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A complex psychological thriller masquerading as a film noir, 1944’s Laura is about three men who are bewitched by a woman so ethereally, transcendentally beguiling that it is entirely appropriate that, when director Otto Preminger takes the curtain up, Laura (Gene Tierney) is already dead.

What follows is a basic whodunit pulled in various unusual directions. A for-instance: the cop on the case, Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), invites one of the men suspected of killing her, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), to accompany him while he cross-examines other witnesses. What cop does that? Another: the cop doesn’t do very much actual investigating and instead spends an inordinate amount of time in the dead woman’s apartment, making big moony eyes at a portrait of Laura hanging on the wall, as if it’ll tell him who did the deed.

The two other men in the dead Laura’s life are men with bits missing. Though it’s never stated up front, acid-penned columnist Lydecker is a homosexual whose relationship with Laura has been of the courtly older gent/young ingenue variety, though he, bucking against the constraints of his sexuality, wants more, much more. Vincent Price plays Shelby Carpenter, the would-be playboy of the western world who’s held back by a lack of cash and is hoping to rectify the situation by marrying the self-made Laura.

Neither man has the full complement of what Laura needs. If only decent, stand-up McPherson – a red-blooded male happy to live within his means – had met Laura while she were alive.

Lydecker in his bath meet cop McPherson
Lydecker meets the cop

The casting is spot on. Preminger (who also produced) fought hard to get Webb for the role of Lydecker, and won out against the wishes of studio boss Darryl F Zanuck, who was unhappy about the star’s open homosexuality, when this was what Preminger – who had an instinct for a lurid tabloid sell – wanted him for. Price is suave to the point of being reptilian, in the days before he’d begun his slide into grand guignol. Andrews is particularly good, and plays what is essentially a mad role – the infatuated cop – with a great deal of subtlety and restraint.

There are two important women. Laura, of course, with Tierney doing good work as the go-getter who takes the breaks offered to her by Lydecker and becomes a lone female force in the male-dominated world of advertising. What’s particularly good about her performance is the way she catches the beautiful woman’s in-built expectation that men will fall over themselves to be near her. As a kind of shadow version of Laura is the nicely over the top (as ever) Judith Anderson, four years on from playing Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, and here playing the doomed friend of Carpenter, unrequited love busting out all over and with not quite enough of what Laura’s got to get what Laura gets.

Preminger always had a taste for the melodramatic and squeezes the mood from initially highly frivolous (when the cop first meets Lydecker, Lydecker is in the bath) to incredibly fraught. The scene towards the end where the cop announces over the telephone, and in front of a room full of people hanging on his every word, that he’s about to arrest the murderer just as soon as he’s finished this call, is a bravura bit of writing and directing Agatha Christie would have been proud of.

It’s a country-house murder-mystery with an urban (and urbane) update, and Preminger is at pains to keep everything moving as if on castors, so much so that the one sharp move in the whole film really generates a frisson.

A triumph for Preminger, a rebuke for Zanuck, who not only hadn’t wanted Webb but didn’t want Preminger to direct and even forced a contrived rewritten finale on his director. Preminger, a bull at a gate, got what he wanted in all three instances, and was vindicated when Laura became one of the big hits of the year. Laura’s Theme – later recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald – was a big hit too.

Laura – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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