“Murder is my favorite crime, and I write about it regularly.” This biting quip perfectly captures the essence of Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura, a murder mystery based on Vera Caspary’s novel. So begins detective Mark McPherson’s investigation into the murder of young Laura Hunt, and the more questions he asks, the more he discovers that the people in Laura’s life are not whom they appear to be. Moreover, the case will take a strange turn that not even he expected.
Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a successful advertising executive who is about to be married, was found shot in her apartment a few days before. New York City police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) has recently taken over the case, and his investigation introduces him to the people in her life – her mentor, misanthropic, sharp-tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb); her aunt, gracious yet self-absorbed Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson); and her fiance, charming, yet parasitic Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Through their testimony and through Laura’s diary, McPherson slowly begins to build a flesh-and-blood idea of who the beautiful woman in the portrait was during her lifetime, and this makes him even more determined to bring the killer to justice, despite Waldo’s taunts that he has fallen in love with a painting of a dead woman. One night, while looking further into Laura’s murder, he falls asleep in the apartment, and he is awakened by someone coming in. Imagine his surprise when he sees that it is Laura Hunt, the woman whose murder he is supposed to be investigating. Laura, having been on a long weekend in the country, doesn’t have an inkling of what has just transpired, and the mystery deepens as they now need to find out who exactly was killed on that night in her apartment.
The movie itself, filmed in black and white, is gorgeous. Preminger was very conscious of the effect that certain schemes of set decoration and costumes would have in this particular color scheme, and it gives the film a noirish feeling even though it is more of a romantic mystery. It also uses several tropes from the noir genre: the hardboiled detective who is really not all that hard-hearted, the seeming femme fatale who is not really all that mysterious at all, and the dark secrets that can lurk behind even the friendliest, most well-meaning faces. And of course there is the friend who seems to want the best for Laura, who will do anything his power to protect her from heartache, and who even insinuates himself into the murder investigation, but all for his own very selfish reasons.
In one weekend, while she was gone, Laura’s world has crumbled around her, and she can’t trust the people whom she once trusted. Instead, a man whom she doesn’t know is the one whom she must trust, because he is the only one, like her, who really wants to figure out what happened and who has nothing to hide. Preminger builds suspense as the plot slowly unfolds because the viewer is learning things just as Mark and Laura learn them. The attraction and feelings between Mark and Laura are also very well developed, and Preminger is very careful to juxtapose this with the lies and hardships that came with Laura’s ended relationship with Shelby and her faltering friendship with Waldo. Preminger also ventures to explore the differences between obsession and love, as well as the sense of entitlement that comes with many dysfunctional relationships. He is very careful to show which characters are worthy of Laura’s high regard and which aren’t, and which ones seek to take advantage of Laura’s kind nature and those who simply like her for who she is and who would wish to reciprocate such kindnesses.
If you haven’t yet seen it, this is definitely a movie worth taking the time to see. It’s more than just the noble police detective trying to save the damsel in distress. It’s about the different relationships people can become involved in, and how, after so many toxic ones, someone can finally form a relationship with someone who really values them as a person.