Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on Laura by Vera Caspary)
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson
Otto Preminger is a director who skirts the fine line between mainstream classic cinema, and obscure or cult classic cinema. 1944’s film noir Laura was arguably his most successful film ever, earning him his first of two Academy Award nominations for Best Director, along with a slew of other nominations at that years Oscar ceremony, including Cinematography (the only award won by the film), Best Supporting Actor for Clifton Webb, Best Screenplay, and Best Art Direction. Preminger is a director who I’ve struggled with since getting serious about the world of film, with his movies being quiet and largely dialogue-based, mostly lacking in grand set pieces like many films of the time. He’s a filmmaker who I’ll probably explore in further detail in the future, so look out for that.
Preminger’s Laura sees detective Mark McPherson (played incredibly by Dana Andrews) investigating the apparent murder of a young woman named Laura Hunt (the lovely Gene Tierney). The circumstances behind Laura’s death are shrouded in mystery, and came at the result of a shotgun shell to the face from somebody close to her. Our prime suspects in the case are the eccentric and charismatic Waldo Lydecker (which netted an Academy Award nomination for Clifton Webb), and Laura’s fiance Shelby Carpenter (a very young Vincent Price). While on the case, detective McPherson comes to find that few of his suspects and witnesses have anything bad to say about the young beauty, and eventually begins to obsess over a dead woman he’s never even met. Fortunately for our intense detective, Laura may not exactly be as dead as she appeared to be just days before. But her sudden reappearance begs many questions: who was then murdered with the shotgun? Did the culprit think they had killed Laura Hunt? How did such a brutal crime turn so messy? I won’t spoil the film for anybody who hasn’t seen it, but those questions and more are answered in an incredibly tense and twist-filled finale.
Laura is without a doubt one of the seminal film noirs of the 1940’s, influencing the genre in a big way with its terrific femme fatale character, as well as a cast of potential murder suspects, all with their own motives and unique personalities. The character of Laura is constantly shrouded in mystery, even when the woman herself is standing right before your very eyes. Dana Andrews’ detective McPherson is incredibly compelling as our lead character, both in his obsession with an apparent dead woman and his knack for picking up on subtle clues and hints throughout the film. McPherson never seems surprised by any developments in the case, nor does he seem taken aback when things don’t go according to plan. The film is dark and full of those trademark noir shadows, billowing cigarette smoke, and superbly narrated flashbacks that perfectly play with the timeline of the film in order to give backstory and break up any possible monotony in the investigation. We learn about the mystique of Laura’s character through these flashbacks, told by Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker, a man every bit as obsessed with the young lady as our main character is.
The genre of film noir is often criticized for being very similar in tone, story, and storytelling techniques, but I can’t agree with this criticism at all. Otto Preminger’s Laura is a masterpiece in the genre, weaving an incredibly tense and mysterious story chock full of complex and layered characters, and a thrilling story that never fails to keep you guessing, even after you think you might’ve figured it all out. The beauty of film noir is that not only do you get to watch all the procedures of an investigation by your main character, but you get to be an investigator yourself. While the film may not be completely unique by today’s standards. the power it holds over the audience for the short 90-minute run-time is incomparable. There’s a great deal of fun had in trying to figure out which of these characters has murdered “Laura”, and why on earth somebody would kill somebody that everybody holds in such high-esteem. The performances throughout the film are terrific, with the standout being the Oscar-nominated turn by Clifton Webb. Lead characters Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney have terrific on-screen chemistry, never being boring or a chore to watch. Everything they do and say to each other seems completely natural. The young horror-icon Vincent Price is also a blast to watch, and his presence in the film genuinely surprised me. Laura’s cinematography is the cherry on top of this delicious film noir sundae, bringing the classic long shadows and smoky rooms to life in front of your eyes. Preminger’s Laura is an incredible example of why the film noir genre works so well when it’s truly great, and a perfect reason why myself and many others are still so enamored by the genre. Laura is terrific in almost every way, and has aged better than many films of the era. It comes highly recommended.