Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Nine

29 laura

#29 — Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

There is something about film noir during its heyday that bought out the twisty darkness in every filmmaker who waded into its murky depths. While director Otto Preminger had a career that was varied enough to defy easy categorization, I generally think of his works as clean and resolutely open-eyed, utilizing careful craft to tell relatively straightforward stories. Even a great film fringed with darkness like Anatomy of a Murder becomes methodical under Preminger’s guidance, almost anticipating modern procedurals in its keen attention to the simple progression of events, the whirring machinery of a court case. And yet, Laura draws Preminger in, enticing the director just as surely as the portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) stirs something bordering on obsession in police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) as he investigates the woman’s apparent murder. Preminger’s instincts might carry him to clean storytelling, but Laura demands something murkier and more elusive, something draped in heavy shadows.

There’s a little bit of Citizen Kane‘s roundelay of recollection to the early scenes, as the detective interviews a variety of people from Laura’s life, trying to ascertain who might have had cause to level a shotgun blast at her. He’s picking up clues, but he’s also, almost against his will, filling in details on who Laura was, building up a secondhand understanding of a woman who inspired intense feelings in many of those who helplessly orbited her. The more the film goes on, the fiercer its eddy of problematic humanity swirls. Bad behaviors emerge like percolating gas in a tar pit, offering ample hints as to the many ways affection can fester into something far more ugly. The mystery of who committed murder becomes almost incidental by the end of the film. The underlying message of the film suggests that almost anyone could transform into a figure of diabolical retribution.

Abetted by the ravishing cinematography of Joseph LaShelle, Preminger crafts a film that is stylish and cool. The interplay of shadows is always a hallmark of the best film noir, but in Laura it sometimes reaches levels that nearly imply the whole film is taking place in the darkest corners of the human heart, where light dare not intrude. Though the plot has a healthy number of kinks built right into it, the main carrier of the dread is the overall feel of the film. It lives in a bleak mist that never quite lifts, where a idealized vision of the world, as with Laura’s portrait, winds up a delusion rather than a promise. And there will be no shortage of individuals lining up to follow the delusion down to stifling depths.