Directed by Otto Preminger, this classic film noir stars Gene Tierney as the titular Laura, Clifton Webb as her acerbic mentor Walton Lydecker, Vincent Price as her fiancé Shelby Carpenter, and Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson, the detective investigating her murder.
Laura had a somewhat bumpy journey to the screen. Much has been written about the unpleasant atmosphere and tense disagreements both before and during production, with Preminger clashing with the studio on everything from casting to plot, and reports of a difficult initial relationship with his cast. Vera Caspary had written the original story in 1941 – which she then adapted into a play and a novel – and she disagreed vehemently with the changes made by Preminger, who erroneously believed Waldo Lydecker, rather than Laura, was the more interesting character. Even if this were true in earlier incarnations, Preminger eliminated any chance of this when he cast the captivating Tierney to play his lead.
Gene Tierney signed a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1940 after being spotted in a Broadway play by Darryl F. Zanuck himself, and she made her on-screen debut in a supporting role in the Henry Fonda vehicle The Return of Frank James (1940). The two actors would appear opposite one another again in the screwball comedy Rings On Her Fingers (1942), and Tierney’s breakout role in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) followed soon after. Today she is often remembered for her statuesque beauty, which, although undeniably true, is somewhat of a shame, as she was a talented and versatile actress who excelled as both screwball comedienne and complicated femme fatale. However, she is best remembered for her portrayal of the eponymous Laura, and her delicate and layered performance is key to unlocking the depths of the character.
The central mystery of the film is Laura herself, although not in the way we are first led to believe. The mystery lies not at the heart of her murder, for she is revealed to still be alive, nor does it concern the murdered woman who everyone assumed was her. Laura herself is the true enigma. She is shaped by the expectations of the men around her, who each have their own mental portrait of who she is to them which mirrors the perfection of the physical portrait of Laura that hangs in her living room. Indeed, the film prompts the audience to draw our own portrait of Laura based on our expectations of the conventions of the genre, in which beautiful women are manipulative femme fatales – particularly in relation to hardboiled detectives like Mark McPherson.
McPherson, who has never met Laura prior to beginning his investigation into what he believes are the circumstances of her death, becomes obsessed and falls in love with her – or rather the idea of her that he has created. This obsession is shared by Waldo Lydecker, who has cast himself in the role of her mentor, determined to shape her into the woman he wants her to be via coercion and manipulation. Her fiancé Shelby Carpenter is chronically unfaithful, including with Laura’s own aunt, who finances his playboy lifestyle in return for his companionship, tolerating his desire for the company of women his own age. For Carpenter, Laura is little more than a possession or trophy, casually cast aside with scant interest in her inner life.
It is telling that the murdered woman dies from a shotgun blast to the face, making it impossible to identify her from her true features. She is anonymous, a female body with no personhood, and although she is not Laura, the two are alike in the way in which they are denied agency and an identity of their own. For who is Laura, truly? Much like her portrait – in actuality a photograph of Tierney smeared with oil paint – her true self remains obscured, and we never get to know who Laura really is. We see her only through the prism of the men around her; even McPherson, who feels he knows her intimately, having read her private letters and diary, is merely projecting his own fantasies onto her. When the unidentified woman is revealed to be Diane Redfern, McPherson immediately suspects Laura, presupposing a jealous woman angle.
The reveal of Waldo Lydecker as Diane’s killer is perhaps unsurprising to an audience familiar with the language of film noir, particularly in a modern media landscape in which the tropes of the genre have been parodied and paid homage to countless times. The barely coded homosexuality of Lydecker, coupled with contemporary views of queerness as perversion, lend a troubling and indirectly sexual element to his obsession with Laura. His infatuation with her is explicitly presented as wrong, but Lydecker wants to own Laura rather than sleep with her. He goes out with a classic trope of the genre, an ‘if I can’t have you, no one can!’ stickup, before being gunned down by McPherson’s sergeant.
Lydecker’s final words – “Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love” – are not the heart-rending farewell of a lover. They speak to his obsession with her until the very end, and reinforce the fact that the narrative is centred around Laura, whilst simultaneously not deeply concerning her. We see little of how she feels about the chaos and death unfolding around her, and, much like Carpenter, her inner life is of little concern to us; likewise, we wish to know more about Laura as McPherson does, and see her at her best in a manner reflecting Lydecker. The drama has unfolded independently of Laura’s actions – indeed, she was away in the country for much of the present day events, portrayed only through flashback. She is as much an innocent victim of circumstance as Diane Redfern, who Lydecker shot in the mistaken belief she was Laura. Even though Diane’s murder is solved, we are left unsure what it is about Laura that makes the men in her life behave the way they do, and how she deals with the aftermath of Lydecker’s attempt to kill her, as well as McPherson’s obsession with her.
Laura was released on October 11, 1944, and was a success with both critics and audiences alike. It was soon considered to be a classic of the film noir genre, with a great deal of praise for Gene Tierney’s performance. Vera Caspary wrote in her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups (1979):
“Who would have thought that a film which for all its elegance, was not expensive, whose stars were not then considered important, would become a box office smash and a Hollywood legend?”
Modern viewers are equally as entranced by Laura as contemporary audiences were when the film was first released; in many ways she is a blank canvas onto which the men around her can project their fantasies and expectations, and the audience along with them. But who is she really, freed from the expectation of others? Preminger left this unsaid, and so the mystery remains.