Laura (1944)

Laura, 1944, 20th Century Fox. Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb. Directed by Otto Preminger. B&W, 88 minutes.

A film-noir classic of murder, love and obsession, Laura epitomizes that genre in many ways with its stark cinematography, urgent narration and moody drama.

Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is called to investigate the murder of a beautiful young advertising executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He begins his interviews of her penthouse society crowd with one of her closest friends, the caustic, odd and self-centered Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), whose jealousy over his protegé’s engagement to the ingratiating Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) is evident.

Through a series of flashbacks, Laura’s story is told, and MacPherson finds himself drawn into the circle of the captivating woman’s male admirers. As Lydecker scathingly notes, the detective has begun to dream of a life with his murder victim, getting to know her through her personal correspondence and diary.

A twist in the tale throws the investigation onto a whole new course, with a winding path of discovery.

Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews in Laura

Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews

Laura has a number of odd elements, such as the investigation techniques of Detective MacPherson and the effete personality of Lydecker, who appears to be in love in Laura. The story doesn’t suffer from any of these incongruities, however; the tension and cinematic reality hold firm.

For several of the cast, this was a career-launching film. It was a breakout role for Clifton Webb, who was in his 50s at the time and primarily had worked on stage. For both Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, who were also fairly new to moviegoers, the film helped establish A-list recognition from their peers and audiences. Andrews had learned about the film from his friend Lewis Milestone, who had turned down the job as the film’s director, and lobbied hard for the role, going so far as to get Hedda Hopper to advocate for him in her column.

Even the director, Otto Preminger, found his film career taking off again with the success of Laura, after having been shunned by Hollywood because of disputes with powerhouse Darryl Zanuck.

Followers of Vincent Price will be surprised by the subservient nature of his character, quite a departure from his career-defining persona in thrillers and horror films. Despite the difference, he’s decisively believable, showing well his broad range of talent, and this role is considered by some as one of his best.

Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney in Laura

Dana Andrews (portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura)

The haunting melody of the music score was also immediately popular with audiences, who began to ask for recordings and sheet music. A year after the film was released, Johnny Mercer added lyrics, and the song Laura became an instant musical standard and one of the most recorded songs of all time.

Laura was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), and won for Best Black & White Cinematography.

Today this movie is considered by many to be definitive film noir, and the mystery and suspense don’t lessen with time. It is Hollywood at its best.