Laura is a definitive film: one of the finest films noir and one of cinema’s most celebrated whodunits. Staged in exquisite sets (by Thomas Little), presented in pristine black and white by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and directed with the intensity of atmosphere and intelligence typical of Otto Preminger, the film sucks us into what is, for all its elegance, a profoundly unpleasant and persistently disturbing story populated by characters underserved by the ordinarily complimentary description ‘three dimensional’.
The titular lady (Gene Tierney) is dead when the film begins, her face – young, unblemished and universally beloved – having absorbed the impact of both barrels of a shotgun from only inches away. On a Friday night Laura answered the door of her apartment, and on the Saturday morning that follows Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) begins his investigation into the messy murder that immediately ensued. He has three chief suspects (four if you count the girl, a model, with most reason to be envious of Laura, though that girl doesn't seem to get around much anymore).
The rather prosaically named Laura Hunt could, it seems, have been slain by her finance, the money-chasing male beauty Shelby Carpenter (played, in a performance that will surprise those only accustomed to his later work as the grand old man of schlock, by Vincent Price). Her moneyed aunt (Judith Anderson) may also be the murderess; she apparently adored Laura, but then everyone, from maids to millionaires, apparently adored Laura, and the aunt is also in love with Carpenter.
The first person of interest to McPherson, though, is the person who is, throughout the film, of greatest interest to us: the rather un-prosaically named Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, in a role Price could well have played at the more famous end of his career). Lydecker is louche, effete and ferocious; one of America’s most celebrated minds; and one of its wickedest wits. His newspaper column, which he employs to assassinate the character of whomever he likes (or rather, whomever Laura likes, so keen is he to discredit her suitors) is read by millions. Only his obsession with Laura matches his absorption in himself. (‘In my case self-absorption is completely justified: I have never found any subject quite so worthy of my attention.’) He may well be gay, and yet his longing for Laura is overwhelming. He is a malign mastermind – but his urgent, possibly impotent, lust for a girl who could be his granddaughter makes him also a pitiable fool.
Lydecker was Laura’s social sponsor: under his stewardship, through his introductions and endorsements (both of her and the products she was employed to advertise), she became a sensational socialite, enthralling all. Besides bewitching Lydecker, she of course enchanted her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter, who Lydecker insists is sure to have slaughtered her. Carpenter is an inconstant pretty boy with two lovers besides Laura, one of whom is Laura’s aforementioned aunt. (The other is the aforementioned model.) Laura was too good for him – we agree with Lydecker about that – and at times it seems certain Carpenter killed her. At others, though, he seems a child, incapable of killing anything, and even less so of competently covering it up.
We are led through all this intrigue by Detective McPherson who is, in Andrews's characterisation, a classic noir investigator. He happens to be a legitimate law officer, but he could just as well be a shady private dick or a crooked cop. To him women are ‘dolls’ and ‘dames’. Asked if he's ever been in love, he answers: ‘A dame in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once ... but she kept walking me past furniture store windows to show me the parlour suites’. He, too, is in love with Laura – and his desire for her is the darkest on display. We’re accustomed to seeing noir heroes fall for the mysterious seductress who may be an innocent, may be an accomplice or may even be a murderess – but they usually do so whilst that seductress is alive. We’ve seen the weary, wisecracking detective fall for the chief suspect in a murder many times; in Laura we see him fall for the murder victim – after she has been murdered.
McPherson becomes enthralled by a portrait of Laura that hangs at the crime scene and, in the first certain sign he has lost his compass, puts in a bid for it before his case is close to being solved. The picture becomes an object of fascination, of fetishisation, of macabre desire – which is entirely typical of this movie’s psychological landscape. (There are in the film even, perhaps, suggestions of incestuous lesbian longings for Laura by her aunt.) The shafts of psychosexual subtext beneath Laura are deeper, and murkier, than those below Blue Velvet.
Laura’s script – adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel by a team of screenwriters led by the renowned Ring Lardner Jr. – is one of Hollywood’s best paced and best plotted. Midway through there comes a plot twist so extraordinary it would derail practically any other picture that attempted to incorporate it – but that propels Laura to levels of excellence and excitement unparalleled in all but the most elite film thrillers. Many, if not most, reviews of Laura describe this famous twist – as doing so does not reveal the story’s resolution – but I won’t. If there is anyone reading this who is yet to watch what is possibly Preminger’s most flawless film, and who now wants to, they should be allowed to do so with as little knowledge of the progress of its plot as is possible.
That is not to say that knowing how everything in Laura works out diminishes its appeal or is ever likely to dissuade anyone who has seen it from seeing it again. The best murder mysteries are not those that most intrigue and astonish, but those that continue to captivate after the third or fourth viewing, when every aspect of every character is uncovered and every lurch of the story is remembered and unsurprising. By this measure, as by virtually all others, Laura is one of greatest murder mysteries ever made.