Laura (1944)

Laura (1944) is a classic murder mystery web of love film noir drama of meagre and unhealthy male obsession directed by Otto Preminger, starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price.

The premise of the story is that three men are fixated on the one woman, Laura Hunt, and as the story starts we visit one of those men — Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb — in the company of another of them, the young cop Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews.

The classic film noir flashback structure allows for a multitude of mystery and nonstandard storytelling, much of this confused by the fact that Waldo Lydecker is a brittle and caustic storyteller in himself — he is a famous columnist and aside from the power that he wields — typing his sometimes vitriolic and career-ending columns for his bathtub — he is in fact a weaver of tales himself and as such should not be trusted.

Perhaps in 1944 America had not yet learned to distrust the large-scale media however? For several reasons the viewer of Laura (1944) places trust in this rather distrustful man — and a part of it is to do with his respectability and facility for words.

Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews in Laura (1944)

Lydecker says himself: “I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.”

In the process of casting Laura (1944) Otto Preminger who was initially only the producer for the film, was dismayed when director Rouben Mamoulian cast Laird Cregar as Waldo Lydecker. This indeed would have been an error, as Cregar was known for his portrayal of a Jack the Ripper style of character in The Lodger (1944), and in fact this would have signalled to the audience that they were to be suspicious of Lydecker, which would not have helped the mystery. 

Vincent Price and Dana Andrews in Laura (1944)

Clifton Webb on the other hand was a noted Broadway actor, who had not appeared before the cameras since 1930, and so was perfect, as he arrived on the screen with no baggage and was credible, arch and insinuatingly trustworthy as a respected member of the press.

It's Lydecker entirely, memorably played by Clifton Webb that removes Laura to the realm of film noir fantasy, and combines both low motives and high style, to create a confusion of a story, 

Clifton Webb in Laura (1944)

Part of the suspenseful appeal of Laura (1944) is that despite the suggestion of its cosmopolitan setting, there is something of the feel of the closed-room mystery about it. The characters give the impression of freedom — especially in their occasional facility for moving to a country retreat — but in actuality there are an exceptionally limited number of suspects — really just two.

Dana Andrews in Laura (1944)

There is the character of Shelby Carpenter, played by Vincent Price, whom we are throughout led to believe is guilty, and there is the narrating character Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb whose slight remove as the story-teller leads viewers more by the nose towards the fact of his innocence.

That leaves the character of a model named Diane Redfern about whom we know very little, and whom we never in fact meet —and ultimately due to the picture's most remarkable twist, there is the character of the murder victim herself, Laura.

Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)

Vincent Price and Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)

Given the fact that for much of the picture we really only have one or maybe two murder suspects —depending on viewer acuity —it is remarkable how this classic film noir murder story manages to weave a characterful mystery which finally and gradually unfolds — leaving an exciting truth.

Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)

At the same time there is an epic contracts between Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb, the two characters who share the most screen time together in Laura (1944). The two form a direct shadow archetype, with McPherson the cop being a full-on masculine archetype, hardboiled in his attitudes to crime and women, Lydecker is effete and upper class. McPherson is tough all right, but he doesn't say much, whereas Lydecker never stops with the acerbic comment. They are opposites in so many respects but they do share their obsession for Laura, even when they think she’s dead.

There is also too the issue of Lydecker's sexuality. Clifton Webb was known to be gay within the industry although the general public did not know this, but there are other cues, including the fact that he often appears naked within his bath, as in the first unlikely scene which is an interview between him a tough guy cop McPherson.

Dana Andrews in Laura (1944)

References to homosexuality were hugley discreet in the movies in the 1940s, however. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), there’s no doubt at all that the characters of Cairo and Wilmer are gay. In film noir gay men and women were usually cast as villains, and often too as women-haters, although this is not quite the case with Lydecker, who is certainly a cynic, but is supposed to be in love with Laura. As a man in his 50s, this love is not going to be a typical kind of romance.

Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)

Dana Andrews in Laura (1944)

Lydecker's sexuality is not a subject that is worth pursuing too hard in Laura (1944) as the real issue is the obsession that so many men feel for her. While Lydecker's sexuality may be ambiguous, his ongoing preoccupation with her is not. In fact, he does not appear to be interesed in Laura sexually at all, and so there are multiple ways to read this relationship — for example, he may be an older and more impotent man, determined to use his power to keep this coveted woman out of the hands of the younger competition.

In fact, Waldo's most telling line is probably: 

“She became as well-known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation.”
What's manifest here is the fact that to Waldo, Laura is an accessory, and not an individual — and it's in here that we can most likely dig out the truth of the characters in the film.

Dana Andrews drinking and dreaming in love with a dead woman in Laura (1944)

What should be under discussion here is the nature of the male obsession, rather than the sexuality of the men themselves. The framing of Laura as a character, does not present her as anything special. She does not make a dramatic vamp-like entrance in a sexy dress, causing men everywhere to drop what they are doing and begin the obsessive behaviour.

