Monday, February 27, 2012

The Curious Case of Laura

Though frequently described as a “classic film noir”, Otto Preminger’s Laura is, in fact, a strange and almost unclassifiable hybrid: part whodunit, part high society melodrama, part police procedural – all blended together with just a dash of necrophiliac obsession to keep things interesting. 

While various commentators have devoted considerable attention to the latter theme, it must be noted, on re-watching the film, that it is not perhaps quite so obvious as might be supposed; indeed, for most of the story prior to the sudden return of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), Lieutenant McPherson (Dana Andrews) is seen doing nothing more than a conscientious detective might be expected to do in investigating a victim’s past: asking uncomfortable questions, poking through drawers, reading private correspondence, and so on. Various characters, such as Laura’s maid, may object to his methods, but the viewer is unlikely to discern anything unusual, never mind abnormal, in his approach. As he puts it himself, “Murder victims have no claim to privacy.”

Even the famous scene in which McPherson is alone in Laura’s flat at night and begins searching through her bedroom, sniffing her perfume and opening her wardrobe, could be interpreted as nothing more than a depiction of his mounting frustration with the case and his failure to construct a convincing mental portrait of Laura Hunt. It is only when Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) arrives that the suggestion of an unhealthy obsession is made explicit; “You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.” Rather regrettably, however, this scene is followed almost immediately by Laura’s return, which abruptly brings McPherson back to a reality in which he will eventually be able to express his (now perfectly normal) desires openly, while also allowing the disturbing implications of his fixation on a “dead” woman to be conveniently dropped.

Such delicacy in the matter of obsession seems rather out-of-place in a film which otherwise goes to great lengths to emphasise the degeneracy of its high society milieu, and one rather doubts whether other leading practitioners of what would become known as film noir (for example, Fritz Lang or Robert Siodmak) would have been quite so restrained in exploring the more morbid aspects of the material. Indeed, it is interesting to learn that producer Darryl F. Zanuck felt that McPherson’s obsession should be more strongly conveyed in visual terms, proposing a scene in which the detective, while watching a newsreel, “sees” the real-life female subjects of the film repeatedly dissolving into images of Laura. It is also curious that Preminger chose to avoid the obvious, but still – one would have thought – effective intercutting of close-ups of McPherson and the painting of Laura in order to connect him more strongly with the object of his fascination.

That noted, however, one can only be grateful that another of Zanuck’s proposals was also discarded, namely a final scene in which “everything turns out to be a dream” – a horrible Hollywood compromise ending imposed on both Lang’s The Woman in the Window (like Laura, also made in 1944 and featuring a protagonist spellbound by a woman’s portrait) and Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). As with those two films, Preminger’s Laura can be seen as one of the first, tentative steps towards the full-blown film noir style that would emerge shortly thereafter, and to which Preminger, aided and abetted by both Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, would contribute so strongly, with Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). And although Laura itself may not, on close inspection, be entirely deserving of its high reputation, it nonetheless remains a fascinating, if flawed, excursion into the dark side.

John Exshaw 

Laura continues exclusively at the IFI until Thursday, March 1st. For more information and bookings, contact our Box Office on 01 679 3477 or book online [here].

Watch the film trailer here:

1 comment:

  1. Why, why, why, is Laura still doing the rounds? Enough already with using the word "classic" to show the same handful of films, again and again, and then, again. I'm all for preservation and restoration of film, and certainly, circulating and re-releasing films from different countries and eras is heartily welcomed, but "Classic Hollywood" has a rich and varied past and even within a specific genre or particular director's oeuvre, it seems that too much time and attention is given to the Laura's of the world, while the less acclaimed but significantly more interesting Daisy Kenyon's are neglected and sidelined. I propose, the honourable and humane thing to do in 2012 is to allow Laura the dignity of quiet and eternal repose, and give her overlooked sisters some of the tender loving care they deserve.