LAURA
commentary by Tony McRae

Two men are in love with the same woman.  Both think her dead.

Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), America's most famous columnist, has been responsible for Laura's career; Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who is investigating her murder, had never met Laura Hunt.

We know a good bit about Lydecker.  He is arrogant, caustic, and can make or break just about anyone with his typewriter.  He has kept Laura to himself, destroying any man who tries to get close to her.  His one fear is that Laura will leave him.

As for Detective McPherson, we know only that he's a good cop, he likes his liquor, and has had spotty relationships with women.  We will soon learn that his is obsessed with the dead Laura Hunt, mesmerized by her portrait which hangs over the fireplace in her apartment where she has been killed.

As directed by Otto Preminger from a Vera Caspary story, the dynamic between Lydecker and McPherson impels the movie with psychological and sexual undertones.  Lydecker is disturbed by McPherson's obviously personal interest in the case.  Laura Hunt has become more to him than a murder victim.  She--or rather her portrait--has gotten under McPherson's skin to the point of obsession.  

A key scene occurs some forty minutes into the film.  It's night and raining heavily.  McPherson returns to Laura Hunt's apartment and immediately goes up to her portrait, the "Laura" theme playing in the background.  He takes off his raincoat, lights a cigarette, goes through her letters, returns to the portrait, then begins to search the apartment.

 

It's an eerily disquieting sequence since the detective is not looking only for evidence.  We get the clear sense he's snooping, like a distrustful lover hoping to uncover a totem that might uncover the essence of this woman.  He goes through her drawers, picks out a flimsy scarf, smells her perfume.  And all the while he is being observed:  Laura "sees" him enter her bedroom, drink her liquor, and later spar with Waldo, her portrait a palpable presence throughout.  

When Lydecker show up and confronts McPherson with information that the detective has put a bid in on Laura's portrait, their maneuvering in front of "Laura" has all the nuances of two men fighting over a woman, the two-shot really a three-shot.  McPherson blocks off her picture (1); positions himself between Lydecker and "Laura" (2).  Lydecker understands better than the detective what's really going on.  "You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll end up in a psychiatric ward.  I don't think they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.  As Lydecker is leaving we have a shot of McPherson with "Laura" looking over his shoulder (3). 

 
(1)                                                   (2)                                              (3)

"Laura" is arguably the most eerily layered of noir movies, implying not only sexual neurosis, but also homosexuality and gender transference.  Lydecker and Laura's other suitor Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) have uncertain sexual orientations; Carpenter, in fact, is a "kept" man, his keeper Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), a strong woman who likes her men pliant and ineffectual.

There is another dynamic at work here which we might call class confrontation.  Waldo Lydecker has all the trappings of the dominant class:  money, culture, sophistication, power.  Clifton Webb, in an Oscar-nominated performance, plays him as an effete but dangerous snob.  He carries his walking stick with him, even threatens a young man with it if he doesn't keep his distance.  Once he realizes that McPherson is interested in Laura, albeit a dead Laura, he takes every opportunity to denigrate the detective, likening him to a suitor who brings drug-store candy to his beloved.  "Have you ever dreamed of Laura as your wife?" he tauntingly asks the detective.  "By your side at the policemen's ball?  Or in the bleachers?"  Prior to this encounter, Lydecker had related to McPherson how he had met Laura Hunt, had guaranteed her success, all the while insuring her total dependence on him.  Now, after her murder, McPherson has decided that Lydecker will not possess her in death.  The working cop will use his authority to keep Waldo Lydecker from her.

"Laura" was made in 1944 as the war was nearing an end.  From the early forties Dana Andrews had been cast as an All-American type in such pictures as "Berlin Correspondent" (1942), "Crash Dive" (1943), "The Purple Heart" and "Wing and a Prayer," both made just before "Laura."  I can't help think that the Austrian born Preminger took great delight in juxtaposing the dandy Lydecker with a handsome "real" American man of action.  

After Lydecker's departure from Laura's apartment, McPherson drinks himself to sleep under Laura's portrait, clearly a lover keeping vigil.  When Laura Hunt returns, not murdered after all, McPherson wakes, rubs his eyes in disbelief, the flesh-and-blood Laura trumping the static Laura of the portrait.  Or does she?  For the rest of the movie we see very little of that portrait.  There's no need for it, of course--the original is back.  Still, we have an uncanny sense that the detective is disappointed.  He badgers her, later taking her to an interrogation room for a third degree grilling.  Could McPherson still be in love with the portrait?  Preminger loves to play games in his films, and he does so here.  At the end of the film the two are together.  Happily together?  The classy woman and the blue collar cop.  One wonders.

 

"Laura" is not the first film to have the leading man in love with a dead woman.  Nor the last.  Hitchcock's "Vertigo" shares some interesting story points:  Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) and McPherson are detectives, both probably of Scottish ancestry, they share an unhealthy obsession with a dead woman;  both women come back from the dead, so to speak.  But where McPherson is ostensibly saved by the appearance of the real Laura, Scottie's obsession turns into a reality he cannot handle.

It can be argued that McPherson's love for the dead Laura and Scottie Ferguson's love for Madeleine are both pathological, unpractical if you will, not bounded by a sense of reality.  The difference between the two men and their situations is their ability--or inability--to distinguish between oneself and the one loved.  Scottie Ferguson is unable, finally, to accept either Madeleine or Judy (both played by Kim Novak) as real, someone to be loved for herself.  He is unable to separate her from his own fantasies.  

For Mark McPherson, once the flesh and blood Laura enters his life, her portrait practically disappears.  In an early scene in the movie, Lydecker looks at that portrait and says that the artist "never captured her vibrance, her warmth."  Mark McPherson discovers these qualities for himself, and it's what rescues him from his own neurosis.  Yet while Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews look right together, we have to wonder if their characters can overcome the unsavoriness that has been lying just beneath the surface of their lives.

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