Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Painting Worth 1,000 Sighs

Film: Laura
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

While anyone who knows anything about film noir will tell you that it’s not really a genre and more of a style, it is a handy way to classify films. For me, it’s a good way to tell if I’m going to like something, since I have a tendency to really enjoy film noir. Laura is an unusual film, and an unusual film noir. It doesn’t have the lurid title or anything on the surface that would seem to indicate noir goodness, but there’s a lot going on in its relatively short running time.

We start with the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who went out violently—a face full of buckshot. Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is set to investigate the murder, and he’s got a few prime suspects lined up. First is Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a vain, pompous, and mildly effeminate newspaper columnist who met Laura years before. He helped her get her start in the advertising business and was instrumental in her early success. Also on the chopping block is Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s somewhat estranged fiancé. While engaged to Laura, Shelby has a reputation for carrying on with other women, including Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).

As McPherson digs deeper into the case, we learn some other interesting tidbits. It’s evident right away, for instance, that Lydecker is enamored of Laura and jealous of Shelby Carpenter. He indicates that he’s used his influence in the past to push suitors away from Laura since those suitors weren’t good enough for her. He dislikes Carpenter to a nearly insane degree, and would love nothing more than to hand him over to McPherson, indicating that the man has a sketchy past, and was seen stepping out with one of the models from the advertising agency where he works with Laura.

What also becomes clear is that McPherson is rapidly becoming obsessed with the dead woman, offering to buy the portrait of her, and sleeping in her apartment. Imagine his shock, and the shock of the audience, when mid-way through the film, Laura Hunt turns up alive. This means naturally that the body with the head full of buckshot was somebody else, and now there’s more than enough motive to go around for the dead woman caught wearing Laura’s nightgown.

This is a clever film all the way through. While it lacks a true femme fatale in Laura Hunt, it has all of the other aspects of a film noir, including shady characters hiding the truth, and a plot that takes a number of intricate twists and turns until it reaches its inevitable conclusion with the true murderer (who I won’t reveal here) getting caught in the end. What’s more impressive is that the various twists and turns all make perfect sense. There isn’t a one that feels forced or inappropriate to the story. Each time we learn something new along with McPherson, the result is a new direction for the story, but one that follows naturally with the story as presented to this point.

If the film is a disappointment anywhere, it’s in the two leads. Gene Tierney is a fine leading lady, but sort of bland here. She’s beautiful enough to make at least three men fall in love with here, but not specifically interesting enough as presented here to make them stay that way, at least in my opinion. As for Dana Andrews, his McPherson is a tough cop gone inexplicably mushy over the painting of a good looking woman. Really, while we don't get a lot of his character, it seems out of place. This guy feels like he should be more hard-boiled than getting wobble-kneed over a painting, especially when the body has been pretty much left sans face.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the presences of both Vincent Price and Clifton Webb. Webb’s Lydecker is a weasel, a preening little peacock who is convinced of nothing so much as his own greatness and importance. He’s instantly dislikable, and he’s intended to be so. As for Price, this role comes before his move into the more horrific side of the film spectrum, but there’s still a touch of the creepy about him here. He’s an interesting choice for a pseudo leading man, but that may simply be my knowledge of his later roles creeping back in.

This is something of an oddball film, but an entertaining one. The ending is tense, and it’s not until the last few minutes that the actual criminal becomes evident. The fact that there are multiple possibilities up to that point indicates good screenwriting. I just wish I liked the characters more.

Why to watch Laura: Vincent Price before he went full-on creepy and a shocking plot packed into less than 90 minutes.
Why not to watch: Remembering that Gene is a woman and Dana is a man.


  1. Gene Tierney was definitely one of the great beauties in all of movies, though I agree with you the supporting players steal the day in this one.

  2. I've always been partial to Vincent Price's roles, and while this one was different from what became his stock in trade, I liked this one, too.

  3. It is an unusual film, but I think there is a very good reason for that. I'll just point you to check out my spoiler filled review:


    Even outside of my particular theory on the film, I find it an entertaining film and liked seeing how everything played out after the unusual twist.

  4. I liked this movie and this is one I will point other people to watching. I was simply far more taken with the second tier of players than with the people who were supposed to be my stars.

  5. Yup, exactly. This was what I was trying to say. McPherson would have come through far better had he no gone mushy over the painting (for a long time I clung to the vain hope that this was only in Lydecker's perverse imagination, but no) and if Laura have had more intense allure. She is, precisely, bland.
    But except for that I loved the movie. It is really interesting.

    1. Yeah, the plot is a doozy. I just wanted more interesting main characters.