Release Date: October 11th, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Otto Preminger Actors: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson
iddle-aged Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a prominent columnist, narrates his fateful story of lost love and the tragic death of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a woman recently murdered at close range by a shotgun full of buckshot. He’s also a chief suspect on hardboiled detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) list. The lawman stops by to ask a few more questions and reconfirm some old ones – the kinds that allow the audience to become acquainted with the case. Peculiarly, and what would seem inappropriate in contemporary sleuthing, Waldo accompanies the detective throughout his investigation, traveling from one location to the next to conduct further interrogations. As the film progresses, more and more of the gumshoeing is completely contrary to modern notions of police work.
Waldo performs his own inquisition, specifically when the duo arrives at the residence of Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price, looking much younger than in his more famous, iconic roles), a statuesque man who claims he was to marry the murdered woman that upcoming Thursday. Lydecker objects, stating that she had told him earlier that she was undecided in the matter. The two are clearly at odds, competing with words and gestures to prove which competitor is the real lover – to the seemingly uncaring cop. In a series of flashbacks, Waldo elaborates on his initial meeting with Laura, his aid in jumpstarting her career in advertising, and his immoderate jealousy, carefully protecting her from every man she encounters – and going to great lengths to destroy the reputation of any man who dares to try and woo her. “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm,” he insists when he first asks Laura to dinner – it’s a statement that carries sincerity throughout his many later, selfish actions.
McPherson is the superbly archetypal film noir protagonist, rarely conveying emotions outside of calmness, collectedness, and unnerving indifference. He keeps his words to a minimum, instead letting everyone else jabber around him, giving him all the information he needs to deduce the guilty party. He drinks scotch during the day and fiddles constantly with a toy that severely aggravates Waldo, sparking extra occasions to amuse (with the utmost subtlety) the calculating plainclothesman. He’s given a backstory based on just a few sentences, but it’s enough to establish just how formidable a soldier he is (by single-handedly apprehending a gun-toting gangster and gaining a metal shin for his troubles). Dana Andrews played characters like this many times after “Laura,” but none are quite as perfectly honed as McPherson.
It’s an incredibly unique murder mystery, evolving from a simple premise to a decidedly more consuming brainteaser. There’s a spectacular twist right in the middle, made even more singular due to the incredibly small cast; one of only a handful of alleged culprits could have done it. The advantage of such an intimate grouping is masterful character development, with every role receiving adequate time to become more than the usual lifeless supporting parts (save for McPherson’s rapid romance, though it seems commonplace for scripts like this).
Not unlike “The Thin Man,” the film features a dinner scene in which all the suspects are gathered together for a confrontation that gives the flatfoot vital information to dramatically solve the case. “I suspect nobody and everybody,” declares the investigator. And no one can be trusted – especially when they use a word like “promise.” Rounded off with haunting theme music and sharp black-and-white cinematography (which took home an Oscar), “Laura” is a positively top-notch, intelligent film noir highpoint that unfolds at a strikingly thrilling pace.
– Mike Massie