Based upon the novel by Vera Caspary, the opening line of director Otto Premiger’s 1944 adaptation of Laura sets up not only the premise but the style which permeates it: “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York.”
The words are spoken by acerbic and imperious newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and the woman in question was Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a marketing executive to whom he was initially dismissive but to whose charms he soon succumbed, but with a dark edge.
Thirty years her senior, Lydecker’s infatuation with Laura manifested itself in manipulation of her personal life, possibly with her tacit consent, destroying the reputations of any suitor who would pursue her with his poison pen; when Laura is found gunned down in her apartment, he is an automatic suspect, as is Shelby Carpenter (Tower of London‘s Vincent Price).
A socialite whose position is maintained by siphoning money from those wealthier than him, it was through his co-dependent relationship with Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell (The Search for Spock’s Judith Anderson) that they came to meet, the only man who made it through Lydecker’s obstructions, eventually becoming Laura’s fiancé and, with her murder, the second suspect.
Investigating the case is New York City Police Department detective Mark McPherson (Night of the Demon‘s Dana Andrews), a man who never met Laura yet who falls under her spell as deeply as those who knew the living woman, hypnotised by the beauty of her portrait, his obsession with the case passing beyond the professional.
Released on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, Laura was highly regarded upon release, nominated for five Academy Awards including best director and best supporting actor for Webb, though in the end it only received one, the well-deserved award for best black and white cinematography given to Joseph LaShelle.
Part film noir, part psychological thriller, part love story and part portrait of obsession, the performances are everything, film professor Jeanine Basinger observing in her informed but somewhat dry commentary that Preminger avoids close-up reaction shots of his actors to cue the audience what to feel, instead holding wide shots of the ensemble to offer a more ambiguous interpretation of events.
The story of a woman as seen through the eyes of three men, former Broadway performer Tierney was already an established movie star when she played Laura, and though her personal life was already marked with tragedy here she is luminous; the year before her daughter had been born prematurely with congenital damage from rubella, an event believed to have inspired the plot of Agatha Christie’s novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.
The presumed romantic lead, Price’s Carpenter is assured and urbane, a far cry from the roles which would later establish him as a star in such films as Pit and the Pendulum, though he displays a mercenary streak which foreshadows that phase of his career. Webb’s Lydecker given the majority of the sharpest lines, Andrews’ brooding McPherson comforts himself in endless shots of whisky as the rain batters the windows.
David Ruskin’s soundtrack providing the romance, there is an archive interview with the composer as well as a brief “talking heads” appraisal of the film included as well as four different radio adaptations of the story, while film historian Rudy Behlmer provides a more lively but equally insightful second commentary, offering anecdotes from his friendship with many of the crew who worked on the film.