Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
Detective investigates a woman’s murder… and falls in love with her memory.
People often speak of this movie with special affection, like regardless of how good or bad it might be, there’s something about it they just love, and that definitely can trump a lot of ostensibly more important attributes. So I had been interested in seeing it for quite a while, and finally made it happen and, lucky for me, it lived right up to its reputation and then some.
We open with Detective Mark McPherson [Dana Andrews] waiting to speak to Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker, who had the most officially established relationship with Laura. She has been found dead, shot in the face with a shotgun full of buckshot. We also find out McPherson is somewhat of a hero cop for bringing in a big gangster, getting a leg full of lead in the process. He questions Lydecker, who is a newspaper society columnist in the Walter Winchell vein and fancies himself something of a wit. Lydecker asks McPherson to look at his face and see if it is that of a murderer, but McPherson has taken out one of those simple games with a box with three small ball bearings in it, which you have to tilt to get the balls in place. He ignores Lydecker, who then insists, purely for his intellectual curiosity, to accompany McPherson as he interviews all the other possible suspects and… well, police procedure wasn’t always what it is today.
McPherson goes to see Laura’s Aunt, Mrs. Treadwel], who has been seeing and giving money to Laura’s fiancé, Shelby, who, surprise, is there right then! Shelby is played by Vincent Price, who is cast here as sort of a big dumb pretty boy. Shelby and Lydecker accompany him to Laura’s apartment, where he lets them both snoop around hoping to find stuff. Like I said, police procedure wasn’t what it is now. Again McPherson pulls out his little game while others are talking to him, and reveals that it “keeps me calm.” He also gets a gander at the portrait of Laura above the fireplace.
Lydecker tells his story of how he met Laura, became smitten with her, she eventually started going with another guy, and Lydecker destroyed that other guy with his newspaper column. She then met Shelby, who wanted a job, and Laura helped him. Lydecker then exposed to her that Shelby was fooling around on her, and even gave another woman an expensive cigarette case Laura had given him, which the other woman then pawned. So it seems that Lydecker is seriously possessive, but Laura no longer wants anything to do with him. There’s also a housekeeper in here who loves Laura so much she would have worked for her for free. There’s also a model Shelby was seeing right at the end who looked very much like Laura. So there’s quite a few suspects.
SPOILERS > > >
Lydecker first voices the idea that McPherson is “in love with a corpse,” i.e. he’s fallen in love with Laura’s memory, and asks if he has dreamed that Laura is his wife. This thread was fairly vague to me until it was articulated like this. McPherson then stays alone in Laura’s apartment, looks through her panty drawer, and sits drinking, looking at her portrait. He falls asleep and…
When he wakes, there is Laura, standing before him. Preminger does a good job of having that moment of confusion where McPherson thinks it might be a dream, but without hammering it home, and letting it end before it becomes overbearing. But no, she’s very much alive. Remember that model Shelby was dating who looked almost exactly like Laura? She’s the dead one. So McPherson starts questioning Laura.
So McPherson gets her story… and notice how the smile quickly passes his face as she says she’s not going to marry Shelby. He tells her to stay put and not make any telephone calls, but of course she’s on the phone and out the second he leaves. The next day she has agreed to marry Shelby. Etc… it all gets very convoluted, as a noir should. In here, Mrs. Treadwell gives an excellent little speech about how Shelby’s a rotten person but he knows it, and she’s a rotten person too, so Laura should step aside and let her have Shelby. Eventually it all unravels and is resolved.
If you can manage to be taken in and really not know that Laura’s still alive [except you’re screwed now, suckas!] it is a very good, effective twist. Of course, in retrospect one can see that the story of Mark’s love beyond the grave would have nowhere to go if she weren’t. A similar device to this, which I suspect was inspired by this film, occurred in the overblown Denzel Washington time-travel thriller Déjà vu. Here it really works, though, and the high emotionalism of the love story, set against the dark murder mystery, creates a very effective and moving film. Furthermore, the romance between Mark and Laura creates a very potent erotic heat, especially as he is trying to keep his status as the objective detective, and she is slowly coming to love him as her ardent protector. One often hears about pre-60s films being erotically-charged, but it can be difficult for modern audiences to feel it. Not so here. There are two instances where a smile briefly crosses Mark’s face when Laura says she’s no longer in love with Shelby, and there is a great moment when he’s about to leave, she stares at him, and they allow themselves a brief kiss.
< < < SPOILERS END
Another pleasant surprise is just what a good noir this is, a worthy runner-up to what I consider one of the far-and-away achievements of the genre, The Maltese Falcon. Like Falcon, it is populated with a diverse group of interesting and rich characters, and McPherson himself is a complex, smart detective worthy of standing up with the best of them. I wouldn’t mind if there were a whole series of McPherson mysteries to run through.
So that’s it! If you want to get into noir but find the stories a little emotionless, this might be just the ticket. If you’re a noir aficionado but haven’t seen this one yet, you have a treat ahead of you.
Yes! It’s an intriguing, clever and surprisingly moving noir.