Double Take: Laura (1944)

Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death. Otto Preminger's 1944 noir classic tests how far love goes, and Double Take breaks it down.

Because Laura rose from the dead and defied McPherson’s orders by speaking again to Carpenter, he labels her as a typical femme fatale: “Dames are always pulling a switch on you”.

Steve Pick: Here we turn our attention to the 1944 film entitled Laura, clearly named long before anybody ever thought about how difficult it might be to perform a Google search on something with such common nomenclature. This Otto Preminger joint was noir before there was noir, with all the shadows, camera angles, tough-talking semi-disinterested detectives, sex, and complicated crimes that would make the post-war movies so much fun to watch. But unlike the later films, Laura takes place entirely in a world of well-to-do society people, where money is never a problem. Despite the title character’s job in advertising, she lives in an apartment that requires inherited money to pay for the exquisite furnishings. She has a maid, who almost steals the show in her big set-piece of inquisition, despite being surrounded by some big time scene-stealers.

Steve, I imagine there’s a lot you want to talk about, so I’m going to let you get going, but before I do, I want to express my firm desire that somewhere there exists a compendium of all the incredible lines Clifton Webb delivers in the course of these 90 minutes. It didn’t occur to me to start writing them down until after I had finished watching for the second time.

Steve Leftridge: You’re not kidding. Laura contains some of the snappiest, wiliest patter of any noir film. Webb as Waldo Lydecker, in particular, delivers a mesmerizing procession of elegantly droll dialogue. Laura , like so many films of this era, benefits from actors who stick to a meticulously crafted script. Compare the smart, efficient exchanges in these scenes to, say, those terrible improv-soaked David O. Russell films of today, for instance. Let’s also relish the fact that, Webb’s pitch-perfect performance and narration are executed here in Webb’s first-ever talkie; he’d previously worked only in silent films.

“Laura, dear, I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don’t come with me this instant, I shall run amok”, Lydecker sniffs. It’s a line, delivered at Mrs. Treadwell’s party where Laura meets Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), which pretty well sums up Leyland’s default position: he has no capacity for suffering fools. His Svengali-like possessiveness of Laura puts everyone who comes near her in his crosshairs.

Even Laura grates on him at first, when he rattles off one of those deliciously crafted lines: “Young woman, either you have been raised in some incredibly rustic community where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from the common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct. Or possibly both.” It’s all served up with Webb’s smugly immaculate posture and all those effete innuendos. And I simply must get one of those handy cross-tub trays for typing while soaking in the bath. That contraption appears in the first scene, which also sets up a key juxtaposition. Lt. McPherson (the steely, hard-drinking, tough-talking cop played by Dana Andrews) smirks at gay old Lydecker’s naked body as it emerges from the bathtub. Help me with this: How does the contrast between Lydecker’s effeminacy and McPherson’s machismo inform the overall plot that is about to unfold?

Pick: I’m not sure I would call Lydecker effeminate. While his words drip with more venom than a cobra, he otherwise isn’t remarkably different in type from the well-to-do ne’er-do-wells we’ve seen in other films from the ‘30s. Of course, Lydecker has a job as a columnist, which at the time could plausibly have made him as rich as he appears to be — the likes of Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan were paid very handsomely to spread rumors and innuendo in the newspapers of the day. But we don’t see Lydecker working, despite the glitzy typewriter in the bathtub set-up. Instead, he goes to parties in high society, he dines in expensive restaurants, he has all the time in the world to follow a detective along on a murder investigation. You’re right; he’s not a man of action as McPherson is, but he still fits comfortably within a particular brand of masculinity in popular fiction of the time.

On the other hand, we have Shelby Carpenter, played enormously effectively by Vincent Price in a sort of “last gasp of youthful beauty” role. Shelby is foppish in the extreme, and his body English, despite being expressed by a larger figure than any other in the film, is closer to a stereotypical gay character. Of course, Shelby is something of a playboy, mixing sex, money, and comfort in ways that can’t be easy to keep straight. But despite his ability to attract women — we have Laura, her aunt Ann, and the never-seen key figure of Diane Redfern all in his thrall — Shelby is shown to possess the opposite of machismo. Lydecker makes his own way in the world, but Shelby has to let women pay for everything. In 1944, it was a rare far-thinking American who considered that to be remotely acceptable for a man.

