Laura (1944) is one of the most stylish, elegant, moody, and witty classic film noirs ever made with an ensemble cast of characters. Producer Otto Preminger ultimately ended up directing the film, after filming was begun by Rouben Mamoulian and his cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Preminger's film falls under the category of romantic, melodramatic mystery/detective thriller. It might also be called a psychological study of deviant, kinky obsession, because almost everyone in the cast loves the title character - Laura. One lobby poster dramatically declared: "The story of a love that became the most fearful thing that ever happened to a woman."
Laura is characterized by shadowy, dream-like, high-contrast black and white cinematography, and taut and smart dialogue in a quick succession of scenes. It presents the recognizably-poignant and haunting 'Laura' signature theme music, and a decadent and morally-corrupt group of upper-class society types. Almost all of the main protagonists in the entertaining who-dun-it are treated as suspects for a down-to-earth detective. Among the unusual characters are:
- a dim-witted, slithery Southern playboy/gigolo from Kentucky (Vincent Price)
- a cynical, mannered and prickly society columnist (Clifton Webb in his first screen appearance since the silent era); also an effete intellectual and an aloof bachelor (with many gay affects)
- an aging, well-heeled, matronly socialite (Judith Anderson) who lusts after the gigolo
- a beautiful career woman and ad designer (Gene Tierney), seen in her own apartment's fireplace portrait - the gorgeous heroine who is presumed dead for about half of the film
- an unconventional, puzzle-playing, chain-smoking, dead-pan-speaking detective (Dana Andrews)
Trailers for the compelling film promised: "Never has a woman been so beautiful, so exotic, so dangerous to know!", and Gene Tierney (in her signature film role as Laura) delivered with exquisite elegance and sublime, breathtaking beauty the role of the untouchable 'work of art'. [Both Jennifer Jones and Hedy Lamarr had turned down the title role.] A film with the similar theme of a man bewitched with a woman's portrait was Fritz Lang's sad and nightmarish film noir The Woman in the Window (1944).
The highly-polished film was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Director (Otto Preminger), Best Cinematography (Joseph LaShelle), Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), Best Art Direction and Best Screenplay, and it received the award for Best Cinematography. The crisply-written screenplay (by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt) was based on the play and novel of the same name by Vera Caspary. [Though a number of allusions to Lydecker's homosexuality were cut from the script before filming began, the hyper-protective character expressed hetero-like jealousy over anyone else's attention toward Laura, particularly by the detective, even resorting to murdering her to keep her 'pure' and to himself.] The successful novel had previously been serialized in Collier's Magazine (October-November 1942) as "Ring Twice for Laura."The Story
The opening title and credits play atop the haunting portrait of the eponymous title character as the haunting 'Laura' theme music (the film's famous atmospheric theme tune by David Raksin) plays. [Otto Preminger had originally wanted Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Lady to be the film's theme.] After the black opening screen, society columnist Waldo Lydecker's (55 year old Clifton Webb in his sound-film debut - his last feature film had been the silent The Heart of a Siren (1925)) off-screen voice intones, in a measured way, during the flashback. [The character of Waldo Lydecker was reportedly based upon New Yorker theatre critic, columnist and broadcaster Alexander Woolcott.] [It is deeply ironic that the narrator was actually a dead man by film's end, and that he was the one who was responsible for 'Laura's' presumed murder! The narration could also possibly be partially composed of quotes taken from a diary or notes that Lydecker might have written - that were found after his death.]
During the narrated flashback, the camera tracks from left to right across glass cabinets with beautifully-displayed shelves of priceless objets d'art that are placed in the alcove of his elegantly-expensive, New York City apartment/penthouse. The narration continues throughout the filmed tour, past an Oriental statue, wall-mounted ceramic heads, and a baroque grandfather clock with pendulum (the clock holds more meaning beyond its present context!).
The film opens on the hottest day of the summer of 1944. The narration reveals that the story takes place in the recent past, at the time of 'Laura's' death:
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. And I had just begun to write Laura's story when - another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door. (The chiming of the antique clock on the half-hour attracts the detective's attention, and he walks over to it.) I noted that his attention was fixed upon my clock. There was only one other in existence, and that was in Laura's apartment in the very room where she was murdered.
