not in our stars, but in ourselves
You know, for all Laura’s (1944) clout as one of the best film noirs (films noir? films noirs? oh, hell, I give up) of all time, I would actually have placed it in the possibly sordid company of the melodrama instead. Now, I’m sure that there have been plenty of people cleverer than I who have argued quite convincingly that noir and melodrama are two sides of the same coin (both relying on music, mise en scène, dramatic lighting and the like to imbue the film with additional meaning than what the script may have indicated), and I’m sure there are other people cleverer than I who think that’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever heard.
It’s a mystery, sort of, so I guess it gets to keep its noir mantle. I guess. The film opens in an ornately appointed apartment, with equally ornate narration by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) as he recounts Laura Hunt’s (Gene Tierney) “horrible death”: shot in the face with a gun full of buckshot. Since this was the face that got shot, it really was horrible.
Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating the case, and he soon uncovers a real mess of a romantic entanglement. Lydecker was in love with Laura, and helped her ascend from the stenographers’ pool to the lofty position of advertising executive (especially lofty in 1944). Laura was very fond of Lydecker, and of his assistance, but she had a tendency to make men fall in love with her – and she didn’t exactly seem to mind. She found herself especially susceptible to Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price – yes, that Vincent Price), and agreed to marry him. Shelby, as it turns out, is a cad of the first order: fooling around not only with one of the advertising firm’s models, but also with Laura’s wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, looking decidedly un-Mrs. Danvers). Laura found out about the dalliance with the model, Diane Redfern, and said she had to go to the country to decide if she would go through with the marriage or not. Later that night: buckshot to the face.
While immersing himself in the affairs of Laura, McPherson finds himself doing what no good detective should do: falling in love with the victim. He reads her letters and her diary, smells her perfume, gets drunk alone in her apartment and blacks out in front of her portrait. Scottie perhaps could have told McPherson that such fixations rarely work out for the best, but McPherson is hard-headed enough not to let it deter his detective instincts. He’s also significantly better looking than either the effete Lydecker or the lunkheaded Carpenter, so thanks for that, 20th Century Fox.
I thought that it was a fascinating, and unusually sympathetic, take on the degradation-by-love trope that seems to be such a favorite of mine. (Seriously, what gives?) Maybe that’s because it’s based on a novel by a woman: where many film noir heroines are just dames, dolls, and honey traps, Laura is a far more nuanced character. She’s intelligent, ambitious, kind, a bit thoughtless with all the men in her life, but still expecting loyalty where she has pledged it herself. Almost all of the men in her life want her for just one thing – whether it’s sex or money – and she’s clearly too good for that, whether or not she sees it herself. In any era of Hollywood film outside the fabled pre-Code years, it is rare indeed to see a successful woman who is presented with all the complexity and sympathy afforded to male characters in similar situations. Even now, look at our career women on film. I can count on one hand the number of similarly nuanced, interesting, complicated ladies in positions of relative power. That is, however, a rant for another time.
You’re probably saying, “But all those dirty men were taking advantage of her! They were using her! Patriarchy, bah!” To be fair, she was taking advantage of them too. Lydecker could bring her power and prestige, as long as she went out to dinner (and whatever else) with him a few times a week. Then she wouldn’t need him anymore. Carpenter made her feel as young and lovely as she was, for a while anyway, and she liked to be able to lavish him with things. She knew she was stronger than he was, and she probably got off on it a bit.
Maybe I’m reaching, but you take my point: Laura is, to borrow the parlance of our time, the H.B.I.C.
It all gets a bit pulpy at times, but what noir doesn’t? What melodrama doesn’t? That doesn’t mean that it’s not enjoyable from start to finish. It’s got love triangles and quadrangles; it’s got female empowerment; it’s got ghostly romances. What more do you want from a film, noir or otherwise?