Review of Laura (1944)

Mark finds the woman of his dreams: beautiful, sweet-natured, wealthy and successful advertising executive Laura Hunt. The only catch? He's a homicide detective, and she's a homicide victim. That's the essence of the film Laura, a twisted story of obsessive love that retains a modern appeal.

While some noir films haven't aged well because they derive their suspense from extra-marital affairs, director Otto Preminger wisely focuses the film on Mark's growing obsession with a dead woman. At first, Mark's hardboiled detective lacksadaisically tries to solve the case of a woman killed in her apartment by a disfiguring shotgun blast at close range. Mark becomes intrigued by Laura after hearing all about her from one of the suspects, catty newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (a hilarious Clifton Webb, who has all the fabulous lines in the film), who jealously tried to guard Laura from other men not because he loved her, but because as his creation, his Eliza Doolittle, no one else but he was good enough for her. Soon Mark is fingering the dead woman's lingerie, sniffing her perfume and taking up residence next to her portrait.

It's a darkly funny and convincing portrayal of obsessive love. Like Waldo, Mark is in love with the image of a woman rather than the real Laura herself. Before Mark's clothes-rummaging can progress to clothes-wearing (wouldn't that assume fabulous aspects!), Laura shows up, after a long weekend at her country home. The real murder victim turns out to be a friend of Laura's, one who resembled Laura enough to be mistaken for her in the dark by the killer.

If the plot twist sounds strained, it is. And the strain is due to the writers trying to make one film--a murder mystery--and the director trying to make another--a portrait of perverse love. Mark--and the viewer--follow a trail of clues that must have seemed important to the writers but which are quickly and lightly explained away. For example, halfway through the film, Mark finds a shotgun in Laura's country home: "This gun has been recently fired!" Contrast this with Mark fifteen minutes later in the film: "Laura, turns out your shotgun wasn't the one used in the murder after all!" Ta da! And so on.

Preminger gives one-sentence resolutions of the clues so that he can get back to what he's really interested in: the tale of obsessive love. He's so disinterested in developing the murder mystery that potential suspects get ruled out. Laura's gold-digging fiance Shelby is so goofily played by Vincent Price (channeling the essence of Gomer Pyle here), he doesn't convince as a potential murderer.

The perfunctory attention to the murder makes the film not quite satisfying, but fortunately, it's the right choice. Both lantern-jawed defender of the law Mark and effeminate, bitchy columnist Waldo are disparate figures, yet they're the same in their obsession over Laura. By having Laura trade partners and still end up with someone obsessed over her image, Preminger creates a film darker and more perverse than any murder mystery could have made it.

(December 1, 2000)

Dark City home | film titles | directors | book titles and writers | feature | linx

(© NOIR, 2014)