So, Steve, let’s turn the tables a little, and see what you think of the central woman in the film, the title character of Laura, capable even of enthralling a man even from beyond the grave.

Leftridge: Laura is quite a doll, to use McPherson’s lingo. But you and I have identified a key difference in our reading of these characters. I find Lydecker outrageously effeminate; it’s one of the purposefully discordant elements of the plot in that he’s homicidally possessive of Laura, yet at no point does he seem remotely heterosexual. Here’s a guy, after all, who welcomes a police investigator into his home without first getting out of the bathtub. In fact, Lydecker makes sure McPherson is in the bathroom before Lydecker exposes himself. I am not, keep in mind, suggesting that this rather peculiar exhibitionism is the expected behavior of an actual gay person. Instead, this seems to be the nudge-wink gay stereotyping typical of ’40s and ’50s Hollywood.

On the other hand, Price’s Shelby Carpenter just seems like a big dumb guy attempting polite society affectations. If anything, Carpenter seems to be a little too into women, which gives Lydecker both a motive and an avenue to attack his character.

But everyone wants Laura. She’s the film’s MacGuffin, the object that everyone (Lydecker, Carpenter, McPherson) is desperate to take possession of. And with her own huge portrait hanging prominently in her living room, she’s apparently pretty fond of herself, too. I would argue that Preminger found the perfect Laura in actress Gene Tierney, as believable as an irresistible beauty as any other actress of the ’40s.

“When a dame gets killed, she doesn’t care about her looks”, McPherson claims. However, he finds himself fascinated with the dead dame anyway, and his sexually heated night alone in her apartment under the hypnotic gaze of her portrait is a date that borders on necrophilia. So Laura’s image is certainly enchanting — the one crafted Pygmalion-style by Lydecker and the one imagined “posthumously” by McPherson. Of course, the content of Laura’s actual character is far murkier, manipulated as she is by the male characters in her life. Her every movement and eventual fate are largely decided for her by men, despite her efforts at self-actualization. In fact, because Laura rose from the dead and defied McPherson’s orders by speaking again to Carpenter, he labels her as a typical femme fatale: “Dames are always pulling a switch on you”.

Pick: Laura does pull switches every chance she gets. I realize Lydecker is not necessarily the most reliable of narrators, but when he tells the tale of their initial meeting, she comes off more like a minor character in an Andy Hardy film, with her whole “Gee whiz and golly, you must be very lonely” schtick. Then, when he meets her again, making such a delightfully droll entrance into her office, she’s only a speedy dialogue away from being Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Once she’s on his arm as “familiar as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick”, she’s the belle of the ball, a mistress of high society who attends every party and commands attention from everyone. But that’s not enough; she’s also capable of falling for schlubs like the painter and Shelby, men who clearly have little or nothing to offer her. After we learn the reports of her death were grossly exaggerated, she is alternately the mysterious femme fatale and the traditional love interest. Not to mention she has a theme song which can be heard almost any time any music is played in the story. She’s either got more facets than a diamond, or she’s the most manipulative person in a film filled with characters who work hard to get others to do what they want.

Leftridge: I’m glad you mention “Laura”, the theme song, a perfectly moody and romantic musical motif that plays throughout the film. David Raskin wrote the slyly bewitching melody that we hear in various arrangements in the movie, but it wasn’t until after the film that Johnny Mercer supplied the now-familiar lyrics about the girl you see and hear everywhere but who is only a dream. Apparently, Mercer wrote the lyrics without having seen the film, but I can’t separate the two. (I love Sinatra’s torchy 1957 version, by the way, as sad and warm as any I’ve heard, recorded in the thick of his Capitol years.)

