I knew this disc was trouble the instant it fell through my letterbox. With a Eureka! logo on it and some spiel about a new entry to the Masters of Cinema collection, I knew that Laura (1944) was going to be a dirty job. My gut told me that this classic Noir was one that was going to drag me along on a leash.
Okay, I’ll stop with the Dashiell Hammett impersonation.
Laura is unlike many Film Noirs, however. It subverts and at the same time strengthens the tropes and style we’ve come to expect from the genre.
Based on the novel of the same name by Vera Caspary, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is a New York City detective investigating the brutal murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a popular New York socialite and successful advertising executive. Thrust headfirst into New York’s opulent and urbane world McPherson navigates his way through the swarms of Laura’s admirers including the foppish and controlling Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a successful New York columnist that used his media connections to hamper any of Laura’s other suitors, and her fiancé Carpenter (Vincent Price), a kept man and serial philanderer. As McPherson investigates deeper into Laura’s life and death he finds himself attracted to the memory of a dead woman.
Film Noir is a hard thing to pin down. It’s not just low-key lighting in black and white. It’s a cynical world’s underbelly where neither class nor wealth protects you; pessimistic, everyone is fair game and trapped in unwanted situations. There is a mood to the best ones, a texture to it that goes beyond the standard crime dramas and it presents a psychological examination of the drives and desires that lead to the most heinous crimes.
And Laura, with all its Noir complexity and dark mood, is a psychological thriller.
But it also subverts it to some extent. What appears straightforward ends up elaborate while that which seems intricate is clear-cut. It takes you down one road, making you rely on preconceived notions only to rip them apart when you least expect it. And that’s what you want from a Noir. You don’t want straight answers or loud characters telegraphing their motivations. You want it to twist you around and leave you grasping for clues.
Like many Noirs, the characters appear two dimensional and like most Noirs that is because everything is done via the subtext. There is a breakdown between words and body. McPherson comes across as the cynical, emotionless hardboiled investigator, delivering his lines with the same cadence of voice throughout. But it is the nuances of his body language that tells you more about the character, how he holds himself in front of suspects, how he fidgets with his fingers when he asks questions. It shows a character that is putting on a tough guy act but internally he’s shaken by the case. Lydecker is an urbane fop but also a deeply jealous and emotionally abusive man who tries to isolate Laura from the romantic advancements of other men.
But it’s Laura herself that is the most interesting.
Unlike other Film Noirs, there is no Femme Fatale. Laura doesn’t lead anyone to their destruction. An attractive, independent woman, she is smart, witty, the charm she has over people is one based on strength of character, not just beauty. Throughout the first half, we only see her through the flashbacks of others who memories are coloured by their desire for her. They paint her as a submissive and somewhat naive person, fetishizing her as a virginal figure. It’s only when McPherson digs through her past that we find she is successful due to her own skills and talents, gifted with intelligence and a strong-willed, she is able to make her own decisions without relying on the men in the film. A far cry from female characters of the day and something that is still, sadly, rare to see in films today. This is hardly surprising given that the Caspary’s original story is considered one of the best examples of feminist literature from America during the first half of the 20th Century.
The Blu Ray also comes with a featurette Obsession, original trailer and several commentaries.
A dark, psychological examination of obsession, Laura is one for both the aficionados of Noir and lovers of film.
Dir: Otto Preminger
Src: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
Prd: Otto Premiger
DOP: Joseph LaShelle
Music: David Raksin
Runtime: 88 minutes
Laura is available on Blu-Ray now