As a teenager in the 1940s, my mother was a self-professed movie buff, spending a lot of her free time with her friends at the matinees and double features in Schenectady, New York, where she grew up. She probably lost count of the number of movies that she see saw back in the day, but one she remembered forty and fifty years later was Laura. When Fox finally came to their senses and released it on VHS some time ago, I was finally able to appreciate why.
This atmospheric whodunit is probably one of the finer examples of film noir, even if its high-society setting probably places it slightly outside the canon of pure noir. Tough-talking detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and morally flexible playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) drag it back inside the boundaries.
Laura has been unofficially remade so many times that its story is probably familiar even to those who have never actually seen it. It begins with society columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) recounting the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a rising star at local advertising agency. She had apparently answered the door one night and had her face blown off with a shotgun. The acerbic and arrogant Lydecker had been Laura’s “svengali,” nurturing her career and discouraging her relationships with other men, despite being decades older than the ambitious young woman. Much to Lydecker’s horror, he tells Lt. McPherson, the detective investigating the murder, she fell in love with Shelby, a rather lightweight but charming man, at least until Lydecker revealed that Shelby had been carrying on an affair with Diane, a model for Laura’s agency.
As he delves deeper into the case, McPherson finds himself growing irrationally infatuated with a woman who is presently lying faceless on a coroner’s slab. He’s getting drunk in her apartment when the door opens and someone looking an awful lot like the deceased walks in.
Laura is a stylish, straightforward whodunit. Its appeal lies in a witty script and the undeniable appeal of Gene Tierney. Even though she’s barely on screen for the first quarter of the film, her image carries this film and we find it easily to believe that this detective could become obsessed with her, even beyond the grave. Dana Andrews is gruff and no-nonsense as a spiritual ancestor of Joe Friday. Clifton Webb is perversely delightful as the very unpleasant man who uses well-chosen words as weapons and Vincent Price is well-cast against type as a man who is inconsequential and proud of it.
If you like this kind of movie, then you should probably have this film in your DVD collection, because Laura is easily one of the best of its kind.