on flashbacks. In both films, the characters’ pasts reveal crucial cues to their present problems.

Manipulation of point of view is a common component of the detective film. What makes “Laura” intriguing is that even though Lydecker is a prime suspect, he narrates the first half, giving the impression that he’s the protagonist. Lydecker’s opening line, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” indicates a subjective POV. He then relates how he met Laura, helped her career in advertising, and succeeded in defeating her romances with other men.

McPherson plays a phlegmatic, unimportant role in the first half. But once the camera indicates the transfer of the POV from Lydecker to McPherson, most of the scenes begin with McPherson arriving at the scene or already on hand. For the sake of clarity, the POV stays with the detective, but in the final scene, when Lydecker is disclosed as the killer, the film abandons individual POV entirely for an objective perspective.

The most controversial issues here are voyeurism and fetishisism, exhibited by both Lydecker and McPherson. Indeed, despite divergent personalities, the two men share an obsession with Laura and a need to control her as an object of desire. They embody different values and temperaments, yet both are in thrall to an elusive woman who reveals little of herself. The Laura that each creates is therefore a product of fantasy.

Laura remains an enigma throughout the film. Her only act of independence is to go to the country for a weekend (during which the murder occurs) in order to resolve her feelings for Shelby Carpenter. On her return, she resumes a passive role and is again manipulated, this time by the detective. Early on, Lydecker tell Laura: “You have one tragic weakness. With you, a lean, strong body is the measure of a man, and you always get hurt.” It’s therefore not surprising that Laura ends up preferring the company of the dull but virile cop to the effete art critic. Anti-intellectualism is a motif running through all Hollywood genres, not just noir; real men are not supposed to be interested in literature, art, or music, all signs of effeminacy or homosexuality.

McPherson falls in love with a dead woman through her diary and portrait. In the film’s creepiest scene, McPherson, motivated by insatiable curiosity and desire, examines Laura’s possessions. He stares at her portrait, has a drink, considers her bed, handkerchief, perfume, and clothes, reads her diary and falls asleep in her easy chair, all signals that he’s engaged in a sexual fantasy. Is McPherson only able to love the ghost of a woman, a dream expressed in an artwork?

“Laura” not only allows but encourages viewers to transgress the Production Code’s prohibitions against voyeurism and fetishism. Raksin’s score underlines the romantic-fantasy element of McPherson’s exploration, and the whole movie is clothed in a sumptuously dreamy and supernatural atmosphere, lavishly photographed by Joseph LaShelle. Preminger’s gliding yet probing camera is the perfect visual analogue to Lydecker’s perversions and McPherson’s obsessions.

All the important ideas are conveyed in the interactions between McPherson and Lydecker, although it’s bizarre that the detective spends so much time with his prime suspect. Lydecker brings into the open McPherson’s latent fantasies when he asks: “Have you ever dreamed of Laura as your wife?” And he continues to taunt him: “You’d better watch out 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.”

Like most noir protagonists, McPherson is a flawed hero, suffering from mental imbalance. He constantly plays with a pocket baseball game; it “keeps me calm.” He explodes at a party and punches Carpenter. There’s also a mention of a gunfight in which McPherson was injured and which might have left mental scars. His brusque manner often crosses the line; while interrogating Laura under glaring lights, he leans over her aggressively in a scene replete with sexual connotations: “Now, did you really decide to call the marriage off, or did you just tell me that because you know I wanted to hear it?” McPherson conceals a smile and a sigh of relief when Laura declares that she doesn’t love Carpenter.

Though tough, McPherson is insecure and immature where women are concerned. 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.” When they inspect Laura’s apartment, Lydecker says: “Look around, is this the home of a dame?” expressing resentment over McPherson’s vulgar description of his Laura.
In the final reel, the unloved and unwanted Lydecker is reduced to a sadistic madman seeking revenge. His first shotgun blast was meant to mutilate Laura’s face beyond recognition, and he uses the same gun for his second try at her.

First seen in the credit sequence, Laura’s portrait becomes a permanent fixture, even a character. The camera concentrates on Lydecker and McPherson’s focused gaze on it, and their gaze guides the viewers’ perspective, which in turn is reinforced by the painting’s composition. Laura seems to be looking at them – at us – from any place in the room.

Despite the ”happy ending,” ambiguity prevails. When Laura and McPherson walk off together, the camera doesn’t follow them but tracks back to the shattered clock, and the film assigns to Lydecker the final words: “Goodbye, my love.” The clock, a symbol of their asexual, intellectual relationship, is Laura’s last link to Lydecker; by destroying the clock, she is free. But is she really? Laura’s departure with the detective suggests that she is moving into yet another unhealthy relationship with a “lean and strong” man. As Lydecker said, it’s Laura’s “one tragic weakness.”