UK Release Date: 14th January 2019
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt
Starring: Clifton Webb, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price
Synopsis: After a woman is found shot dead, her older mentor figure joins forces with a detective in an attempt to get to the bottom of her death.
There are few movie genres that feel like a relic of a different age of cinema more than the film noir. Anything that wanders into that territory today, from the masterful Se7en to Pulp Fiction, is boxed off as “neo-noir”, leaving the original noir as a piece of film history. When you think of the genre, you perhaps don’t immediately think of Otto Preminger‘s Laura – a relatively brief noir tale that is economic and sharp enough to get all of its work done in under 90 minutes. But it’s definitely worthy of your time.
The trademark noir voiceover is provided by Clifton Webb‘s arrogant, bourgeois writer Waldo Lydecker, informing the audience of the death of the titular ad exec (Gene Tierney). Lydecker immediately sticks himself to Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) as he works the case. He’s a cop who seems oddly nonchalant at the whole process of investigation. Andrews’s performance is a masterclass of communicating to the audience that he knows everything, while maintaining the illusion that he believes everything he is told by the array of suspects. Even when a major revelation seems to up-end the entire thing, he keeps his cool.
The same cannot be said of Webb as Lydecker, who loses his rag increasingly as the film goes on, or Laura’s fiancé, who is portrayed as a fairly clueless lunk by Vincent Price, in his more photogenic, pre-horror days. Webb, especially, is terrific at delivering the sharpest of the movie’s barbed dialogue, introducing himself as “the most widely misquoted man in America” and deadpanning to Andrews’s cop that “murder is my favourite crime”. He’s the sort of slimy character who the audience is immediately suspicious of, which makes the revolving door of suspects all the more compelling as they enter the detective’s crosshairs.
The story itself is a relatively simple one – it certainly doesn’t have the wildly convoluted nature of other, more extravagant, noirs – but it’s a tale enlivened by the genuinely unexpected twists and turns of the narrative. The only character who seems to be in charge of his emotions is Andrews’s cynically charismatic McPherson, who responds to every reversal as if it has clicked another piece into the puzzle of his overarching theory. He’s either an unmitigated genius, or someone who’s very good at improvising.
As much as Laura is a typical, classical noir, it feels almost modern in terms of its barbed, quotable dialogue and its brisk style. Preminger is seemingly keen for his movie to get to the point and, given the exorbitant length of crime movies today, it’s refreshing to travel back in time for a thriller that understands economy of storytelling and the power of brevity.
There are two commentary tracks and an extended version of the film, along with radio adaptations of the story and an archive featurette.
Pop or Poop?
With a selection of excellent performances and a couple of very well-judged plot twists, Laura is a vibrant and engaging film noir thriller that picks and chooses the best elements of that genre formula. Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews are especially praise-worthy as characters who, respectively, say exactly what’s on their mind or hide it completely beneath measured composure.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Laura is available on Blu-ray in the UK now, courtesy of Eureka Video.