Old Ass Movies: Laura (1944)

By  · Published on December 6th, 2010

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a murdered woman loved by everyone, a police detective with a silver leg, and the twists that no one saw coming.

Laura (1944)

Directed by: Otto Preminger

Otto Preminger has a stranger public persona than may be deserved. For more modern audiences, he might be best recognized as “that other guy who played Mr. Freeze on the Batman TV series.” For older generations, he has an even shot at being remembered either for his directorial talent or for getting stripper Gypsy Rose Lee pregnant due to his estranged, open marriage.

However, the man whom Noel Coward once called a bully had an incredible skill for storytelling, and that’s the aspect of his life that should be celebrated most on his birthday (one he shares with FSR Publisher Neil Miller (in lieu of flowers, send BSG-memorabilia)).

Laura opens with Clifton Webb (playing cranky writer Waldo Lydecker) in the bath tub. The titular Laura is dead, and detective Mark McPherson is rounding up those closest to her. As it turns out, just about everyone who met her fell in love with her, and the great detective is no different. He slowly becomes obsessed, both with finding her killer and with her portrait hanging in the sitting room.

There are two things strikingly ingenious about the film. First, as a film noir, it’s about the brightest and quickest ever shot. There’s something warm at the center of it, and the dialog seems like it’s in an unseen race with the other words around it. It’s punchy and vibrant, but the shadows are still there, and murder is still the case that they gave it.

The second thing is the pacing of the story which is tied directly to its ingenuity. It’s tough to spot a traditional three-act structure here, and the major revelations uncovered by McPherson make that almost impossible. On top of unconventional storytelling, the timing is all deceptively calm. Every character speaks with the unnatural steadiness that can’t have truly come for anyone whose friend has recently died, and the conversations have a funny pattern where McPherson summons characters only to disregard talking to them. He’s almost always looking for something besides what he’s asking for.

Thus, it’s not a mystery for those who can’t pay close attention to detail, but that’s the beauty of something so far away from typical boiler-plate fare like this.

On the acting front, it’s a movie where everyone looks like someone else famous. Gene Tierney (who plays the title character in flashbacks) has a Rita Hayworth quality; Clifton Webb looks and feels like David Niven; and, bucking the trend, Vincent Price (playing the fiance) doesn’t at all seem like Vincent Price. From the movie fan’s eye, that gives the film an even more surreal quality – like you’re sure you recognize the actors even if they seem just a little off. Of course, everyone is a bundle of dynamite. The talent pool here has a freezing cold deep end.

Webb takes the first prize there. He plays a self-absorbed jackass that commands a room with the buoyancy of his viciousness. He’s a misanthrope who makes a living by writing about other people, and he doesn’t even try to hide his jealous love of Laura or hatred of her fiance. Price plays said hated fiance as a giant dope of a man who has corn-fed charm and a lurid past. Hell, the characterizations here are so even-handed that Detective McPherson even begins to seem suspect.

Thus, in a room full of those who loved Laura most, anyone could have killed her. Or maybe no one did.

Over all, Laura is a simple mystery that’s been bathed in noir and had its dialog sped up. It’s a subtly different animal that seems to have sprung from the bullying nature of Preminger. It’s mean. It has teeth. Most of all, it’s pessimistic – the thing most loved in the film is gone at the beginning, and even as the truth is uncovered as to what happened to her, the silver lining seems awfully tarnished.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.