Rough-hewn, but handsome gumshoe/police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) of the Homicide Bureau examines the interior of Lydecker's apartment until the writer calls to him (from off-camera) to join him in his lavish bathroom:
McPherson: Nice little place you have here, Lydecker.
Lydecker: It's lavish, but I call it home.
The acerbic critic/writer is naked - reclining in his bath water at one end of his gigantic marble bathtub. A swing-away marble shelf or platform positioned across the marble sides of the tub holds his typewriter and hides his nudity. Caustically, Lydecker describes the murder of his protege Laura Hunt (on Friday night) and his earlier statement to police on Saturday morning:
Lydecker: Yesterday morning after Laura's body was found, I was questioned by Sergeants McAvity and Schultz. And I stated: (He reads from his typed statement) 'On Friday night, Laura had a dinner engagement with me, after which she was ostensibly going out of town. She phoned and cancelled our engagement at exactly seven o'clock. After that...
McPherson: ...you ate a lonely dinner, then got into the tub to read.' Why did you write it down? Afraid you'd forget it?
Lydecker: I am the most widely mis-quoted man in America. When my friends do it, I resent it. From Sergeants McAvity and Schultz, I should find it intolerable. (He pushes away his typewriter stand.) Hand me that washcloth please, Mr. __ , Mr. __ ?
McPherson: McPherson. (He tosses the washcloth at Lydecker, stands, and turns away.)
Lydecker admires McPherson's reputation for hard-boiled, tough-nosed police work: "The Siege of Babylon, Long Island. The gangster with a machine gun killed three policemen. I told the story over the air. Wrote a column about it. Are you the one with the leg full of lead? The man who walked right in and got him?" And then, Lydecker stands (off-camera) to reveal his entire naked body as he asks McPherson for his robe. Amusingly, McPherson glances at Lydecker, looks down, smirks, and then reaches for the robe. He also compliments the columnist on his memory:
McPherson: You have a pretty good memory, Mr. Lydecker. (He throws the full-length robe at Lydecker.)
Lydecker: I always liked that detective with a silver shinbone.
McPherson: Thanks. I hope you won't have any reason to change your mind about me.
Lydecker can't shed much information about the Friday night murder, even though he claimed (in the narration) that he "was the only one who really knew her." Interested in details, McPherson questions Lydecker about his October 17th column two years earlier, when he "switched over" from a book review to an account of the Harrington murder case. Lydecker had written about the past murder with the same modus operandi as the Laura Hunt murder:
McPherson: You said Harrington was rubbed out with a shotgun loaded with buckshot, the way Laura Hunt was murdered, the night before last.
Lydecker: Did I?
McPherson: Yeah. But he was really killed with a sash weight.
Lydecker: How ordinary. My version was obviously superior. I never bother with details, you know.
McPherson: I do.
Because murder is his "favorite crime" and he writes about it regularly, the renowned, droll columnist Lydecker insists on helping McPherson in his assigned investigation, even though he is a suspect:
I know you'll have to visit everyone on your list of suspects. I like to study their reactions.
And he is egotistically pleased and flattered to be considered one of the murder suspects on the list: "To have overlooked me would have been a pointed insult." As the vain Lydecker finishes dressing in his apartment, he gives telling glances toward the young detective, and appears to have gay affects [typical of films in the 1930's-1950's]. As he knots his tie in a mirror, Lydecker taunts McPherson's investigation with his own innocence:
If you know anything about faces, look at mine. How singularly innocent I look this morning. Have you ever seen such candid eyes?
[McPherson eventually collects four suspects in his search for the murderer of Laura Hunt - a successful advertising career girl who was shot in the face with a shotgun in her NY apartment. Because her face was obliterated by the blast at close range, she was identified by her clothing:
- Waldo Lydecker - a waspish columnist and radio broadcaster - a self-centered, cold-blooded and effeminate writer; also Laura's mentor and protective confidant
- Shelby Carpenter - Laura's fiancee, a womanizing, poor, weak, but charming and debonair Southern aristocrat
- Anne Treadwell - Laura's wealthy, amoral aunt, neurotically in love with Shelby
- Bessie Clary - Laura's devoted, domestic maid]
The detective pays little attention to Lydecker, and amuses himself with a hand-held pinball puzzle, as he tries to fill the four bases of a baseball diamond with rolling balls. Their conversation continues as Lydecker puts on his coat and places a white carnation in his lapel:
McPherson: Were you in love with Laura Hunt, Mr. Lydecker? Was she in love with you?
