Laura is famous for at least three reasons. First, there is the popularity of David Raksin’s musical theme, heard throughout the movie, and now a jazz standard. Second, the film is well known for a plot twist which I will not reveal. (You can know the twist in advance and still enjoy the film, but why spoil it for those seeing it for the first time?)
Laura is also known as director Otto Preminger’s “breakthrough” film following a series of routine melodramas. After the success of Laura, he went on to a greater fame that bordered on notoriety because of the “daring” subjects he chose. With Laura, still backed by the resources of a major studio, and still making just an “ordinary” movie, he created one of his most enduring films.
As Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of the title character, played by Gene Tierney, we’re immersed in the bitchy, pampered world of upper class New York society. The movie’s acrid tone is usually attributed to the presence of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who can be relied upon to sneer at everything. An emaciated, epicene viper, Lydecker is every reactionary idiot’s wet dream vision of the effete elitist. He is too over-drawn, too calculatedly nasty to be as entertaining as he’s clearly meant to be, however. Judith Anderson, as a middle-aged socialite keeping gigolo Vincent Price evokes upper-class ennui and decadence far more convincingly, just through her imperious, yet also desperate, manner.
It is the movie’s stylishness that resonates. The story’s setting allows Preminger and his collaborators to create a lush environment in which what you wear, the way you decorate your home and your public face are synonymous with your reputation. (Some of the movie’s visual sophistication probably results from Rouben Mamoulian’s preparations before Preminger took over.) Lydecker’s comment about his own apartment, “It’s lavish, but I call it home” doesn’t just express his attitude. It captures the entire, corrupt milieu in which the story unfolds.
Laura is meant to be the exception, the sweet, gifted innocent who manages through sheer determination, hard work and talent to rise to the top, while everyone falls in love with her in the process. It’s a wonderful myth, and certainly Tierney’s beauty is enough to charm the hardest of hearts. Precisely because the film is so successful in creating a crassly materialistic world, however, it’s just about impossible to believe that such a creature could succeed or, if by some miracle she did, remain untouched by the slime around her.
The film is thus a wonderful example of the American tendency to worship material success while pretending only to care about “real human values.” (Drop that gem in the tin cup of the homeless the next time you rush by.) The film’s glittering surface is its primary appeal, even as the grimy events contradict the sparkling image. Laura is, in other words, a perfect embodiment of American hypocrisy at its shiniest.