At the cynical heart of Otto Preminger’s Laura is a murder, yet labeling this elegant 1944 noir classic a whodunit is to ignore its masterfully complex—and frequently campy—portrait of all-consuming romantic self-delusion. Laura (Gene Tierney) is a wealthy, mysterious beauty whose death-by-shotgun instigates an investigation by detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). McPherson discovers that the victim inspired rabid, near-incomprehensible devotion from both cerebral newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb)—who bizarrely greets the cop by exiting his bathtub in the buff—and shallow, gold-digging two-timer Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), whom Laura was considering marrying in a week’s time. Either man, as well as Carpenter’s caustic, jealous girlfriend Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), might have been the executioner, or, in the film’s surprise twist (spoiler alert), Laura might not be dead at all. It doesn’t really matter, because the who, what, when, where, and why are merely the exquisitely constructed genre trappings of Preminger’s critique of high society and examination of man’s penchant for projecting their fanciful visions of idealized femininity onto women.
Laura’s suitors are a lineup of varying masculine types: Lydecker embodies the intelligent, asexual fop; Carpenter the frivolous, frisky idiot; and McPherson the gruff, sexually hardy he-man uncomfortable with his urban surroundings, who, in the film’s most perverse twist, falls for the “dead” Laura on the basis of her alluring portrait and the knowledge that she inspired such ardent male affection. Each of these saps is, in one way or another, obsessed with Laura. Lydecker can’t stand the thought of the unrefined McPherson calling his young companion a “dame” because it clashes with his own image of her as a socialite defined by sophisticated loveliness. McPherson, meanwhile, is entranced by the glamorous Laura’s inscrutability and magnetism, while Carpenter envisions her as a gorgeous, expensive bauble to wear on his cheap, philandering arm. And as personified by the luminous Tierney, Laura—always a passive participant in her own story, and shot by Preminger in downy lights that cause her deep, dark eyes to twinkle like mirrors—is the vapid, superficially enticing vessel for these men’s self-generated desires.
McPherson’s fascination with Laura, however, isn’t born simply from his ability to see his longings mirrored in her own; rather, his is a rescue mission in which winning her heart also means saving her from a decadent world of festering greed, sloth, and moral bankruptcy. The detective’s disgust for this environment explodes from Andrews’s stern, disapproving eyes, and Preminger’s film (based on Vera Caspary’s novel) subscribes to McPherson’s condemnation via its depiction of Carpenter, a disreputable, wantonly profligate weasel so indolent that, during their first meeting, he willingly concedes to Laura that he’s wholly indifferent to the idea of work. No better is Clifton Webb’s feminine Lydecker, a hypocritical intellectual (“Haven’t you any sense of privacy?” he caws to McPherson shortly after recounting his own meddlesome role in Laura’s life) who despises McPherson’s “muscular and handsome” physicality, or Treadwell, whose blasé immorality—exemplified by a speech in which she admits to being “weak,” self-centered, and having the capacity for murder—is emblematic of this social milieu’s depravity.
Preminger stages a third-act party attended by arrogant elites with obvious contempt, and it comes as little surprise when the hard-nosed McPherson ends the festivities by socking the worthless Carpenter in his soft underbelly. “You’re not yourself, darling,” coos Lydecker to Laura during the finale, but this sentiment fails to take into account that Laura really isn’t anyone; she’s just a blank slate to be written on by others. Considering that noirs typically punish those who attempt to alter their own identities, Laura’s status as a cipher turns out to be her saving grace, and thus provides a new wrinkle to Preminger’s otherwise conventional, though still impressive, employment of noir trademarks like shadowy black-and-white cinematography, shifty criminal goings-on, and roiling romantic and class tension.
McPherson’s eventual triumph isn’t that he solves the case, which becomes increasingly irrelevant, but that he saves Laura from falling further into a ritzy pit of wickedness. And the denunciation of the upper crust is most forcefully illustrated by his juxtaposition of the heroic, heterosexually virile “dick” McPherson and the erudite, homosexual dandy Lydecker—a clash of simple “normalcy” versus haughty degeneracy meant to appeal to WWII-embroiled citizens’ hunger for strong men. Webb might steal the movie with his marvelously arch, snooty performance as the lethally acerbic columnist, but in the end Laura, closing on a note in which the titular femme appears on her way toward redemptive domesticity with McPherson, is nothing if not an affirmation of a traditional, hard-working, middle-American lifestyle.