Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who was found in her own apartment, apparently killed with a shotgun. Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir is a classic mystery, one where everyone and no one is a suspect and love and desire are corrupt, base urges that lead to nasty consequences.
Laura opens, as all good noir should, with a voiceover narration, with Walton Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s self-appointed patron, glossing over the circumstances of Laura’s death. Opening on a shot of an ornate grandfather clock, the camera pans across a room of trophies before settling on Detective McPherson as he enters the room, tracking him back across the space as he absent-mindedly inspects Lydecker’s assorted trinkets. It’s a terrific opener, quietly drawing the eye to objects that may (or may not) be crucial come the film’s denouement.
Laura is full of such moments, from frequent whip pans, and meticulously-composed wide shots that silently suggest hidden motivations and clues hidden in plain sight. Often moving in harmony with its subjects’ shifting power plays with one another – cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s camera constantly, quietly innovates. As the numerous deceptions and manipulations of the film’s four key characters play out against each other, the frame shifts, making it near impossible to untangle the mess of red herrings, dead ends and half-truths; if noir is defined by its visual and moral murk, then for Preminger predictability is its antithesis. As the knot of mystery grows tighter, so the film’s visuals move from day-lit clear skies illuminating Lydecker’s opulent surroundings, to torrential rain pounding against windscreens on frantic night-time drives down twisting roads.
A mid-stage reveal shifts the tone from detective mystery to quasi-gothic melodrama, and as McPherson is drawn further down the rabbit hole, his fixation on the spectre of Laura becomes increasingly less than professional. Meanwhile, the barely-veiled homoerotic love triangle between Lydecker, McPherson and Laura’s erstwhile beau Shelby Carpenter (a young Vincent Price, at full playboy-ham tilt) finds expression in a multitude of phallic imagery, and a charged scene in which one character emerges from a bath in full view of the other.
This re-release of Laura, from boutique label Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, sees a brief scene restored to the original theatrical version, which was cut due to fears that the scene’s depiction of opulence would go down badly with hard up war-time audiences. The scene, in which the doomed Lydecker transforms Laura from everyday copywriter to fashionable socialite, restores more than just distasteful opulence, underscoring their Pygmalion-esque relationship, whereby the wealthy, elder man takes possession of his female ward and calls it love. It’s a welcome restoration, and crucial to the film’s central theme of male erotic desire and control of women. Where the women of film noir are so often read as aberrant monsters, Laura’s homme fatale suggests that perhaps it is repressed male sexuality that is the problem.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell