Much like the allure of the main character, Laura has a way of sweeping you under its spell. Most of the film takes place in a living room where a few characters mostly stand around and offer evidence for a recent murder. that speaks to how this is great film noir, and its various attributes and even its imperfections make it an enchanting experience.
- Director: Otto Preminger
- Writer: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt
- Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson
Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is the type of woman that men can’t seem to resist. She’s beautiful and driven, and her apparent murder unleashes an investigation led by Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who quickly become enraptured by Laura’s atmosphere. But just as suspects are being questioned, Laura shows up, instantly reshuffling every notion about who the murderer might be.
Otto Preminger made his first feature in 1932 and was already a very mature storyteller by the time he directed Laura, even though he wasn’t trusted to direct this film originally. But this is as effective as a film noir production can be, bringing together every element of filmmaking together in a way that feels perfect. But that’s not surprising, with titles such as Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent, Preminger has shown himself to be a masterful manipulator of suspense. With Laura, he proved himself adept at telling a story where character motivations are not what they seemed but also he directs all of them to be likeable in their own way.
While some may find the mystery predictable, the appeal of Laura is the fact that several characters appear equally suspect. But beyond crediting Preminger for knowing when and how to focus on facial reactions and character development, we can also credit several other contributors for the sharp dialogue, photographic perfection, a genuinely complimentary score, the set and costume design, and — of course — the incredible acting. Even with three credited writers, the story never feels disjointed, and every character is provided with meaningful and sharp-tongued quips, especially Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), whose voice-over is also spot-on. As if the cast isn’t magnificent enough as it is, we get a young and talented Vincent Price too boot, in a performance that feels flawlessly understated.
It’s hard not to focus on the cinematography. DP Joseph LaShelle provides an experience where it’s impossible not to notice how crafty the shadows are and how striking the image is. It’s also easy to focus on the score, as David Raksin created a work of instrumentation that feels in perfect harmony with each moment. As for costume design and set design, these are departments that often go unnoticed unless we’re dealing with a period piece or a world of fantasy. Never has a living room looked better, and never have the people in each frame felt more impeccably dressed without seeming forced. And what can you say about Gene Tierney, the woman who plays Laura? While she is not the household name like Garbo or Dietrich, I don’t think there’s an actress from the 1940’s who burns a hotter image. She’s up there with the best of them.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I can’t agree more with Eber’ts review when he says that “it is not necessary that the murderer be the murderer”. The journey in Laura is so good that the destination doesn’t matter. But while Ebert felt that the hero and heroine were cardboard, I think some of that is due to the fact that Webb and Price were just so good. In admiration of Price’s subtle performance, the review points out that Price “creates an accent somewhere between Kentucky and Transylvania”, which is a note possibly based on Price’s later career in horror films. Also, Ebert makes a good point discussing a much talked-about scene in which Lydecker exposes himself in front of Detective McPherson, As he notes “there is no suggestion that Lydecker is attracted to McPherson, and yet it seems odd to greet a police detective in the nude.” Overall, I guess I was so swept up by this film that I didn’t fully process the extent to which some of the elements may be most accurately categorized as being part of a B movie. But as Ebert ultimately states, even “all of the absurdities and improbabilities of Laura somehow do not diminish the film’s appeal. They may even add to it”.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Laura? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Johnny Guitar
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Otto Preminger’s Laura this week, he now has 330 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.