By Joan Amenn
There are films that are noir and there is “Laura” (1944) which is in a class by itself. Nominated for five Oscars and winning for Best Black and White Cinematography, “Laura” is the kind of film that can be viewed many times over and never grows tired. Much like the portrait of the femme fatale herself, it has charm and elegance, and a surprisingly sharp edge.
Gene Tierney would have been 102 on November 19, 2022. Luminous doesn’t begin to describe her and in this film, the camera seems to hang onto her every gesture. As the main character, Laura is a complex woman. She is ambitious, intelligent but still a bit naïve and a little too trusting of men who would do her wrong. Not to spoil the suspense, but there is more than one man in this film that would fit that description. Laura has a great sense of empathy and kindness which makes her very appealing but she also has a sultry pout that keeps her from becoming too saccharine.
Vincent Price, of all people, plays a potential suiter of Laura’s and surprisingly, he’s quite convincing. He’s a cad, of course, but a quite sweet (and very tall) man child. As legend would have it, he would have serenaded Laura in a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps that is just as well, because if you have ever seen “The Muppet Show” episode he starred in, you can imagine how it might have sounded. He does hold his own against the amazing Clifton Webb, who gives a stunning performance as Laura’s Svengali, Waldo Lydecker. Webb gets all the best lines of a crackling script and he makes the most of each one of them.
Webb does almost eclipse leading man Dana Andrews but it’s the latter’s underplaying that makes their verbal sparring all the sharper. Lydecker obviously thinks he is the smartest person in the room and Andrews as Lt. Mark McPherson lets him indulge himself. Also, Andrews has an interesting quirk of playing with a child’s handheld puzzle as a way of coping with the stress of his job, or perhaps PTSD from a severe injury that Lydecker references early in the film. It’s a fascinatingly nuanced character study by Andrews that elevates “Laura” to more than just a B-rated noir.
But all of these men are drawn into the orbit of Laura herself and none of them can resist her. The lovely title song does Tierney justice, much more so than the portrait of her that hangs in her apartment that becomes an obsession of Lt. McPherson. The psychological themes of possession, narcissistic dominance, and desperation all make “Laura” quite the melodrama but it has a pop of wry humor that keeps it from getting bogged down.
Otto Preminger was many things off the studio lot but he could also be an outstanding director. With “Laura” he showed how he could orchestrate great performances from an ensemble of actors who could each easily have overshadowed lesser performers. Instead, we see a kind of visual orchestration of an almost electric intensity. “Laura” is timeless because it is more than just a crime thriller and its lovely title star is just as bewitching today as when the film was first released in the 1940’s.