Lydecker: Laura considered me the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she'd ever met. And I was in complete accord with her on that point. She thought me also the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.
McPherson: Did you agree with her there, too?
Lydecker: McPherson, you won't understand this. But I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.
McPherson: Have any luck?
Lydecker: (callously) Let me put it this way. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors' children devoured by wolves. Shall we go?
They first proceed in a taxi to the apartment of one of the other suspects, Laura's upper-crust, spinster aunt named Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson), a middle-aged society woman. Anne "adored her" niece and "collapsed" when she identified the body - but Laura's face was unrecognizable and "not very nice to look at." As the kept woman ("patroness") of Shelby Carpenter, a handsome young Southern aristocrat, Mrs. Treadwell is decidedly defensive and jealous of the younger Laura, her engagement, and her possible forthcoming marriage to Carpenter:
McPherson: Did you approve of Miss Hunt's coming marriage to Mr. Carpenter?
Anne: Why? Shouldn't I approve?
McPherson: I don't know. What is your relationship with Mr. Carpenter?
Anne: What do you mean?
McPherson: What I mean is he's been a frequent guest in your home. Is he an acquaintance, friend? Are you in love with him?
Lydecker: This is beginning to assume fabulous aspects.
Anne: Oh, shut up, Waldo! What are you driving at?
McPherson: The truth, Mrs. Treadwell. Are you in love with him?
Anne: Why no. I'm - I'm very fond of Mr. Carpenter, of course. Everybody is.
Lydecker: I'm not. I'll be hanged if I am.
Anne: Oh, don't be so annoying, Waldo.
McPherson: Did you give Mr. Carpenter money?
Anne: What do you mean?
McPherson: A couple of checks went through your account endorsed by him...
Anne: (laughing embarrassingly) Oh that. I asked him to do some shopping for me. That's all.
Lydecker: Shelby's a very obliging fellow.
McPherson: For some time also, you've been withdrawing various amounts in cash, sometimes fifteen hundred, sometimes seventeen hundred at a clip.
Anne: Yes. I needed that money.
McPherson: The day you took out fifteen hundred dollars, Mr. Carpenter deposited thirteen hundred fifty. When you withdrew seventeen hundred, he deposited fifteen hundred fifty.
Lydecker: (quipping) Maybe they were shooting crap?
Anne: Oh, must I be insulted like this! (She stands, turns, and walks away.)...Shelby needed some money and I lent it to him. That's all. Well, after all, it is my money. I suppose I can do as I please with it.
The night of the murder, Anne spent her Friday evening all alone because she hadn't been asked to go to a concert with Shelby.
At that moment, the Southern gold-digging, charming playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) enters the apartment, claiming that he has "hardly slept a wink since it happened." Lydecker takes note of the disreputable man's answer: "Is that a sign of guilt or innocence, McPherson?" Since Laura and he were going to be married that week, Shelby claims that he's innocent, but Lydecker (who knows about Shelby's ambivalent relationships and his second love for Diane Redfern, a model in Laura's advertising agnecy) doubts the cagey assertion of Carpenter - referring to him as "a male beauty in distress." Laura had planned to go to her country house to decide whether or not to marry Carpenter:
Lydecker: Laura had not definitely made up her mind to marry him. She told me so herself, last Friday when she called up to cancel our dinner engagement. As a matter of fact, she was going to the country to think it over. She was extremely kind, but I was always sure she would never have thrown her life away on a male beauty in distress.
Shelby: (To McPherson) I suppose you've heard losers whine before, especially in your profession, eh?
To conclude his questions, McPherson asks Shelby to identify the classical pieces of music that were played at the Friday concert [Brahms First and Beethoven's Ninth, later substituted with Sibelius], and whether Shelby has the key to Miss Hunt's country house.
On his first visit to Laura Hunt's apartment, accompanied by both Lydecker and Shelby, McPherson callously re-enacts the murder at the door, basing his information on graphic police photographs of the "dame":
When a dame gets killed, she doesn't worry about how she looks.
In the living room is a grandfather clock identical to the one in Lydecker's place, and a stunning oil portrait of Laura, the 'murdered' title character. [The human-like portrait was actually a photograph of Gene Tierney taken by studio photographer Frank Polony - and touched-up with a few light brushings of paint.] Without the film's theme music to convey additional meaning to the scene, McPherson sees the portrait for the first time and reacts cooly and bluntly: "Not bad." According to Lydecker, "Jacoby was in love with her when he painted it. But he never captured her vibrance, her warmth."
McPherson is absorbed with opening up the phonograph console and putting on Laura's favorite record when Lydecker asks him about his love life. The cop's love life is unromantic and pragmatic:
Lydecker: Have you ever been in love?
McPherson: A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me.
Lydecker: Did you ever know a woman who wasn't a doll or a dame?
McPherson: Yeah, one. But she kept walking me past furniture windows to look at the parlor suites. (Laura's theme music underscores their dialogue.)
Lydecker: Would you mind turning that off?
McPherson: Why? Don't you like it?
Shelby: It was one of Laura's favorite. Not exactly classical but sweet.
Shelby considers himself "a natural born suspect" because he's "not the conventional type." With two back-to-back alibis, Shelby proves himself a perpetual liar - questionable, untrustworthy and possibly involved in Laura's death. He conceals his ignorance about the classical music pieces at the concert, and plants Laura's country-home key in the apartment. According to Lydecker, the detestable Shelby should be directly implicated: "You have private reasons, no doubt, to lie about the key." McPherson steps between the two antagonistic men to block their sharp exchange, and then is scolded by Lydecker for playing an immature puzzle game and calming his nerves in their presence:
Lydecker: Will you please stop dawdling with that infernal puzzle? It's getting on my nerves.
McPherson: I know, but it keeps me calm.
The next scene opens in a small restaurant, where a string quartet plays the 'Laura' theme song. Waldo and McPherson share dinner together, seated at the very same table where Lydecker often came with Laura:
This is our table, Laura's and mine. We spent many quiet evenings here together.
BEGINNING OF FLASHBACKS
Lydecker relates a long montage-style series of flashbacks of his times with Laura, who is about 30 years younger. Each of the flashbacks is an idealized construct of her. [Whether the real Laura measures up to his adoring memories is open to question.] He begins with their dining together "the night before her twenty-second birthday. Just we two, happy, making plans for her future." But first, he recalls, from his point of view, when Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) was still a young aspiring career woman five years earlier when she first approached him in the Algonquin Hotel dining room where he was having lunch.
Laura, who works for an advertising firm as a designer and has an enterprising, ambitious and independent spirit, wishes to have him endorse a fountain pen her ad agency is promoting - her career rests upon his signature. But Lydecker arrogantly ridicules and snubs her. He refuses to endorse her ad, and turns her away:
Young woman, either you have been raised in some incredibly rustic community where good manners are unknown or you suffer from the common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct, or possibly both.
Lydecker belongs to the elite class of high-society critics who inhabit the world of venomous wit and high-brow intellect:
I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.....I'll neither consider, endorse, or use the Wallace pen. I hate pens. If your employers wish me to publish that statement in my column, you may tell them that I shall be delighted to oblige.
Naively innocent and beautiful, Laura calls Lydecker "selfish" and "very lonely" in what he terms a "character analysis." The egotistical, jaded writer agrees with her astute assessments about his harsh, conceited character:
Lydecker: In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.
Laura: But you write about people with such real understanding and sentiment. That's what makes your column so good.
Lydecker: The sentiment comes easy at 50 cents a word.
Laura: Well, if that's the way you really feel, you must be very lonely.
Lydecker: Will you kindly continue this character analysis elsewhere? You begin to bore me.
Laura: You're a poor man. I'm very sorry for you.
After Laura quickly packs her things and leaves, Lydecker reminisces that he had a sudden change of heart - he remembers how appealing Laura was: "She had something about her, that girl. I had to speak to her again. I had to see her."