Noir-Vember Day Five: Laura (1944) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Noir-Vember Day Five: Laura (1944)

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Should a movie be punished for not being what a viewer thought it should be? If a person has a idea of a movie that they fall in love with and the actual movie does not take that path, is it right to punish the movie? I find it interesting that I have these thoughts about Laura, because it is a movie with a plot that revolves around a detective falling in love with the idea of a murdered woman whom he has never met. Yet, unlike Laura, the idea of what I thought the movie should be did not add up to the film that was made. After years of reading rave reviews of the film, I was left with a feeling of disappointment instead of the admiration that I was hoping for.

Laura is one of those movies that I have always wanted to watch but never got around to. The synopsis of the film sounded dark and twisted in the grand tradition of noir films and the stills and clips I saw of the film looked gorgeous. Although the movie had fine acting and the directing was exquisite, the tone of the film was widely different than what I was expecting and kept me from fully embracing the story.

The plot of Laura centers on a detective (Dana Andrews) falling in love with Laura (the beautiful Gene Tierney) whose death he is investigating at the start of the film. With everybody gushing about how she was such a wonderful woman, he gets swept up in the feelings and starts to feel for her too. As the case progresses, McPherson finds out there is more to Laura and to the case itself.

The portrait of Laura hangs in the background throughout the film, watching the characters unravel the mystery of her death.

Like I stated earlier, I was expecting a very dark and twisted film about a man becoming obsessed with something he could never have, instead, I got a film that was defiantly noir, but one that had a happier ending then most.

(spoilers follow for anyone that wants to be surprised by the second act plot twist, though I promise not to reveal who the murderer really is... just the victim)

The twist at about the half way mark of the film was surprising and caught me off McPherson is straightening up Laura’s place after a long day of dealing with all of her friends and admirers and sits down to rest; he is about to fall asleep when he hears the door being opened he gets up in time to meet a very alive Laura at the door. It turns out the victim was shot in the face with a shotgun, making identification impossible and everyone just assumed it was Laura since it was her place. In reality, it was a houseguest who just happened to look enough like her and be wearing her clothes (who does that?) so that everyone was mistaken.

To make matters worse, Laura is so freaked out and frightened that someone is trying to kill her, she takes the advice of her fiancé Shelby Carpenter (a young Vincent Price playing a sex symbol!!!) and hides out, telling no one that she is alive. Through the rest of the film, Laura and Det. McPherson solve the case together and grow closer. In the end, the murderer is shot and killed and Laura and McPherson presumably live happily ever after.

This painting of Laura. Again, it crops up a lot.

When the big twist of the movie is followed by the viewer hoping and praying that the film takes the most clichéd route and makes it the fantasy of a man in love, you know it isn't working as well as it could. I will admit that the twist that Laura was actually alive caught me off guard but at the same time I don’t feel like the movie earned the twist with the writing before or after the big reveal.

The movie is what it is, and the plot was actually a popular novel before a movie so it had to work for many people, but it was not what I was looking for. At the time I saw Laura, I was (and am) working on a project where I watched and reviewed the biggest movie of each of the last 30 years. While working on this project, I quickly realized that the time, age and the generation in which you watch these films will greatly influence your feelings towards them. Some movies, I see something new and interesting that I would never/had never picked up on when I was young, while other might have been my favorite movie when I was 6 years old, but time has not been kind and they aged horribly.

Laura is a great example of how a film can be viewed differently on when you see it. If I had watched this movie years ago when I first started watching classic films, I might have loved it, as it had a lot of pluses in its favor. In a strictly visual context, the movie is a perfect example of what people think of when they think noir. The movie is framed in shadows, with beautiful, crisp black and white and with cinematography richly deserved the Oscar that it won. Gene Tierney was a striking presence in the film and it is easy to see why all the people in the film were madly in love with her, and Clifton Webb, as the famous columnist Waldo Lydecker, had some fun dialogue.

Vincent Price, still young and handsome, plays Laura's fiance.

The Lydecker character is beloved by many and was a star making turn for Clifton Webb, but I was not that impressed by the performance. The main reason for this is because I knew George Sanders does almost the same role 8 years later in All About Eve and does it better.

Funny side note: the Lydecker role was so perfect for George Sanders, he actually played the role in two different TV productions in the '50s and '60s. If I had seen Laura before All About Eve, would I be a huge fan of Clifton Webb and see George Sanders as an imposter or clone? I don’t know. All I do know for certain is when I was watching the film was that I was disappointed that Sanders didn’t have the role because I was imagining what he could have done with the part.

The biggest disappointment I had with the film was the fact that the tone was the exact opposite of what I was hoping for. I would be first in line and counting down the days if someone like Scorcese would take the first half of the movie and actually go through with keeping Laura dead and gone. I would find it so much more interesting to see a movie where a normal man falls in love with a dead girl he never met. Someone in love with an ideal that will never change and a love that never has the opportunity to grow are themes that have almost endless possibilities to explore. This movie I believe I would have loved, but Laura I can just admire.

Two films were made in the 1940s about a woman who died at a young age and who were both beloved by many people. Rebecca (which will be reviewed later in the month) took one path with the story and Laura took a separate one. The fact that I find one a much better film than the other is because Rebecca surprised me in ways I was never expecting and earned the twist in its execution while Laura was executed well but lost me at the tone and style of the twist. Much like the detective in Laura being in love with her sight unseen, I think I fell in love with the idea of what the movie could be and not what it was.

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Posted by Ryan

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  1. I just watched Laura for the first time last night, and was definitely struck by what an independent woman she was. Glad I’m not the only one who was reminded of Addison DeWitt by Lydecker!

    Here are my thoughts on Laura, if you’re interested in the thoughts of a newbie!

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