Laura, the film that cemented Otto Preminger’s position as a studio filmmaker, continues to be a distinguished noir classic in equal part because of its maker’s signature refinement and restraint, its appropriate screen adaptation from proto-feminist novel into a beguiling noir centered on masculine fantasy, and David Raksin’s infamous score. Of course, these elements, and others, like the casting of Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker, might not have come together if it weren’t for Preminger’s luck and persistence in fighting studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck on many of the film’s artistic choices. The most notorious decision was when Zanuck asked Preminger to re-shoot and re-edit the ending so that Lydecker wakes up from a dream. When the preposterousness of Zanuck’s finale was pointed out by people other than Preminger, Zanuck finally gave up trying to relinquish the project, famously telling him, “This is your success. I concede.”
Preminger’s persistence in shaping Laura into his film was evident even before he was given the chance to direct it. He failed to adapt it with original novelist Vera Caspary; the two could not compromise on the authorial voice and tone of the screenplay. Preminger wanted to remove Laura’s autonomy in order to play up the male characters’ attempts in defining, overpowering, and manipulating an unknowable woman, even in her posthumous form. She’s not a real character for two-thirds of the film, only talked about, remembered, eroticized and gazed upon as an image of unfathomable beauty. Laura’s femme fatality, which drives every man into insanity, isn’t really a portrayal of Laura herself, whom the viewer also barely gets to know. She’s an illusion, a reflection of what each man (Lydecker, Shelby Carpenter, Mark McPherson) wants to see in her.
Yet even when Laura reappears, she still isn’t treated as a real character in her first few minutes of screen time. Before McPherson wakes up, Preminger’s camera, which glides upon the dozing detective within the completely static apartment, gives the impression that he’s possibly entering a dream state. When Laura walks into her apartment and McPherson does a double take, it’s equally difficult for the viewer to accept her corporeal presence. This moment is beautifully climactic of a truth the film has been hinting at, through the considerate, yearning score that swells as the hardboiled McPherson searches her apartment, reads her private letters, smells her clothes, and tries to “know” the missing Laura: He’s fallen in love with a dead woman. Lydecker’s derision is spot on: “You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.” The premise is prematurely Hitchcockian, and in Preminger’s hands such obsessive love is simply, irrefutably tragic, a result of failed patriarchal domination.
What’s perhaps most beguiling about Laura is the way the film acknowledges the characters’ flaws even as it duplicitously calls for moments of sympathy. This is a classic whodunit device, with each suspect’s innocence played against their wickedness, but in Laura such scripted chicanery becomes more poignant when it unravels the characters’ underlying erotic desires. For Lydecker, Laura was his everything, a product of his grooming, and if he can’t have her, no one else can. For Carpenter, Laura is the perfect trophy wife, a symbol of his class and taste. For McPherson, Laura starts off as just another “dame,” only to become the object of his obsession, a woman who would change his mind about women. Even Laura cannot be trusted: her doppelganger Diane Redfern, a model and fellow colleague who was the real victim to Lydecker’s gun, is deemed a threat to Laura’s individuality, a theory cooked up by McPherson when he interrogates her about her possible motives in killing Redfern.
As the Blu-ray menu points out, 20th Century Fox originally removed the montage depicting Laura’s rise to high-class society woman in Lydecker’s flashback for its opulence, yet it’s one of the most important scenes in the film. Lydecker may have discovered her, he may have provided her with his connections and affluence to help her advertising career, but he admits Laura’s own intelligence and tenacity were the key factors in her success. Yet those same qualities are what made her so dangerous to men. Laura is about the uncomfortable division in both desiring and hating the perfect woman—or the illusion of one, anyway—and the imagined threat she brought to mid-century American society.
There's an additional responsibility on the part of studios when restoring a film noir like Laura: Cleaning a print must retain the genre's depth of light and shadow that is so crucial for the film's themes. This Blu-ray transfer is virtually flawless, as all noise and dirt have been removed without going too far and digitally altering the look and feel of the film's impeccable, Oscar-winning cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. The film's multifarious monochromatic palette is perfectly balanced in this remastering, as is the sharpness of detail, which is extremely important considering the intricate interior design of the film's main setting, Laura's apartment. Sound remastering is equally important for this film, considering how ingrained the score and song have become in popular culture, and the audio is absolutely immaculate in its lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono track. It booms when necessary without ever sounding echo-y or bloated, and is especially well-suited to the bobbing vocal inflections in Clifton Webb's voice.
Two commentary tracks are included that occasionally repeat the same information, one by composer David Raksin and film professor Jeanine Basinger, who were recorded separately, the second by film historian Rudy Behlmer, who provides a too-detailed encyclopedic narrativization of the film's production history. Basinger is equally loquacious, though at least her insights range in subject, and it's hilarious when her commentary fades out so that Raksin can appear on the track, every 20 minutes or so, to explain one of his artistic decisions, always succinctly in one or two sentences. Two television biographies on Gene Tierney and Vincent Price might be interesting to devoted fans, though much of the information is Wikipedia-grade. One last feature, "Obsession," explores the film's noirish elements and history from the perspective of filmmakers and historians.
This is an exquisite transfer of one of cinema's most beloved noirs, with a modest offering of special features that focus on the film's culturally significant history.