Nominated Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Clifton Webb
Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration
Best Writing, Screenplay
The body of a woman with her face badly disfigured by a shotgun blast is discovered in the apartment of Laura Hunt. The assumption is that it is Laura herself and detective Mark McPherson is called in to investigate. Working his way through the list of suspects McPherson interrogates Waldo Lydecker a well-known art critic, Anne Treadwell, Laura’s wealthy aunt and Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s fiancé. McPherson has reason to be suspicious as Anne and Shelby were having an affair.
Lydecker fills in the details of Laura’s past for McPherson. Lydecker and Laura met through her work at an advertising agency and as they became friends the suggestion is there that they were also lovers. Lydecker contributed to Laura’s success and even as she started to see other men they remained close; until Shelby insinuated his way into a job working for Laura and later became engaged to her. Lydecker apparently told Laura of Shelby’s infidelity with her aunt and also with a model called Diane Redfern.
By this time McPherson is becoming increasingly attracted to the portrait of the dead Laura and is surprised to meet the real woman when she walks back into her apartment. Laura quickly goes from being victim to suspect as the dead woman is in fact revealed to be Diane Redfern. It’s revealed that Shelby was in the apartment when the girl was shot but he saw nothing. McPherson has his own doubts about Laura’s innocence and he has to deal with those before he can move on and solve the case.
The undeniable strength of ‘Laura’ lies in the strong story line, the well executed performances and the intelligently written dialogue. The script of ‘Laura’ is very tightly plotted. It involves only a small group of people, who are almost incestuous in their relationships, and there is nothing superfluous to requirements anywhere. The story develops in a very clear way and is moved forward in a very slick manner.
The central character of Laura, either as the portrait, or as the real woman, are both equally unattainable. She is an unknown, an ideal, an image. Lydecker claims to be the only one who knows the ‘real’ Laura but he is ultimately the most misled of all. Lydecker wants only the ideal. He had the portrait commissioned as an attempt to own the woman and to contain her within a context that he can understand. Real people though are predictably unpredictable and Laura never belonged to Waldo choosing instead to be engaged to another man and then later transferring her affections to McPherson. It highlights the trouble that comes from the gulf that exists between the ideals and the reality.
The critical and commercial success of ‘Laura’ helped to cement Otto Preminger’s reputation as a director and can be counted amongst one of his best films. Originally he was not slated to direct this film, instead Rouben Mamoulian was given the contract, but due to artistic differences and some issues surrounding the casting of the role of Lydecker changes were made.
This film did good things for all the people that were involved in it. Clifton Webb had primarily been a stage actor when he was cast in the role of Waldo Lydecker but it brought him a second career at a time when theatre was struggling against the popularity of film. Both Tierney and Andrew had a number of film acting credits to their names, and had worked together twice before, but it was the success of Laura that made their position within the industry more secure.
‘Laura’ represents the best of film noir that was being produced during the 1940’s but while it is frequently quoted as a prime example it is atypical in it’s presentation. It is perhaps not as extreme as other examples in either its characters, its settings or its cinematography. While it retains the seminal role of the film detective it takes the setting away from the streets and places it into the affluent salons of the nouveau riche. It also eschews the criminals and deadbeats for the executives and the educated. What does remain is the moral and emotional ambiguity that continues to make films such as this watchable and relevant.