Classic cinema review: Laura (1944)

Otto Preminger’s film looks on the surface to be a typical murder mystery – Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been murdered by a shotgun blast in the face at her flat, and Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) has been assigned to the case.  There are a handful of likely suspects including Laura’s mentor and friend Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and friend Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).  The film was started under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian but after his dismissal, Preminger took the film to a whole new level.

Parallels may be drawn with the likes of ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Angel Face’ if you wish, and Lydecker is a direct ancestor of the waspish Addison de Witt of ‘All About Eve’, but ‘Laura’ stands on its own merits.  Dana Andrews did much of his best work for Preminger, and here is a really good example: McPherson is a cop who doesn’t seem to be easily rattled, but it is clear that this particular case, and victim, has got under his skin.  Clifton Webb is a joy to watch in every scene, while Vincent Price is something of a curio – there is no sense here of his future to come in horror classics, but he is capable of menace in this early showy role.

But it is the mysterious Laura who rules this film, even before the delicious twist which turns the mystery on its head and McPherson into quite a different person than the one we first met who talks about dames with some distain.  The script (by Jay Dratler, Betty Reinhardt, and others) is sharp, witty, and complex, and so many rewatchings are possible without the chance of getting bored.  Gene Tierney’s Laura is mysterious, beautiful and compelling, just as she should be – and when the murderer is unmasked, we can understand why they have been driven to madness by her.

A wonderful, elegant, sexy and funny film, now showing at the BFI Southbank in an extended run into March 2012.

7 thoughts on “Classic cinema review: Laura (1944)

  1. I devote a chapter to LAURA in my HOLLYWOOD ENIGMA: DANA ANDREWS that University Press of Mississippi will publish in September. The book has a good deal of new material in it, including some relating to this film.

    1. Hi Carl. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Your new book sounds fascinating – I’m not sure there has been a dedicated book on Dana Andrews before and he was an interesting character, a singing accountant who goes to Hollywood after the death of his wife and gets a niche playing all those tight lipped good (and bad) guys. I think Laura was probably his greatest role and that he is/was very underrated. Incidentally is there any truth in the rumour that his brother Steve Forrest appears in a small role in Laura? There’s a William Forrest credited on IMDb but it doesn’t link to the same person – but isn’t that how Steve was billed in his early appearances (or was it William Andrews? foggy brain today!).

      1. Thanks for your interest, Louise. Dana was already in Hollywood when his first wife died. His role in Laura is great but I think his role in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is even greater. His brother (William or Billy to the family, Steve Forrest professionally) was in the Battle of the Bulge and did not appear in Laura. Mine is the first biography of Dana Andrews. There is one other book, but it is mainly just a synopsis of his films with an error-ridden biographical chapter.

      2. Thanks for clarifying those two points. Good to know that someone is taking the effort to do the in-depth research. Yes, I like The Best Year of Our Lives, too. And Fallen Angel, Daisy Kenyon, State Fair, While The City Sleeps and many others. I suppose because Laura was the first film in which I first noticed Dana I find myself going back to it the most. I hope your book gets a worldwide release, definitely interested in seeing it after hearing about all the material you’ve amassed to get it moving.

      3. In some ways, I like Dana’s performance in Fallen Angel even more than the one in Laura. He hated Fallen Angel, by the way, and never seems to have understood the film or his performance. My book will have worldwide distribution as a hardcover and ebook, and, I hope, a little later as a paperback.

  2. I forgot to say my book will contain nearly 70 photographs, many of them not published before. His family gave me complete access to his papers, which included not only the photographs but also letters and a diary.

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