#165. Laura (1943)

I like this movie but was expecting to love it. And even though I was led to think, by my longtime fanfare and passion for movies like Sin City and Payback and the general vibe of modern film noir (such as I’ve known it), that I’d adore and revel in the genre once I reached its heyday, here in the 1940s, Im thinking now, in the wake of relative disappointments like High Sierra and Maltese Falcon, that I might like the idea of film noir more than the genre itself.

laura vincent price

Vinnie Trump

Laura‘s about a clever and straightfaced detective, played by Dana Andrews, investigating the murder of a beautiful young woman named Laura. Halfway into the movie (spoiler?) Laura re-appears. She was alive all this time. Off in some cabin. Apparently the dead woman found in her apartment — censorship forces our characters to find euphemistic ways of saying the woman’s face was blown off with a shotgun — wasn’t her. So the main suspect, her paramour (Vincent Price) and sugar daddy (Clifton Webb), are thrown for a loop.

My beloved! She’s alive!

There’s plenty of jealousy and rivalry between those two once she returns and then, to make things worse, the detective starts falling for Laura too. Starts showing some vulnerability.

The killer’s identity, revealed in the last few minutes, did kinda take me by surprise, and the motives make a kind of dry simple sense. It’s gratifying, believable. The acting’s great and the writing is strong. Young Vincent Price, in his debut on the List, looks a little too much like a missing Trump son, which is distracting, but does a fine job in the role. Director Otto Preminger how to keep things moving, how and when to throw in a surprise. It’s another really strong movie whose artistry and influence are easy to see. It blends noir with a more conventional parlor mystery. I enjoyed it. But even a couple days later I find myself pawing for details. I know the whole movie didn’t take place in Laura’s apartment, I know there was a cafe and a cabin and a visit to her sugar daddy’s bathtub, but almost everything I can remember places us in her apartment. Her living room, mainly.

laura gene tierneyAnother thing I can’t seem to remember — and this is probably intentional — is whether Laura, played by the spectacular Gene Tierney, was interested in any of these men. She shows affection and seems to give serious consideration to whether she’ll spend time with any of the men chasing her…but it seems more like she’s considering which one she’d rather indulge than the one she loves most.

the limey poster
Haven’t seen this movie in easily ten years, maybe more, so it might not hold up to my first impression of it as a teenager but I remember it ran a cord through me and zapped it. Broke me. Ugh.

But this forgetfulness might also be a part of what’s made noir so timeless. It’s usually characterized by having lots of characters, sub-plots, suspicions, overlapping timelines that are only discussed instead of shown (making them harder to visualize and digest). So you watch it once, and you get the broad strokes of the story. Then, like life itself, you go back to it again and again to study how the single event, the murder, was a result of a dozen different intersecting factors. Successive viewings reveal those factors with accumulating clarity. And finally, once you’ve got the whole picture in mind, you watch it and enjoy it as you would  song. The complexity of all these different tunes (storylines) in sync. And, of course, they seem to come to the same conclusion: their collective senselessness makes the murder seem even more senseless, more tragic. (I remember this destroying me in Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 noir The Limey.)

A couple nights ago I was preparing to do a standup routine at Tea & Poets, where I also host Thousand Movie Project screenings, and the owner Joaquin, with whom I’ve gotten friendly, caught me pacing in the back, rehearsing my set by the bathroom, and he came over to say that this is good, that I’m still practicing obsessively, stressing, not just trusting myself to be interesting or efficient. It was really flattering that he noticed, and then took the time to say that. He talked then about the importance of always being a student. never getting too confident to over-prepare.

That idea of always being a student makes me feel a little better about the fact that my opinion and impression of any given movie on the List is so malleable. Cuz I’ll read the opinion of somebody with more film cred than me and, if she has a different sense of the movie than I do, I’ll immediately try to see it her way and will often be inclined to discredit my own impression.

Seems kinda weak-willed. Like I’m not trusting my instincts.

laura tub
Guy in the tub is a celebrated journalist, Laura’s sugar daddy, an interesting character who I keep thinking of in the tub, cuz it seems so dangerous to be sitting naked under a ~30-pound hunk of steel while typing. I know Mark Twain is said to’ve done his best writing in the tub. I’d be too worried about getting the pages wet. Maya Angelou had a weird thing too: I think she kept an ongoing rental at a hotel and she’d go there every day and write in the hotel bed. Play Solitaire when she was blocked. James Joyce is said to’ve written his later work in a milkman’s uniform cuz his vision was failing and he thought the whiteness would reflect sunlight down onto the page. Truman Capote also like to write in hotel rooms. Or maybe it was motels. Ahdunno. Hard to trust writers when they talk about this shit.

It kinda just happened again right now. I wrote the first couple paragraphs of this and then read Roger Ebert’s review, which is quick and appreciative and does a great job of illustrating how flawed this movie is, how bizarre, arguing that its triumph has more to do with mood and style than it does with narrative.

And here I was, just a moment ago, saying that I appreciated how much it made sense.

Ebert also draws attention to how chatty the movie is. Which is true. I’d kinda noticed this but was also, I’ll admit, trying so hard to appreciate it, to attribute greatness to it, that I wasn’t allowing myself the authority to deem its chattiness, or any other quality, a fault. Also, if I find something tedious, I grade it on this potentially misguided curve by telling myself that attention spans were longer back in the ’40s, audiences weren’t expecting an action beat every few minutes. Maybe they found this more gripping than a modern audience would.

Anyway. It’s a very well-made movie that speaks in a tone so decidedly its own, brooding and legitimately morbid but with a strange hard-to-articulate pep to it, I’m imagining it helped to shape film noir going forward. It’s worth watching, but I wouldn’t call it a must-see.


  • So, okay: did you get any sense of why the three guys who were so into Laura….were into Laura? They talk about how warm and vital and passionate and exciting she is, but I…..didn’t see that in Laura herself when she showed up.

    Not blaming Gene Tierney, I more so blame the script for not really giving her anything to DO.


    • Cringing to think that I hadn’t noticed this. I hear so often that noir is kinda inherently sexist, and there are lots of instances where it’s pretty obvious. The women in BIG SLEEP and MALTESE FALCON are pretty solid models for that kinda toxic portrayal. But I guess the fact that I don’t even ask myself this question is a sign that I’m not looking for the roundedness of these characters?

      This is something to noodle. But I was so consumed with how loathsomely WASPy Vincent Price is, maybe it just eclipsed lots of other stuff for me.


      • (dammit hit post too soon)

        If there hadn’t been 40 minutes of people talking about how awesome Laura was I probably wouldn’t have noticed a thing.


      • I totally see where you’re coming from–but I think I just didn’t question it because, deep down, I too have fallen head over heels for somebody who, looking back on our encounter, didn’t really do anything to make a striking impression. I was just…hooked.

        It reminds me of that famous monologue from the first act of CITIZEN KANE where the old man talks about the woman he saw on the train platform one day, decades prior, and that a month hasn’t gone by where he hasn’t thought of her.

        Some people just have an infectious presence, I think.


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