“Love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout history. Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.”
A subject I’ve been meaning to touch on for quite some time is film noir. Often characterized by mysterious and dramatic subject matter, hard-headed cops, femme fatales, and an air of cynicism, these films were endlessly popular in the 40s and 50s for the thrills they brought to an audience. One such film is Laura, often considered a masterpiece of the noir era that hits all the marks in terms of the genre. Suspenseful and endlessly entertaining, Laura is a shining example of the noir film that holds up remarkably well as a piece of cinematic storytelling. It’s perhaps the most enjoyment I’ve had with a black-and-white film lately, and at just under 90 minutes, I would strongly recommend giving it a watch.
Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is a hardened police officer investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He comes to meet a multitude of characters from Laura’s life, the most significant being Waldo Lydecker and Shelby Carpenter (Clifton Webb and Vincent Price respectively), two proud men in love with Laura who had been competing for her attention up until her death. From the outset, this is a film that keeps you rethinking the case as new evidence comes to light and ulterior motives are revealed from the suspects. However, the film takes a unique shift around the halfway mark that brings the story to perplexing heights. You almost start not to care about the murder itself, as the film turns into a character study for just about everyone on screen. McPherson himself, seemingly our shining detective hero, becomes a muddled uncertainty as he begins to take a personal investment in the case and in the titular victim herself.
Noir films can be found guilty of stock characters, but Laura is a film that dodges these tropes with superior acting that grounds the characters in reality. Dana Andrews brings a darker, more contemplative take to his detective role. We get the wit and the tough attitude that comes with the cliche 40s detective, but McPherson is a rare case in that we see more of his flaws, both as a cop and as a human being. Gene Tierney plays the leading woman to perfection, but with more headstrong initiative than we’re used to seeing in such a character. There’s a mystery surrounding Laura’s character that makes her enchanting to watch. You start to wonder if she’s actually a femme fatale, the cunning beauty at the center of this whole mess, and you’re unsure whether to root for her against McPherson or to root for them as a collective against someone else. However, my personal favorite performance comes from Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker. From the first moment we see him, lounging comfortably in his bathtub, he brings laughter and wit to the entire film. You may not find him the most agreeable character, but Webb brings such a playful performance that you’ll be charmed every time he whips up a snide remark.
Laura is truly one of the most well crafted mysteries of any film. A good detective movie will have you guessing until the end, when you finally figure out the culprit. Laura not only keeps you guessing, but it has you rethinking what you’re supposed to be guessing at all. Every character in the film is flawed, seeming capable of something sinister, and the script tosses its ensemble around, constantly bringing back previous characters until you’ve all but given up on trying to figure out the solution. You also begin to care just as much about the characters themselves as you do finding answers to the story. What happened to Laura? Who did she really love before all of this went down? Why does McPherson keep playing with toys when he should be solving a murder? It’s central questions such as these that bring the film from a simple mystery thriller to a complex narrative about real people. Every person in this film has desires and obstacles, basic elements to a great story that are too often tossed aside for the sake of a cheap “whodunnit” story.
I’m typically not a fan of arbitrary romance, tacked on for the sake of some added excitement, but Laura is a film that subverts its romance enough and makes the drama about something else entirely. At its core, Laura is about obsession. These two men desperately chase after Laura’s affection, drawn to her radiance in a magical sort of way. Even McPherson himself falls for her charms, showing early signs of romantic obsession while at the same time investigating her murder. The film examines to what lengths people will go for the thing they desire most. We even see Laura struggling with this theme from the opposite end, dealing with the affection of others which she just can’t reciprocate. Beneath the thrilling murder mystery, we get to see a bunch of people want things really badly. This is what elevates the film to greatness. For those interested in the noir genre, this is a wonderful place to start. Laura is a fascinating piece of cinema, and it holds up tremendously well today.
Films Left to Watch: 929