Laura

laua1Moving backwards in time from 1965’s Bunny Lake is Missing, my delve into the directing work of Otto Preminger now turns to 1944’s film noir Laura, a tale of romantic obsession. In some ways it seems an unlikely film noir: its high society setting of affluent people seems a strange milieu for a film noir, however, and I must confess that I think its a curious entry in that genre. Sure, we have the hard-boiled, world-weary detective and visually many staples of the genre in its expressionistic cinematography, some of the iconography of the film, etc. In some ways, though, the film straddles two, if not more,  genres- a mid-film twist that pulls the rug from film noir tradition and settles into romantic melodrama, if anything. Its a little unsettling and not entirely successful; a romance between detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and Laura (Gene Tierney) feels too sudden, too melodramatic- not so much McPherson’s fascination with the enigmatic subject of his murder investigation, but rather how Laura suddenly seems to fall head over heels for this cold man she finds in her apartment. Its something that doesn’t really work that feels something more of an idealistic romance picture than a dark foreboding noir. Its the weak element in an otherwise strong picture, for me, and whenever the swooning Laura calls him “Mark” I always felt like it was coming out of nowhere, something that isn’t earned. something almost absurd.

Indeed, part of the fascination of this film is the positioning of Laura as a rather unlikely, and quite unwitting, femme fatale. Usually in these noir, the central femme fatale is a  beautiful and seductive woman using her charms to ensnare her lovers, often leading male characters into a deadly doom or trap. In many ways Laura fits the bill, but she doesn’t seem to knowingly do this: she is the almost helpless subject of male fascination: Waldo Lydecker (an outstanding Clifton Webb) who has moulded Laura into his object of female perfection,  Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) a caddish lothario who is using Laura to climb the social ladder, and Detective Mark McPherson, who becomes far too intrigued by Laura’s portrait and recollections he is told of her. Laura doesn’t really engineer any of this, not in the traditional noir sense, and this makes the film perhaps more interesting think it might be. It reminded me greatly of Hitchcock’s later Vertigo, and perhaps it was an inspiration for Hitchcock. Laura seems rather submissive at times, easily moulded by Waldo, easily seduced by Shelby and suddenly helplessly attracted to Mark: odd ways for a femme fatale to behave in a noir: indeed, she seems more trapped than anyone in some ways.

laura2I suspect that the strange incongruities of logic within the film, may actually make the film more rewarding on subsequent viewings: indeed, I gather the film has become only more successful and highly-regarded over the decades. We are told the story of Laura through a number of different viewpoints, and perhaps all of them prove to be unreliable narrators. Certainly there seems obvious parallels between Laura Hunt and Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks, a wholesome cheerleader to some but someone quite different and darker to others, facets revealed over time as that tv series ran its course. Is the ‘real’ story, or truth of the film, something we discover for ourselves, or is it just the viewer managing the films shortcomings? Maybe I’ll have an opinion on this in a few years time.

I watched Laura on a very fine Blu-ray from Eureka, that comes with two audio commentaries that I really should have on my immediate ‘to-do’ list. Its a very good package and is currently quite cheap on Amazon: alas, my efforts to curtail my spending on discs appears to have been temporarily undone by Laura’s charms- oddly fitting, though, that, considering the subject of the film itself.

17 thoughts on “Laura

  1. A lot of people will argue this isn’t a true film noir, for many of the reasons you mention. I can see that but I’m happy enough to consider it noir, mainly for the theme of obsession that permeates it all. Anyway, the whole business of trying to define noir is such a nebulous business and, in the final analysis, I’m not sure it matters much.

    I wouldn’t say Laura herself is a femme fatale and I also think it’s a mistake to expect all noir to feature such a character. While Laura is the title character and the motivation for many of the characters’ behavior, I reckon the whole thing is about Waldo as much as anyone.

    By the way, don’t underestimate the importance of the score in this one. David Raksin’s work on this is excellent, brought huge success his way and helped to keep the movie in the public consciousness for a long time.

