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.