"Laura" (Otto Preminger, 1944) What can you say about a 25-year old advertising executive who died? That she was loved to the point of being despised, and beautiful enough to be utterly destroyed. That her life was mercurial enough to be inconvenient, and that it was easier to love her more when she was dead. A woman more ideal in memory than in life. But she's only a dream....**
Women. Can't live with 'em. Can't shoot 'em in the head.
"Laura" is a mixture of film noir, murder mystery and working-girl-drama so oxidized as a classic that one could be forgiven for not recognizing the loopy movie this film really is. Both Tierney and Andrews underplay their roles while Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Judith Anderson over-play theirs (and what's the idea of Webb's character, Waldo Lydecker, inviting himself along as detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) goes to interview suspects? Does McPherson think Lydecker's constant stream of sarcasm will badger a confession out of them?) all of them, just this far from scratching each others' eyes out.
It's the story of hustling advertising agency prodigy Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who counts among her friends the rich and powerful, none more so than Lydecker, whose mentorship and influence have catapulted Laura to the top of her profession. Now, the police are investigating her grisly late-night death by shotgun blast, with the lead detective suspecting no one and everyone, but the three folks most often in his cynical glare are Lydecker--whose jealousy of Laura's man-friends has led to extreme actions, her on-again-off-again fiancee ne'er-do-well Shelby Carpenter (Price) and Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Anderson) who wants Carpenter for herself.
That's quite a tangled web. But things get stickier as McPherson spends more time than necessary investigating at Laura's apartment, staring at her portrait. In fact, McPherson becomes obsessed--or possessed--by the ghost of Laura.*
Then things get interesting.
The dialogue is arch, along with the performances, and Dana Andrews' barely expressive detective is a constant source of irritation to a group of people expert at irritation. The wise-cracks fly fast and loose, the cinematography (which justly won an Oscar) is lush and filled with shadows, and Preminger keeps the talk-y movie moving, right up to the shot of a splintered clock face that signals an end to a "timeless love." The whole movie could be the over-heated fever dream of a purple-prose life being flashed before your eyes.
High-toned, but low-down in the murk of motivation, "Laura" is just complicated enough to bear repeat viewing. And, besides "Vertigo," it's one of the rare Hollywood movies that dares to question the validity of that essential movie-dream, the "thing called love."
Plus, I always like to catch that moment when Dana Andrews barely smiles.
* Yeah, yeah, it's supposed to be romantic and all that, but I find it creepy--like those women who "fall in love" and marry axe-murderers in prison...because they can have the fevered romance, without having to actually live with the monster.
** I found interesting that this portrait that McPherson falls in love with is not a painting, per se--it's a studio photograph given the "Thomas Kinkade" treatment, with paint strokes added to make it appear to be a painting. And knowing how movie-cameras tend to make paintings appear real (the traditional trick behind matte shots), they had to "paint an inch thick" to fool the camera.
But she's only a dream....**