Thu
Aug 18 2011 10:14am
But She’s Only a Dream: Laura

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.

...

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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.

This article is part of Noir Week on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
5 comments
Bourgeois Nerd
1. Bourgeois Nerd
Laura is a fantastic movie. That haunting music alone would make it memorable. And a young, non-moustachioed Vincent Price playing a gigolo? So, so weird.
john mullen
2. johntheirishmongol
One of my favorite movies ever, Clifton Webb was almost always amazing and this role was right in his wheelhouse. Dana Andrews was excellent and I loved the bit where he as playing with his little game. Gene Tierney was yummy and quite good as the somewhat guilty looking girl.

It is rather funny now to see Vincent Price playing a studmuffin, what with the roles he played later, but this was not the only time he played this type of role. I was watching a movie a few weeks ago with Robert Mitchen and Jane Russell and Vincent Price was playing heroic actor/stud. The movie is His Kind of Woman and it has some noir like qualities too. I would recommend it.
Bourgeois Nerd
3. Foxessa
But for me the tension comes from McPherson fighting his attraction to Laura as she looks more and more guilty.
One could even read that as a paradigm for what happens to so many couples who fall in love: they fall in love with a creation each of them made of the other, and it's only after they come together, i.e. get married / whatever, that they begin to see the person as the person is, and sometimes that makes for disillusion -- and sometimes it means you fall in love all over again, but even more deeply and broadly than you ever imagined!

The way the fellow sits in Laura's apartment, trying to breathe her in -- that's what hooked me.

Nothing like Citizen Kane at all, which I recently re-watched.

Love, C.
tatiana deCarillion
4. decarillion
One of my faves--both Tierney and the film. I need it on blu-ray!!
Bourgeois Nerd
5. Sergio L.
I love this film, seen it many times and own the DVD. I can't help but wish that Laura was a dream. That the entire part of the film from when Mcpherson falls drunkenly asleep in front of Laura's beautiful portrait was but a dream. "The Portrait of Laura" indeed. Had this been the case, the absurd proposition that it was someone other than Laura killed would have been harmless to a thinking audience. A shotgun blast to the face would all but obliterate a head but not the rest of the body (they didn't even have to replace the carpet!) and though forensics were yet to be what they are today, still it would be determined that in fact, Laura was not the victim.

Lastly, the audience is denied in sharing with Mcpherson, waking up to a world without Laura. The emptiness we would have felt was the emptiness the character was left with and to me, that is cinema. Instead, all we are left with is a happy ending and the reality of a world without the Grace of Ms. Tierney and Dana Andrews.

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