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LAURA

(1944)

Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price; dir: Otto Preminger

 

The thing with Laura is not so much its qualities as a movie, which are already well documented, but its categorisation as a noir. Its greatest pleasure is the catty, Wildean wit of Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker, lacerating the mediocrity he sees everywhere. Its other great impact is the central plot twist which is so Gothic in nature that its co-habitation with Waldo’s arch bitchiness makes Laura seem more a romantic Victorian ghost story than anything else.

It certainly couldn’t qualify as police procedural, given how bizarrely Dana Andrews’ detective goes about his job. In his investigation’s initial stages he allows the prime suspect, explicitly identified as such, to join him in a tag team grilling the witnesses. Then in the film’s second half Dana’s Mark McPherson applies forensic techniques to investigate the health of his romance rather than the identity of the killer. The often overly igneous Andrews acts quite well in Laura, albeit subtly, so you have to be quick to catch the slight upward tick of happiness he displays when the eponymous heroine conforms to his desires. Gene Tierney here is the embodiment of a ‘limpid pool’ – she’s so liquid you feel every ripple and shimmer on her glossy surface. Vincent Price by contrast is ridiculous, especially flailing away at a Kentucky accent he forgets more often than not.

Much of Laura, especially its second half, is overly soapy but this hardly disqualifies it from being a Victorian ghost romance. Nor does Dana’s detective resorting to Agatha Christie-style drawing room mystery techniques, as he does at the heroine’s welcome back party.

With the script’s erudition (at least in Lydecker’s case) and its characters’ ease in their upscale apartments of trinket-filled prosperity shot in overly bright lighting, Laura has long been the noir for people who don’t like film noir. For this we can probably blame the French. In 1946 French critic Nino Frank, considered (along with Jean-Pierre Chartier) to be France’s postwar ‘discoverer’ of film noir, discussed seven ‘new’ Hollywood films: Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon and The Little Foxes (all 1941) plus Laura, Murder My Sweet and Double Indemnity (all 1944). While Frank saw Laura as less a harbinger of a new genre than a movie "renewing the formula" of classic mysteries like Sherlock Holmes’, what seems to have endured here is ‘noir by association’. Given Laura’s qualities, and the central role played by an imposing oil painting, the following year’s George Sanders vehicle The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945) seems a closer analogue than anything with Raymond Chandler’s DNA. But Laura, it needs to be said, is still a better film regardless of where it sits.

- Roger Westcombe