Pick: I do want to circle back briefly to the scene with Lydecker visiting Laura at her office. It’s such an odd sequence, since Preminger could have established Laura’s hold on Lydecker’s emotions in any number of ways. Beginning with Waldo entering the outer office and slowly realizing he can simply walk into the area where Laura works, we are suddenly dropped into a world almost entirely removed from the rest of the film. This is the workaday world, not the wealthy and sophisticated one in which Lydecker normally resides. Laura’s co-workers realize he is an alien in this environment. I love the way the young man inches closer and closer to Waldo, and the giddiness is palpable in the young woman who leaves her desk to walk behind the main characters. When Lydecker cuts the mood with his insult to the man for practically breathing down his neck, watch that woman jump and run away. This is a tiny moment, but it serves so well to show the distance between Waldo and the rest of humanity. I like to imagine the extras in that scene watching the film with their grandchildren over the years, saying, “Here comes the best part”.

In fact, Laura is a film with so many, many best parts. We’ve mentioned some, but there’s also Vincent Price discovering his calling as an actor when he wears a coat over his hunched-up shoulders and sneaks in the shadows and a rainstorm. There is that remarkable scene when McPherson discovers the secret compartment in the clock. There is the fully realized yet minor character of Ann Treadwell, who deliciously chews the scenery especially in the party scene when she tells Laura why she wants Shelby. Which scenes stick with you the most, Steve?

Leftridge: Your comments about Lydecker’s walking stick and the clock remind me of a funny backstory: Vera Caspary, who wrote the novel on which the film adaptation is based, protested when screenwriters changed a key element of her story. In Caspary’s original version, the gun that was used to shoot Diane Redfern (in the face!) was concealed not in the clock but in Lydecker’s cane, which Caspary maintained was a symbol of Lydecker’s impotency. If Caspary would have gotten her way, we would’ve not only added another Freudian psychosexual ingredient, but we could have done away with McPherson’s rather implausible choice to just leave the murder weapon in the clock to be picked up later.

But as Lydecker would say, “Let’s not be psychiatric.” To answer your question about my favorite scenes, I like very much that elegant montage of Lydecker’s flashback to the days and nights that he groomed Laura. We see Laura meeting new clients, holding forth at board meetings full of old men, getting a sleek hair makeover, trying on a beautiful new dress, charming a lobby full of opera patrons, being seated for dinner at Sardi’s, dancing with Lydecker, arriving at the swanky El Morocco nightclub, staying in on a Friday night while Lydecker tosses a salad by the roaring fireplace, and sitting and smoking seductively as Lydecker reads her his columns. It all unfolds in under two minutes and contains so much of Otto Preminger’s artistry as a director, particularly due his meticulous mise-en-scène and his subtle, graceful camera movements. It’s no wonder, with Laura’s many charms, that Preminger worked for the rest of his career in the considerable shadow of his own film, as early in his career as the highly successful Laura came. (It was, however, the second half of Preminger’s career that saw him taking his most interesting artistic and political chances.)

But I have to ask you a final question. Toward the end, Lydecker tells Laura that she and McPherson will have a “disgustingly earthy relationship”. What do you suppose he means by that line, and what are we viewers, thematically, to learn from that description since, as an audience, we’re meant to root for McPherson and Laura to pair up romantically?

Pick: Interesting question, Steve. I guess if, as you suggest, Lydecker is to be read as being gay, then he and Laura never got undressed, and the line is merely an acknowledgement that McPherson and Laura will get in bed together. But, if as I think, they did have more than just dinner and a column on those nights by the fire, implying that those cigarettes you mention are post-coital, then we take Waldo’s line as jealousy combined with the kind of ego that he has displayed all along. McPherson can’t give Laura the intellectual stimulation Waldo believes he has provided – McPherson’s idea of a challenge is to play with that little baseball game he carries around.

I don’t know that I fully root for the detective and the “victim” to live together happily ever after, since she knows next to nothing about him, and all he knows about her he learned from reading her diary and love letters from other men. I think that is the weakest aspect of a film with few mistakes. I like the way Tierney and Dana Andrews underplay their scenes together, acknowledging that there is an attraction but holding back because of his professional obligations. It’s entirely possible that, after all that repression of affection, they will feel the earth move once they get to the bedroom. If so, my money is for that theme song to be playing on the radio.