Sunday 18 January 2015

Movie Review: Laura (1944)

A classic film noir, Laura is a murder whodunnit filled with style, suspects, infatuation, and characters ready to deeply and truly betray each other.

Marketing executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been shot dead in her swanky New York City apartment. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is called in to investigate, and quickly turns his attention to flamboyant newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). Although much older than her, Waldo was Laura's protective mentor, vetting her lovers and showering her with gifts. In flashback Waldo introduces Mark to Laura's story, from which other murder suspects emerge.

Womanizing playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) was Laura's fiancĂ©, and indeed she had just agreed to marry him, despite Waldo's dire warnings, before she was killed. Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) was Laura's icy aunt, and she was carrying on her own relationship with Shelby. And Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams) was Laura's loyal house servant. Now fully immersed in Laura's world, Mark finds himself falling in love with the image of the murder victim, as her haunting portrait looms large over him at her apartment.

Directed by Otto Preminger, Laura is a succulent mystery, a small film that comes together in just the right proportions to form a sparkling package. This is an investigation driven by complex emotions, entangled by love, lust and greed, a minefield of relationships that quickly entraps the detective.

About halfway through, Laura introduces the major plot twist, knocking the mystery on its head and steering the investigation in a new direction, with new evidence and a shocking new suspect suddenly entering the fray. The screenplay, by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt (adapting the Vera Caspary novel) builds up to that moment, introducing the characters in Laura's world, and then does not miss a beat as all previous assumptions are reset and Mark has to grapple with new realities.

At Laura's core are themes of agonizing, unreciprocated infatuation. Waldo is clearly obsessed and deeply possessive about Laura. She sees him as just a kind uncle figure. He wants a lot more, but is unlikely to ever get it. Laura's aunt Ann recognizes in the sleazy Shelby her ideal partner and perhaps her one last hope for a man of her own. Shelby perceives Ann as an easy victim to string along as a source of money, and has his eyes set on the younger and more glamorous Laura.

Mark is sucked into this world and gradually Laura starts to consume him. His investigation becomes about more than just finding a murderer; it is personal, as he succumbs to Laura's mysterious beauty while she dominates him from the high vantage point of her portrait. And Laura's character is a lingering enigma. A woman confident enough to hang a large self-portrait in her own apartment, and yet harbouring fundamental human weaknesses: she is incapable of pushing back against Waldo's domination, and unable to resist the dangerous charms of Shelby.

The mostly B+ cast members deliver functional performances, with Gene Tierney mesmeric in her most famous role. Laura benefits from the absence of star names, allowing Preminger to focus on the story and shift attention among the characters as required to follow the knotted threads of suspicion and doubt. And at the centre of the puzzle is Laura herself, a victim who nevertheless casts a spell with a cryptic sense of presence.

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