In Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), the murder of Tom Powers’ character is built up through the two lovers/killers’ plans. And yet the scheme could be all talk if it weren’t for the opening confession of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). When we witness the killing, famously heightened by a close-up of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the scene complies with the Production Code (by not showing directly the moment of the killing) while doubling its effect. A broken neck turns infidelity into an addictive path of guilt, misery and confession.
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock employed a similar approach when killing off his female lead in Psycho, the murder now rupturing the conventions of classical Hollywood narration to let a psychopath in as the lead. Hitchcock knew that a “fissure” could make a film, as it already had in Vertigo (1958) when James Stewart’s Scottie encounters the uncanny Judy (Kim Novak), then learns her “true” identity. The murderous shift in Psycho’s narrative attracted Hitchcock to the project (1), as a particular moment in Laura (1944) did for Otto Preminger (2). What Preminger described as a “gimmick” solidified the film’s place in the noir tradition. Laura’s (Gene Tierney) return to her apartment – after she’s believed to be dead – immediately makes her into a murder suspect. At this moment the murder mystery completes its transformation into an hallucinatory narrative. Although one of the “Big Four” (along with Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941], and Murder, My Sweet [Edward Dmytryk, 1944]) identified by Nino Frank in his pioneering essay on film noir that gave the style its name, he describes Laura as conventional when compared to the other three (3). What eluded him is the film’s slow slip away from the Arthur Conan Doyle tradition as it moves toward revising the upper class Agatha Christie whodunit.
Set in New York, Laura, from the outside, seems prepped as a traditional locked-room mystery. Aside from the investigator, everyone carries himself or herself fabulously, a conceit that Preminger peels away by the film’s finish. Columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) presents a privileged air that could spell trouble for others, or even for himself. Preminger fought to cast the diminutive actor in the role, for reasons that soon become obvious. Meanwhile, Vincent Price’s priggish, excessively cultured Shelby Carpenter seems to shield an underlying philistinism and perversion. But Preminger deals in facades, with how perception cheats us, right down to the ideal image of Laura as a portrait.
This illusion extends to Lieutenant McPherson (Dana Andrews). His place in the film, beginning as the first character to inquire about the missing Laura, is problematic in terms of noir commentary. The style, after all, generally distrusts the police; hence its preference for private investigators on the hunt with the cops steps behind. Having taken down a noted gangster in the backstory, McPherson is a refugee from the Warners-style ’30s crime film given a makeover. Laura suggests the future a minor avenger faces after ridding the city of a kingpin: he enters a noirish criminal world that is increasingly perplexing and internalised. Foster Hirsch described the criminal-centered noir as the most interesting variation on the form, as it links us to criminal psychology more than that of an unofficial avenger (e.g., a private investigator) slowly reaching the truth (4). In Laura the avenger strays from his duty, as his infatuation with the titular character (as a portrait) grows. His “passion” leads to her appearance at a police station. His interrogation is unique in its further implication of the law after the film’s big revelation. It illustrates how McPherson forces procedure while repressing his desire – the process en masse that largely led to the creation of the American noir style in the first place.
The film’s shifting point-of-view – from McPherson, to Waldo, back to McPherson, then Laura – contributes significantly to the hyper-real tone that gained the attention of Frank and, subsequently, so many others. Waldo’s recollection to McPherson of how he discovered Laura, and began a relationship with her, instigates just one thread in the film’s overwhelming fabric of obsession. That Laura clears room for the advance of Lydecker, Carpenter and McPherson is a credit to the film’s economy and leads the way for future feminist interpretations. Such a feminist reading reveals Laura to be the victim of three men – all are just pesky at first, until they are spurned and become aggressive. The late critic Robin Wood, who noted the fluidity and hybridity of genres, might have seen the film as a comedy of suitors gone nightmarish.
That Laura comes back “from the dead” is a clever spin on what Freud called the “return of the repressed”. Hardly the seductress, Gene Tierney’s Laura stands as an odd figure among the women of noir. A review by Thomas M. Pryor in The New York Times at the time of release described Tierney as a let down after the film’s buildup of her role (5). In retrospect, this “negative” point is actually a strength as no woman could match such an idealisation.
As bastions of American success, the middle-class home and family rot from the inside across much of noir. But in Laura such a solid nuclear unit is hardly present. Preminger captures not the breakdown of a family but the failed attempt to make such a unit, as well as the retaliation against the offence to fragile masculinity. The passion-cum-murder of noir turns to the thrills of identity and illusion.
- François Truffaut, Hitchcock by François Truffaut, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984, p. 268.
- Peter Bogdanovich, “Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Otto Preminger”, On Film no. 1, 1970, p. 37. Quoted in Chris Fujiwara, The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Faber and Faber, New York, 2008, p. 36.
- Nino Frank, “A New Kind of Police Drama: The Criminal Adventure”, trans. Alain Silver, Film Noir Reader 2, ed. Silver and James Ursini, Limelight, New York, 1999, p. 15. Originally published in L’écran français August 1946.
- Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Da Capo, New York, 1981, p. 172.
- Thomas M. Pryor, “Laura”, The New York Times 12 October 1944: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F05EEDE1E31E03BBC4A52DFB667838F659EDE.
Laura (1944 USA 88 mins)
Prod Co: Twentieth Century-Fox Prod, Dir: Otto Preminger Scr: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt, adapted from the novel by Vera Caspary Phot: Joseph LaShelle Ed: Louis Loeffler Art Dir: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler Mus: David Raksin
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Dorothy Adams