If you were to pick one element from the mystery genre, regardless of era, which would you say is most integral to success? Is it the cynical detective? The complex plot with twists and turns? Or perhaps even the opening murder, or other crime that sets the mood and reels us into the story? Otto Preminger’s noir Laura has most of those things, as pre-New Hollywood standards would never have accepted the violent murder of an innocent character, but one thing it does have, most others don’t – not really, anyway.
Like any other mystery, Laura includes a bevy of untrustworthy suspects the narrative will try to allay suspicion from until the finale’s grand reveal. But Laura goes a step further by giving us a fairly unreliable detective, making sure there is no one the audience can place their full faith in. Aside from a glaring plothole that nearly makes the narrative collapse upon itself, it’s just one of the central factors that makes the film such a classic.
The first character we’re introduced to visually is Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), stalking the collection of priceless valuables owned by the journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) before taking his statement. In comparison to the company he’s forced to keep, it often feels as though we have no choice but to accept him as our guiding light – something we probably wouldn’t have questioned as much if it were Bogie in Andrews’s place. Curiously, however, there are two key ways in which his character is staged in a scene to connote a lack of dependability.
First of all, earlier on in the picture, whenever he is inevitably surrounded by the bitter bickering and accusations tossed about by our prime suspects, they are standing while he is positioned either slightly lower or completely seated in between them. It’s as though he’s trying to make himself invisible amongst them, and though it could be that he means to let them go at it in case one says something incriminating, there’s something suspicious about an authority figure not making their presence felt with more possibly nefarious characters nearby. It’s subtle, but it’s fantastic staging and directing on the part of Preminger.
Secondly, just before the film’s midpoint, McPherson is finally standing and communicating his authority, but either just behind him or off to the side in the frame lurks the Laura’s (Gene Tierney) portrait, or other signifiers of her memory. This comes after the screenplay’s numerous flashbacks depicting the enigmatic title character from an admittedly biased perspective (Waldo), so when Laura reveals herself to be still alive, it brings about the idea that the memory he’s been so relentlessly told about might cloud his judgment. It makes for a decent amount of tension in a narrative that desperately needs it.
Laura gets plenty of help elsewhere, however. Clocking in at only 88 minutes, it’s a breezy affair, and Preminger is insistent that, visually speaking, the audience will get their money’s worth. The set design is sumptuous and the performances in the foreground are equally theatrical in their artificiality. And as preposterous as the narrative becomes the further it progresses, there’s always something compelling enough happening in the story, staging or performances. It’s a murder mystery that revels in being gloriously imperfect, flirting with a serious tone but never quite embracing it, in spite of some gradual, archetypal noir cynicism blooming throughout the narrative towards a gloomy finish.
The true skill of Preminger’s Laura is its never stooping to conceit while still engaging the senses beyond simple pleasure. It bears the warmth of familiarity, but still has the dexterity to stand out in a decade when noir was at its peak. In a 2002 retrospective, the late Roger Ebert commented that Preminger’s film was “a tribute to style over sanity.” Though the film’s own implicit admission of adherence to formula may somewhat temper that implied absurdity, it still takes viewers on a wild ride worthy of a genre stalwart.