Noirvember Files: Laura (1944)
Film noir of the 1940s conjures up certain images: lantern-jawed private eyes in rumpled suits, silvery blondes bisected by Venetian blinds, and an overall atmosphere of whiskey and gunpowder. Otto Preminger’s Laura is an unforgettable film noir precisely because it surprises us; there is a murder, of course, and a detective, but we never see him sulk behind a desk or shoot gangsters. Our heroine, Laura, is no femme fatale, but a career girl whose biggest sin is loving not wisely, but too well. Laura is the rare noir that isn’t hard or gritty, but instead as silky soft as a nightgown. The film’s tone is established early on by Waldo Lydecker, our self-appointed narrator, who presents the central crime as a kind of shimmering nightmare: “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone.”
Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has carved out a successful career at an ad agency; she possesses a sweeping penthouse apartment, a charming but useless fiancée, and the friendship of Lydecker, noted columnist and “the most misquoted man in America.” But one night, just before her wedding, she answers the doorbell and her face is annihilated by a shotgun blast. Detective Mark McPherson (a stoic Dana Andrews) investigates the killing and attempts to unravel the mysteries of Laura’s life and death. Our first glimpse of Laura is through Lydecker’s eyes, and he regales McPherson of their first disastrous meeting and how he subsequently molded the career gal into a more perfect woman-- implicitly taking credit for the successes that were due to Laura’s own pluck and ambition.
McPherson haunts Laura’s apartment, reading her diaries and letters and forming his own image of Laura even as her glamorous portrait on the wall (actually a retouched photo of Tierney) watches him. Viewing this movie for the first time, we expect a trajectory where men—detective, friend, fiancée--fight to possess the memory of a dead woman who exists only within their male gaze. But then the movie pivots—and Gene Tierney walks through the door. Like Psycho played in reverse, halfway through the film our murdered heroine returns to life.
If we’re unlocking the key to Laura, we have to recognize that before she belonged to Otto Preminger, she belonged to Vera Caspary. Caspary specialized in novels named after their heroines—Laura, Bedelia, Evvie—women who fought for a sliver of independence in an unforgiving era, though they often brushed paths with murderers or, in Bedelia’s case, became the murderer. More interested in the interior lives of her characters than typical mysteries, her loathing for stereotypical detectives was clear and even makes it into the film. (Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie tells McPherson she was raised to spit on cops.) Though Caspary admired some aspects of the film version of Laura, she resented Preminger’s dismissive attitudes toward its heroine, and, after encountering each other at the Stork Club, the pair reportedly got into a heated argument about the film—the kind of scene that would no doubt precede a murder if it was one of Caspary’s books.
Gene Tierney’s Laura isn’t quite the character of the novel, but it would be wrong to dismiss her as a beautiful blank. She reveals to McPherson that she was staying at an isolated cabin, contemplating her impending marriage, and it was Diane Redfern, a model with a taste for Laura’s apartment, clothing, and men, who took the blast meant for her. It was Laura’s streak of independence, her unwillingness to stay home for a faithless and mediocre man, that saved her life. (Laura’s mysterious character clearly resonated with director David Lynch, who bestowed her name on another dead-alive girl with a doppelganger; other names from the film, like “Diane,” “Waldo,” and “Jacoby,” echo throughout Twin Peaks like voices in a half-forgotten dream.)
Laura joins McPherson in using the greatly exaggerated reports of her death to root out the killer, though she herself isn’t above suspicion. As with other noir masterpieces like The Big Sleep, the central mystery is almost irrelevant, and Laura features a deliciously wicked lineup of suspects. There’s Vincent Price as her fiancée, looking shockingly young and vulnerable without his mustache, and Rebecca’s malevolent Judith Anderson as the wealthy older woman who loves him. The role of Waldo Lydecker earned Clifton Webb an Academy Award nomination, and he earns it with every line, aiming his words like they’re poisoned darts.
It’s possible to overlook Dana Andrews’ performance as McPherson because he’s inhabiting the most typically noir role: the hard-drinking, working class detective who—gasp!—calls women “dames.” And yet, there’s a certain soulfulness to McPherson, who can say more with his silences than Lydecker can with acidic diatribes. Perceptive and imaginative, he feels drawn to Laura before he learns she’s alive, even trying to buy her portrait at auction—but it’s the living woman he comes to love, not a pretty picture. His ability to see the real woman and love her without trying to control her wins Laura’s heart and provokes the jealousy of the killer—inevitably exposing them. This hint of Gothic romance—a love story from almost beyond the grave—adds to Laura’s allure. It’s a classic noir that trades grimy back alleys for the soft interiors of a woman’s parlor, and it’s mysterious and dreamy in a way the genre rarely is.
Gene Tierney’s Laura, career-minded, independent, determined to choose the man she loves even in the face of a maniac’s wrath, is one of the most remarkable leading ladies in film noir. Since I quoted Preminger’s film at the beginning of this article, I want to end with Caspary’s novel, and reconcile the two Lauras who both stand triumphant over their would-be killers: “But she is carved from Adam’s rib, indestructible as legend, and no man will ever aim his malice with sufficient accuracy to destroy her.”