Today’s film is Laura. A film I, as is mostly the case from this part of the list, knew almost nothing about going into it. And again a film for which I had no expectations turns out to be a pleasant surprise.
“Laura” is at the surface a murder mystery, but includes a number of deeper elements that moves it from the trivial to the special. Well, trivial is a bit harsh. It is actually an interesting murder mystery, an excellent whodunit which a number of candidates to pick from.
“Laura”, the title character, played by Gene Tierney, is a young and pretty career woman who has been found murdered. We are presented with an acerbic and rich journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who has taken Laura under his wing as a mentor, a young, handsome (and pretty useless) playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) who were supposed to get married to Laura next Thursday, Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) who also has some sort of relationship with Shelby and finally Bessie (Dorothy Adams) the maid who found the body. All of these people have a relationship and a motive to kill Laura and we learn about Laura as they are interrogated by the police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). All of them adore her. All of them could have killed her. But who did it? And was it really Laura who died?
The dialogue driven plot revealing hitherto unknown aspects of the characters seems to be typical of the period and in “Laura” it is very well done. We really get to see these people. The scariest, but also most entertaining of them must be Waldo Lydecker. He is an arrogant ass. Initially he is most unsympathetic as he spits venom left and right, but then we get to see a more caring and passionate side of him. As he describes Laura in loving terms we even forgive him and get to like him until we realize that this care has become obsessive. He treats her not as a lover but as a narcissistic mother would. Everything is about him and he runs her life as if he was her and so she can and must focus all her interest on him. Like a mother he keeps her in a bondage of guilt. She must be grateful for all he does for her and when he sabotages all her relationships to other men it is for her sake, to protect her. As the story progresses we get to see even more of this demented man, but I will not reveal too much here.
Clifton Webb had played silent films before and was quite a name in musicals on the stage, but this was his first sound film. It gave him a name and he was forever typecast as the acerbic old gentleman. It is a fascinating character and Webb does it really well. Some of his lines are pure genius, the kind of things I would love to be able to say in a pinch, but which I thankfully is too inhibited to actually say. His first lines to Laura in the restaurant are pure gold.
Another character worth mentioning is Ann Treadwell. If you wonder where you saw her before then think of “Rebecca”. Yes, Judith Anderson was Mrs. Danvers, the demonic housekeeper on Manderley! As Treadwell she is very different. Distinguished and brittle, but also vain and pathetic. And her motive to kill Laura is so thick! When I looked her up I found out that she even had a part in a Star Trek movie. How is that for range!
Dana Andrews as the police detective McPherson is a key character who ties together the story. We learn of Laura and her life as he hears of it and we know no more than he does (mostly). Therefore he is our representative. For that part Andrews was a good pick. Both character and actor exudes integrity. We saw that in “The Ox-bow Incident” and it is no less here. Until a certain point. McPherson apparently falls in love with Laura. On the surface that is deeply unprofessional and to begin with it annoyed me. It seems like such a Hollywood cliché. The policeman and the leading lady always make for a romantic interlude. Blahh… In this case however it serves a purpose. An underlying theme is the unwitting girl who leads men and to some extent women into disaster through allure, envy and fascination. A theme previously explored in “Die Büchse der Pandora” with Louise Brooks as the girl. Following that theme it seems logical that also the policeman must be drawn into her net.
That leaves us with Laura herself. From the stories, reactions and emotions of her surroundings she must be quite an icon. There is a huge painting of her in the apartment (actually a brushed-over photography) presenting her as a goddess. What in image to fill! Gene Tierney is pretty, but if there is a tiny thing I am unhappy with in this film it is her. Maybe fashions have changed, I do not know, but she is no Louise Brooks or Laurel Bacall for that matter. I found her a bit unexceptional. The most interesting thing about is her character. Despite the pedestal everybody places her upon she is actually a modern career woman who wants to fend for herself, make her own choices and fulfill professional rather than romantic ambitions. Almost as if they got the wrong girl. Is that on purpose? If so they chose well in picking Gene Tierney. But for an unwitting seductress she is rather pedestrian.
I like this movie a lot more than I expected and it is one of those films you can see again and find more interesting elements. The DVD version comes with excellent commentaries and I much recommend listening to them. Fascinating stuff. Is it film noir? Maybe. There are a lot of noir elements. But noir is not an objective in itself, but a means to get there and in terms of elegance, darkness and secret agendas this film has plenty.