Moving 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.
I 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.