Off the top, a three-part disclaimer:
- You should watch Laura. It’s only the seventeenth (out of sixty-eight) films I’ve given the designation of Timeless.
- If you think you might ever watch it, don’t read this review. It’s impossible to write about Laura without spoiling it, and it’s got a killer twist. Go watch it, and come back when you’re finished. I’ll wait.
- If you’ve already seen it or you know you’ll never watch it, proceed.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I don’t consider myself a film critic. To be a good film critic, you need a dispassionate air. You examine a film objectively, and situate it in its time and place in the history of film.
I do some of this, of course. But I don’t write objectively. I let my personal opinion color everything. I play favorites and gloss over the faults of my idols.
The films I truly despise? The ones that bore me to tears? I don’t write about them at all.
I’m a fan, first, last, and always, and not much different from the kid I was at ten years old watching these black and white films with my mom on Turner Classic Movies.
Three films in particular hooked me and launched a lifelong love affair with classic cinema. Watching them as an adult, I wonder exactly what fascinated me, why I wanted to watch Bette Davis in black and white more than Saturday morning cartoons. Three quarters of the story went over my head, I’d never heard of a director, and I didn’t know anything about the lives of the stars.
The first film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I danced around the house singing the Baby Jane Hudson song while my mom and dad roared with laughter. Second was To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I saw what Bacall saw in Bogie’s craggy lived-in face.
The film is a textbook example of classic film noir. There are a lot of different definitions of noir, but as we’re fans and not critics here, suffice it to say that film noir refers to both a cinematic style influenced by the Germans and a cynical tone influenced by an American audience disillusioned by World War II. There’s often a hardboiled detective ripped straight from the pages of a 1940s mystery novel and a femme fatale—a woman who slinks across the screen like a black widow spider, using her sexuality to lure in and destroy the men she sees only as marks.
Laura has both. Or does it?
The film opens as a standard whodunnit—Detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, investigating the murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt. Someone blew the beautiful young woman’s head off with a shotgun.
McPherson has a collection of suspects—fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who needs her money and may have learned she was considering calling off the wedding; Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), the older woman who loves Shelby but cannot compete with Laura for his affection; and Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the powerful older man who took Laura under his wing and scares away any man who desires her.
All speak of Laura in glowing terms, but we get the most from Lydecker. By his accounting, he took an interest in the young aspiring career woman and opened doors for her. He taught her how to dress, introduced her to the right people, and cultivated a beautiful swan from—if not an ugly duckling, at least an inexperienced one.
As is typical of many film noirs, the plot is so bonkers that it should ruin the film but doesn’t. McPherson allows Lydecker and Shelby to tag along as he searches Laura’s apartment and questions witnesses.
McPherson also spends an inordinate amount of time in Laura’s apartment, seemingly without any reason but a desire to paw through her things and stare at the large painting of her hanging over her fireplace.
It’s clear poor McPherson has fallen under the spell of a dead woman, and about halfway through the film he gets drunk and falls asleep beneath Laura’s portrait.
[…dangerous spoilers ahead…this is your final warning…turn back now…]
He awakens to find the dead woman standing in the doorway, obviously mistaking him for an intruder and threatening to call the police.
Laura’s got an unconvincing story about staying in a remote cabin with a broken radio and having no idea that she’d been presumed murdered. The body wearing her dressing gown with her face blown off is identified as Diane Redfern, a woman having an affair with Laura’s fiancé.
Suddenly, she goes from victim to prime suspect, but that doesn’t stop the sparks flying between Laura and Detective McPherson.
At one point McPherson makes a show of arresting her in front of a roomful of people. He takes her to the station and interrogates her under bright lights. Angry, humiliated, and confused by her feelings for him, Laura lashes out. But it’s an elaborate ruse by McPherson to smoke out the real killer. Laura convinces him of her innocence, and McPherson rightly begins to worry for her safety.
In the end, there is only one person who could’ve tried to kill Laura. Shelby doesn’t have the stomach for it, and Ann Treadwell wouldn’t go to the trouble. It’s Lydecker, the older man who has everything but the thing he wants most. Realizing Laura would never desire him sexually, he decides that if he can’t have her, no one will.
McPherson saves her before Lydecker can finish the job he started, and detective and mistaken murder victim presumably ride off into the sunset together.
It really shouldn’t work.
But it really, really does.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.