    1. I agree regards Waldo, he was my favourite thing about the movie, but sadly I neglected to expand on it in my review. Maybe that’s the best angle for the film: to consider it as Waldo’s story, and his descent into obsession-fuelled doom. The unconvincing affair between Laura and Mike then makes more sense if taken as Waldo’s faulty narrative ‘seeing’ something that really isn’t there. Yeah, I like that idea- I’ll save that reading for my eventual re-watch.

  2. By the way, if you want to sample more recognizable noir work from Preminger, then Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends and the very twisted Angel Face are your best bets. That’s not to say Daisy Kenyon. Whirlpool or The 13th Letter aren’t worth seeing – they’re all good movies in my opinion.

    1. Admittedly its not noir, but as regards Preminger’s films, what’s Anatomy of A Murder like? An offer on Criterion discs online peaked my interest. There’s some good Criterion’s out there like Kiss Me Deadly and Fail Safe that are tempting, too. I hate special offers, they ruin my good work curtailing expenses….

      1. I think it’s a good piece of work. If you enjoy courtroom dramas such as Inherit the Wind or Town Without Pity, then you ought to appreciate it. Historically, it’s interesting in terms of the greater frankness is displays.
        There are some good Criterion offers at the moment – a few Sam Fuller movies in there too, Mildred Pierce, Cat People and I don’t know how big you are on westerns but Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma is superlative.

      2. The Sam Fuller’s are tempting. Really, could spend a bit of a fortune on the Criterions. Its a pity Detour isn’t in any of the current deals, that looks amazing.

      3. You know, many would find it practically sacrilegious but I’m not a big fan of Detour. I mean it’s not a bad movie and shows what can be done on the tightest of tight schedules and a budget of nothing, but I still feel it’s massively overrated. I know it’s achieved cult status and Ann Savage is seen as iconic in some circles, still…

      4. Detour is a film I’ve only recently discovered when looking at noir lists etc. but its on my ‘to watch’ list. I think its pretty amazing that I can ‘discover’ new films that look really interesting, even after all these years. Sure, some turn out to be duds, but that’s often the case with so many new films, so I can forgive ‘old’ films sometimes being the same. Just the thought though, of films waiting Out There for decades waiting for me to bump into them… its almost… well, I hesitate to refer to it as ‘romantic’ but as a film lover its almost magical, all those films out there. Amidst all this Covid19 chaos, it reminds me the world can still be a magical place.

      5. Very nicely put, and a lovely sentiment. I hope I haven’t discouraged you though – even if I’m not so enthusiastic on that one, it’s safe to say I’m in a definite minority. I say keep exploring and take each discovery on its own merits.

  3. One of the things that’s always fascinated me about film noir is that, in some respects, it’s not really a genre, nor a ‘movement’ or something, because it was defined retrospectively by critics who noticed patterns rather than being deliberately organised by its filmmakers. And because of that, you get key texts that have nothing in common with each other; and films that are sort of noir, but also not; and every other permutation you can think of. I’m not sure why that delights me… Maybe it’s because it means whenever you watch a noir for the first time you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.

    re: the other comments, and at the risk of coercing you to spend more cash, I must say I absolutely loved Anatomy of a Murder — though I last watched it a whole decade ago! How time flies, etc. Must revisit it. And I can’t speak for every various Criterion sale, but Detour is in the 2-for-£25 at Zoom.

    1. cheers, I’d spotted Detour in the Zoom offer, got that ordered. And you just spent my money on Anatomy of a Murder, ordered that with a copy of Fail Safe. These sales are terrible, I feel like Al Pacino “I’m out- then they pull me back in!”

      1. Tell me about it! I whittled my selection down to 4 that I ordered at the start of the sale, and I’m only staving off buying more by remembering there’s a Barnes & Noble Criterion sale due in the US soon and there are tonnes I want to import!

    1. Sounds like a lovely reason to watch the film, Laura! I wonder if you will approve of your namesake’s behaviour and traits. Mind, you can now add another film to that ‘to-watch; list- I watched Anatomy of a Murder last night, and that film featured Lee Remick playing a young woman with the name of Laura too.

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