US (1944) Dir. Otto Preminger

Within the milieu of film noir at least one staple will never change – that being the male lead falling in love with the female lead when he know he shouldn’t. That’s fair enough, since you can’t choose who you fall in love with, but when that female is already dead –  well, that’s a whole new ballgame.

Don’t worry, this classic 1940’s mystery drama based on the novel by Vera Caspary isn’t like that – especially not while the Hayes Code was still in effect – as this is actually a vital part of the story. It begins with detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) arriving at the opulent apartment of effete, acid tongued newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) with questions about the murder of Laura Hunt.

Lydecker was someone who knew her best. Through his recollections, we learn how Laura (Gene Tierney) was a low tier worker in advertising whose charm and moxie was so intoxicating for Lydecker that he become her mentor and made Laura the belle of society and a successful executive in her field. Their relationship was platonic but a close bond was formed.

At a party held by Laura’s socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) Laura meets Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Ann’s paid for “companion” and by all accounts, a bit of playboy. They become an item and plan to get married but Lydecker discovers Shelby has been seen with a model used in Laura’s recent campaign, Diane Redfern, and other incriminating evidence of dishonest behaviour from Shelby.

Rocked by this, Laura decides to take a trip to the country to ponder her future with Shelby; as she was due to leave, somebody arrives at her apartment and blasts her in the face with a shotgun. McPherson examination of the case exposes inconsistencies in the stories, but after reading Laura’s diary and personal letters, he becomes obsessed with her. Then something unexpected happens.

No doubt, you’ve already figured out what this shock development is, but I shall refrain from discussing it anyway for the sake of anyone who wishes to remain spoiler free, but even from over 70 years ago, it still has the power to catch us out. The prelude to this is McPherson downing a few drinks as the frustration of his obsession sits at odds with his police duty, the inference is we are watching a dream.

Certainly an easy red herring to throw into the middle of the film, and it is to its benefit that it isn’t, although it nearly could have been. Laura might have been different had 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck had his way. Zanuk had a personal beef with Otto Preminger who wanted to direct, reducing his role to producer only but the project was hit by the usual hurdles of personality clashes, unsuitable cast, and director.

Preminger finally got the go ahead to direct yet Zanuck didn’t like the end, demanding a new one where the whole story was revealed as a product of Lydecker’s imagination. However, this ending was rejected at preview screenings for not making any sense, so Zanuck reluctantly reverted to the original one.

There is a certain irony in Zanuck letting his personal feelings cloud his judgement of the making of this film when that is a central theme of the story, but at least nobody (that we know of) was murdered during filming. Like Hitchcock – whose work this easily stands up against – Preminger succinctly demonstrates why some directors are best left to their own devices and why studio execs should trust them a little more.  

Laura actually began as a play before becoming a film, evident from the prominence of static internal locations, mostly Laura’s apartment with the odd trip to Lydecker’s lavish abode. The whole story is told inside a rather compact 85 minutes, yet doesn’t feel too rushed, nor does it need expanding or padding out.

We are sufficiently informed of all relevant facts through Lydecker’s flashback without being force fed lumpy info dumps, whilst character profiles and further exposition come via the progress of McPherson’s investigation. The dialogue is sharp, witty, enlightening, yet never wasteful or clumsy in moving things along, echoing the scripts of Billy Wilder in the blistering yet precise delivery.

At one point McPherson says “I suspect nobody and everybody” and the audience does too; maybe modern eyes will pick out the culprit earlier than others but the chances of being right first time are surprisingly slim. That everyone has some sort of motive is not new but the twist is that Laura was such a magnetic figure who inspired adoration and devotion that why anyone would want to kill her is a bigger mystery than who.

Once the mid film surprise comes into play, we go back to “why” as the motives now have another level of intrigue to their plausibility, keeping the spotlight on the same suspects but now for different reasons. And what an eclectic rogues gallery it is too, played by some famous names. Vincent Price was far away from his horror icon days, so his role as the duplicitous kept man Shelby isn’t a stretch at this point.

Gene Tierney was fresh off her first big lead role in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait but it was this role that made her name, having both the looks and poise to be a believable beacon for male – and female – attention. Dana Andrews was also a supporting actor whose stock rose after playing McPherson, but the true star is Clifton Webb, a veteran stage actor who steals every scene as the walking putdown machine Lydecker.

There is an acceptable analogy to make between Laura and pop music – some artists can write that all-time classic but it’s a seven-minute epic while others can achieve the same thing in just three minutes. In other words, if The Godfather is Stairway To Heaven then Laura is Good Vibrations.