Laura (1944) is one of my absolute favorite movies. Often called a hybrid of noir and romance, it revolves around detective Mark McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) investigation of the murder of prominent advertising director Laura Hunt (the fabulous Gene Tierney). It also stars a young Vincent Price, as Laura’s philandering southern stud fiancé (which is sort of amazing and surreal to watch).
The romance of Laura isn’t just in the plotline, but also in the music and mood of the movie. Yes, it is distinctively noir, with extreme angles and dramatic lighting, but it’s also lush, and richly textured in a way usually associated with the melodramatic romance films of the 50s. This combination makes it even more striking, as the soft-focus flashback scenes contrast with the high visual suspense of the detective story. It also has a beautiful piece of music used as a theme throughout. I have it as my ringtone. Later, lyrics were added to the song, and it was covered by many, many different people. (Please note that many of those links also contain visuals from the movie which are spoilers, so listen as much as you want, but watch at your own discretion.)
I’ve always felt that Laura owes a lot to Citizen Kane, although on rewatching it, I found I can’t quite back this up. Yes, there is a flashback to explain who Laura is, and it’s from the point of view of her manipulative friend, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a newspaper columnist and radio personality who writes “with a goose feather dipped in venom,” but it’s just the one flashback. That said, the flashback is important, because it, along with her letters, diary, music and portrait are what cause detective McPherson to begin to fall in love with the dead woman.
Dana Andrews is brilliant. He plays McPherson as a real detective – he doesn’t stumble onto information. He’s done the homework, he knows about bank transactions and alibis and he catches people in lies and surprises them with information they didn’t know he had. He also toys with people to get the truth out, but he doesn’t seem to take pleasure in it – in fact, he seems almost emotionless, so focused on the case that the rest of his humanity has fallen away… until he starts looking at that portrait. Andrews plays the developing feelings for the dead woman brilliantly – with a combination of shame and heartbreak seething under the surface until someone mentions it. When we find out he’s put a bid in on the portrait, it isn’t surprising, it’s romantic, and more than a little heartbreaking. You can’t help but feel for McPherson – if only he had met this woman before her murder, everything might have been different. But he didn’t, and he has a case to solve.
The suspects are only a few: the manipulative and possesive Waldo Lydecker, Shelby, the philandering fiancé, broke and using his charms to live off other women, and Laura’s cold, rich aunt Ann (Judith Anderson), who is in love with Shelby.
But then, halfway through the movie, there’s a twist, and things get interesting.
Serious spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie, please, go watch it. Stop reading.
Okay, now that we’re alone….
When Laura walks into her apartment alive, that’s when the movie goes from lush and mysterious to brilliant. Who is the real victim? Was Laura the murderer? And how will McPherson handle the appearance of the woman he had been falling for when dead?
Admittedly, the romance is a little ridiculous, but I like that they leave it not so much with a ‘they will live happily ever after’ as with a ‘aww, they’re gonna go out and fall in love.’ Some might say the movie implies that Laura and McPherson are already in love, after knowing each other just a day – and maybe the movie is suggesting that, in a way that suggests much of the romance films of the time. But for me the tension comes from McPherson fighting his attraction to Laura as she looks more and more guilty. The way he slips out that he wanted to hear she had called her engagement off, the first time she calls him Mark – these are wonderful moments; hardboiled love. I wish in fact that there had been more time to play these moments out, but at the same time, I think that might ruin the movie – if it skewed too much towards romance, it would become more sentimental, and, I fear, less real.
There’s something amazing about Laura’s return from the dead as a character, too, because it lets her see how her friends react – Shelby thinks she’s a killer; Ann knows it couldn’t have been Laura, but tells Laura to her face that she’s thought about killing her; Waldo doesn’t leap to her defense. When McPherson arrests her, the only one who tries to stop him is Laura’s maid. And then we get to see them down at the station together, where McPherson says he felt nervous trying to get that last bit of innocence out of her, and he needed “official surroundings.” It’s an adorable moment – he’s so human right there, and you can see Laura falling for him in that moment.
The ending is a little rushed, and I’m sure the idea of a pre-recorded radio show was much more of a twist back when this film first came out, but it works, it ties everything up, and in another brilliant move, we never see Laura and McPherson kiss. Instead, she clings to him, her best friend and would be murderer shot dead, and the camera pans to the broken clock, shattered with ribbon curling out of it. That time of her life – the time of being surrounded by sycophants who lie to her and see her as an object (the portrait representing that objectification) is done. She’s with someone who knows her now, who sees her, not a painting on the wall, and that can only be good.
Lev AC Rosen’s first novel, All Men of Genius does not have a theme song that has been covered by Carly Simon…yet. It comes out in October, 2011.