Somewhat derivative of the Pygmalion genus, Laura is a romantic melodrama revolving around a murder mystery.
Perhaps Laura’s principal renown today is that it has been taken uncritically as an original exemplar of film noir, after Italian-born French film critic, Nino Frank, writing in L’Écran français (French Screen), passingly attached the label noir to it in 1946.
Sure, murder is dark subject matter, but neither the 1943 novel by Vera Caspary, nor Otto Preminger’s film, scripted by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt, and the uncredited Ring Lardner Jr, intend the murder to overshadow other themes: possessive jealousy; the idea a successful woman was created from an artless girl by the mentoring of a lecherous older man (would we call that grooming today?); and that the man who uncovers the true natures of those orbiting Laura Hunt’s life is her most worthy suitor.
The story has police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigate the assumed murder of celebrated and beautiful young advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) by interviewing the newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), playboy fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and some others, only to find that Hunt is still alive. The murdered woman, shotgunned in the face turns out to be a model working for Hunt, making her the prime suspect, until McPherson traps the real killer.
There’s plenty of psychology here: Lydecker as the influential older man with a manipulative, possessive streak; Carpenter as an effete and exploitative dandy; and Laura herself as a genuinely likable woman striving for independence from those men while trying not to hurt their feelings. But film noir it just isn’t.
The point could be argued ad nauseam, but my perspective is that film noir isn’t simply a sum calculated by counting the number of times a claim has been made for this or that film to be part of that genre. Nor is Nino Frank some kind of revered originator, to be treated uncritically as final arbiter in that matter. Film noir deals with dark subject matter in several dimensions, including the psychology of the characters, involved mostly in hardboiled crime dramas, but also sub-texts and allusions to wider social and political truths that could not be more directly referenced during the 1940s to early 1960s for political reasons.
Looking at Laura again today, it is more a brooding whodunnit than a hardboiled, cynical crime story. Despite revolving around a murder (not so shocking during the most destructive war the world had ever seen), the film oozes optimism, focusing on the genuine and lovely nature of an artless girl turned into a society sophisticate. If there were any political overtones to this story, such as those in many of Preminger’s later films, I missed them.
It’s not an argument anyone can ever win or lose. I’ll settle for the fact that Laura is considered at least a close relative of the genre.
Dana Andrews gives a nicely understated performance as the detective uncovering the mystery by a non-linear, intuitive approach of eliminating the confusing elements of the story to expose what is left, as mentioned by critic Keith Dromm (‘The facts before our eyes: Wittgenstein and the film noir’ in Film-Philosophy Journal, volume 17, number 1, 2013, pages 1-18).
Nevertheless, the process of elimination leads to a deus ex machina solution: there aren’t enough clues to lead the audience to a definitive solution, with the oily Carpenter being so obviously presented as a reprehensible opportunist that he can’t possibly be the villain.
Gene Tierney’s performance didn’t really meet the long build-up to the sophisticated and professional career woman that makes up the early part of the film. But Vincent Price was worth watching as a lounge lizard before he became to inextricably typecast as a horror film villain.
Whether it’s a great film, a founding noir exemplar, or merely a popular 1940s melodrama, Laura is still more rewarding to watch than some contemporary superhero potboilers or formula Christmas comedies.
20th Century Fox, 88 minutes, black and white.
Directed and produced by Otto Preminger. Written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, and Ring Lardner Jr, based on the novel by Vera Caspary. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Music by David Raksin.
With Gene Tierney as Laura Hunt, Dana Andrews as Det Lt Mark McPherson, Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker, Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter, Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell.