Laura, with Gene Tierney in the lead, and Dana Andrews as the male-police-love interest, is an early noir that takes place in the haunts of high society, not the gritty alleyways of the city. Andrews and Tierney, and director Otto Preminger, would visit that milieu shortly after this one in the film, Where the Sidewalk Ends. This film got me thinking about men, power, and impotence, yet again.
The film proceeds initially in a series of flashbacks as Detective McPherson (Andrews) investigates Laura’s murder. In a surprising twist, it turns out the Laura is not dead, and some have suggested that the entire second half of the film is the dream of McPherson, who has fallen in love with Laura, whose beautiful portrait image dominates her living room, while he seeks for clues. The same suggestion regarding dreams has been made about Point Blank, one of those impotence yarns I link to above.
Laura is a greenhorn career girl who brashly interrupts the luncheon of Waldo Lydecker, a prominent, effete, waspish columnist from whom she requests a product endorsement for a client. He brushes her off, but is smitten, and he becomes her mentor and Svengali, facilitating her meteoric rise in the advertising business.
It’s obvious that Waldo loves Laura, and equally obvious that theirs is a Platonic relationship: he’s either gay, or celibate, or impotent – it’s never clear which. We meet him when McPherson comes to question him – he writes while soaking in the tub like Marat, surely not an accidental mis-en-scene.
Waldo competes for Laura’s affections with Shelby (Vincent Price) another questionable male figure. When the detective questions him, he explains that people are likely to suspect him because he’s “not a conventional type.” There are many references to his fear of pain, his passive and gentle nature, and general lack of virile masculinity. This is quite clear when McPherson, scorned by Waldo as crude and earthy, punches him in the stomach. Shelby seems interested in Laura mainly for the money she has that could float his lavish lifestyle.
McPherson, real man though he is, has his own problems. He’s obsessed with the woman whose murder he is investigating. As Waldo acidly comments, he needs psychiatric care, he’s in love with a corpse. How sick can you get? Laura returns to life when McPherson, in the depths of a alcoholic reverie on her portrait, falls asleep in her apartment.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Like Keats, he seems dulled and half into the grave with his love. But he wakes up and takes on his role of male protector, avenger, and force of order. When Laura is startled to see a strange man in her living room, she threatens to call the police. “I am the police!” She doesn’t yet know of the murder that took place while she was away in the country, her murder as far as the world is concerned. Double-barrel shotgun blasts to the face to make positive identification difficult.
Now that she’s back from the dead, it’s a complex, three-way free for all with Laura as the prize.
Shelby maneuvers to stay in the game, McPherson has to solve the murder that took place – Laura was the intended target, it’s obvious – and Waldo has to maintain his hold on her despite the attraction she has for McPherson’s common, crude, and plainly physical charms. But the detective is still conflicted – he loves her, but maybe she did it! He fakes her arrest and drags her down to headquarters, the only place he feels in control of his feelings enough to make a rational assessment of the case. She is ushered into a room in a scene that looks like something out of a documentary on Stalinism. The glaring lights treat her well!
Go to town feminists and Freudians! Waldo can’t possess Laura, so nobody will. She doesn’t love him, he cannot possess her sexually, but he can symbolically rape her and have done with her. She, however, is too strong for him, and she grabs his power-wand and deflects it. Temple didn’t get off so easy with Popeye and his corncobs in Faulkner’s Sanctuary. McPherson awaits.