The moment that Laura began and I was listening to the opening narration, I immediately realized that this movie was going to be different from the typical film noir style.
“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 Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her.” It’s not the narration itself that’s surprising. It’s a film noir, after all. It’s what the narration reveals. Ten seconds in, and the movie’s supposed femme fatale is dead. That is unheard of in this sort of genre. Maybe at the ending of the movie, or at the very least the last third. But the first 10 seconds? Are you high?! Regardless, the most impressive thing about this large tweak to an integral film noir trope is that the film manages to use this unique storytelling device to its advantage. Laura not only perfectly exemplifies its genre with this change, but it manages to do it in a way that makes it on par with other film noir classics like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity.
Laura is about a New York Police detective named Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) who is investigating the murder of a young woman named Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who was killed with a shotgun shell to the face outside her apartment. In typical film noir fashion, Mark is a hard drinking, chain smoking, sarcastic tough guy who tries to get to the bottom of this murder by interviewing the people who knew Laura best. This includes the pompous newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s handsome yet ingratiating fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s aunt and Shelby’s confidant Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) and Laura’s housekeeper Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams). As time goes on, McPherson’s investigation and interest in Laura gets deeper, Laura’s squeaky clean backstory becomes more suspect, suspects become more suspicious and the amount of whisky thats consumed on an hourly basis steadily grows larger. The last bit doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their guilt. It’s a film noir. They drink like fish no matter what. But two questions remain constant: Who killed Laura and why?
Laura is filled with all kinds of film noir staples, like the aforementioned excessive drinking and smoking, the chiaroscuro lighting, the somber and dramatic music, the fair number of mistrustful suspects and a detective main character with unresolved women issues who is solving a murder mystery. But then there’s the unexpectedly dead femme fatale I mentioned. There’s a different sort of femme fatale flavor attached to the character of Laura, who still seems to have a presence in the film despite her life deprived condition. After rewatching some scenes, I realized that a large painting of Laura hangs in her apartment and is often positioned in a decent chunk of the frame during many of the scenes. It’s as if she’s eavesdropping beyond the grave. Laura’s death, nay, her very existence also clearly affected her friends and loved ones on various levels, and she is used for various people’s justifications of certain actions. Even when she’s dead, this siren is still able to push people to their darker natures. It’s an off-putting but incredibly clever spin on the femme fatale theme. Innocent or guilty, intentional or unintentional, that dame is still poison. There are also other clever ways that the movie is filmed that demand a rewatch in how they allude to certain clues and revelations, but those are a bit too spoiler heavy to talk about here. All I’ll say is there are plenty of pieces of mise en scène throughout the movie that become much more noticeable and well thought out on a second watch.
The people who were chosen for the supporting cast are odd choices at first glance, and could have easily been misused if it weren’t for the fantastic direction of Otto Preminger, who would go on to direct two other film noir classics, Fallen Angel and Angel Face (I’m sensing an artistic pattern here). Unlike the supporting casts of other film noirs who are more akin to the main character in terms of toughness and grittiness, the characters of Waldo Lydecker and Shelby Carpenter are the furthest from those definitions that I can imagine. They are both effeminate characters, with Price playing Shelby like a Kentuckian playboy, and Webb portraying Waldo like a delicate dandy. Let’s just say I have a hard time believing that these two have any romantic feelings towards Laura, or any woman for that matter. They’re odd casting and character choices for a film noir, to be sure. But their womanly traits only add to the paranoia and suspicion that McPherson is wrestling with as he delves deeper into their lives and Laura’s. Especially when the secrets start spilling out. Waldo Lydecker is probably my favorite character in the film because of how his feminine nature relates to his relationship with Laura.
Laura is a picture perfect film noir. It has an unorthodox but unique take on the femme fatale trope, a strong cast, a captivating murder mystery, great cinematography, classic film noir lighting, a beautifully moody soundtrack and its got one hell of a plot twist. It’s one of the many examples of why classic film noir is a brilliant style, but it also shows how the seemingly rigid archetypical formula that drives the genre can be malleable enough to make it fresh and exciting.