Looking Back on Laura


Strange by even film noir standards, Otto Preminger’s 1944 Laura, which is showing in a new 35mm print at Film Forum, starts out with a voiceover narration delivered from beyond the grave by hornet queen Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb):) “I will never forget the weekend Laura died.” A gossip columnist who likes to write while soaking in the tub, regal Waldo is here, queer, and completely unabashed by the manly police detective (Dana Andrews) who barges into his china-shop apartment on a mission to investigate Laura’s murder.

Laura‘s first half is largely devoted to annotated flashbacks detailing Waldo’s perverse cultivation of the beautiful young advertising executive (a very limited Gene Tierney), a sterile romance played out in an invented Manhattan inhabited by a gaggle of decadent swells. (“Laura, dear, I simply can’t stand these morons any longer,” Waldo whines imperiously at one Park Avenue soiree. “If you don’t come with me this instant, I’m afraid I shall just run amok!”) Almost everyone Laura meets becomes a legitimate suspect in her murder, notably her fiancé, a drawling gigolo (Vincent Price), scarcely less epicene than Waldo, and his jealous patroness (Judith Anderson), but the movie’s impassive subject—a mannequin given to wearing the haute-couture equivalent of a Dutch milkmaid’s cap—is also the universal object of desire.

None of the characters, Price would later recall, are exactly “normal.” Preminger thought Laura was a “whore,” and in his book on the director, Foster Hirsch notes that as “the pawn in a sexual competition between two ‘gay’ men,” she may be harboring her own erotic “surprises.” At any rate, the cop falls hard for her, or at least her portrait, as he moons around her empty apartment in a necrophiliac trance, rifling drawers, fondling knickknacks, and sniffing perfume. Then, having taken up residence there, he falls asleep and . . .

Elevated by studio boss Darryl Zanuck from “B” picture status, Laura opened at the Roxy, became a critical and popular hit, was nominated for five Oscars (winning for cinematography), and launched Preminger’s directorial career. Still, alternately sprightly and turgid, if abetted by its haunting, ubiquitous score, it’s far from a great movie—most beloved by second-generation surrealists who appreciate it for its time-liquidating dream narrative of l’amour fou. See that movie if you can; for me, Laura is a flavorsome but flawed anticipation of two far more delirious psychosexual cine-obsessions: Vertigo and Blue Velvet.