Instead, Gene Tierney as Laura is beautiful, of course, but otherwise a fairly plain and pleasant working woman, good at her job and genuinely carefree and good company. It is the reaction of all the men — Clifton Webb as Lydecker — Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson — and Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter that is inappropriate, hurtful and destructive.

All three of them yes — the entire cast — none of these men take a tempered, respectful or decent approach to this woman — instead they form a wholly pre-occupied, bug-in-the-ear, deluded and fetishistically fixated trio of weaklings — posing of course as heroes.

To look at the tough guy cop, played by Dana Andrews, the fact that he falls in love with Laura when he thinks she’s dead is creepy and in no way appropriate or healthy. This love affair with a phantom begins slowly and takes over one night when he uses his cop access to spend the night in her apartment drinking her booze and staring at her portrait. What this shows us is that like Waldo, and other men before and since, he seems love only an idealised and unattainable woman.

One of the funny things about Lydecker's character, is because he is so clever and perhaps because he is a shadow character to the hardboiled cop, is that he catches on to McPherson’s obsession with Laura, and starts to torment him with this. Despite stating in his opening monologue that he was the only one who knew Laura, it does seem that none of the men seem to  know her at all.

Lydecker says at one point: “You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward.”

Film noir in its best deals brilliantly with male anxiety about women, and often the potential power that women have. Laura is not a deadly femme fatale, although she does seem to despite herself lead men into her orbit, usually for the worse. The most terrible thing she seems to do in the film is that she admits to using Waldo to advance her own career.

Clifton Webb collapses in Laura (1944)

Shelby, played by Vincent Price, is a different type of woman-hater all together. Appearing as something of a sap, he is a masculine foil and competition to Dana Andrews' character, but he is shown in his aunt's arms, a grown men cradled against her breast, a man who wants to be looked after by women, and as such rather gutless. 

Shelby Carpenter's character flaws are hidden not too deeply behind his hulking body and innocent face. a hulky Neanderthal of a man with an innocent face and he seems to see very little distinction between women no distinction among women. He tells Laura that he approves of her hat but this is also the same compliment he gives to his aunt, Ann Treadwell (played Judith Anderson). 

Worse still, he brings his mistress, the model Diane Redfern, to Laura’s home and lends her Laura's most intimate belongings, including a negligee. This suggest that in fact he can barely tell the difference between the two women, who may in fact be completely interchangeable in his mind.

Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)

Lydecker does what he can to break up the engagement between Shelby and Laura, and when the engagement is broken off, instead of rushing into Waldo's arms, Laura decides to go away by herself and reflect for a few days — and this demonstration of independence is what incenses Waldo enough to decide to murder her. 

Here lies true noir. In such a story as this, in which a woman, virtually persecuted by men who don't care for her in the way they should, foiled by their own weaknesses, Laura is an independent woman, and it is this outrageous fact that leads one of them to want to kill her, while the others fail in other ways.

Lydecker above all displays all the traits of the male stalker: jealousy, narcissism, ad a longing for control. As we see several times, Lydecker becomes enraged when Laura fails to occupy her role.

When Laura cancels a dinner date, Lydecker moves to the position of being “betrayed”. In this instance he walks to her apartment during a snowstorm and spies on her, to see she has another man with her.

Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews in Laura (1944)

When Laura's companion turns out to be an artist, Lydecker immediately begins a vindictive campaign of defamation and attacks the artist in his column, and like every controlling man, he sabotages Laura’s chances at happiness because of his own claimed love for her — spoiling all her affairs because her actions, which are in fact quite normal and healthy, undermine his enthroned and powerful image of her.

Cop Mark McPherson is not much better, as he virtually moves in to Laura's apartment and goes through her closets, reads her letters, and takes time over here every small possession, inviting the audience to join him in this insatiable desire and curiosity. 

Female in the male glare — Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)

He is in fact just as bad in his pragmatic and unromantic cop way. Lydecker asks him at one point if he has ever been in  love, and in this moment the entire hard-boiled misogynistic edifice of male film noir seems to collapse and reveal itself for the mid-century mess that it is. Dana Andrews' reply is:

"A doll in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once."

And there it is. This man of the streets whom we are supposed to admire is simply incapable of affection or even loyalty to women, and even in fact unbale to name them as women, instead they are of course dolls and dames

His capability as a man able to love and care for a woman is tantalisingly close to nil, and there it is left. His romantic feelings are limited to perfumed ghosts, a woman that he thinks is dead, and who exists for him comfortably framed in a two-dimensional work of art.

The resulting classic film noir is a web of a movie, kinetic and twisting through flashback and characters who are compellingly flawed which takes time to ponder on the nature of that delusional fascination that some call —  love.

Laura (1944) at Wikipedia 

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