When discussing Film Noir it never takes long for the term femme fatale to come up. The idea of a woman who through duplicity and self-interest destroys the men who love her has always held particular sway in the genre, and one might think that the titular Laura in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film fits the archetype. But what makes Laura so special is that actually she is a woman surrounded by fatal men. Men so fatal in fact, that when the movie opens she is already dead. It is a bold thing to kill off your main character as soon as the opening credits finish rolling, and Gene Tierney, who was cast as Laura, quipped in her autobiography: “Who wants to play a painting?” (TCM, Laura Article) in reference to the large portrait looming over the living room of Laura’s fashionable New York City apartment. Still it is the flesh and blood woman, rather than her ghostly portrait, that in the end the movie is concerned with.
The woman Laura we tease out through flashbacks. She is a wonderfully confident career girl and brilliant advertising executive, who has been mentored and befriended by Waldo Lydecker, an influential acid-tongued critic we meet writing his column in the bath. Lydecker was played by Clifton Webb, a Broadway star, who, after eschewing the screen for almost 20 year since an aborted Hollywood attempt in the 20s, received his first of three Oscar nominations for the role. Laura also is attracted to handsome men, who in turn enjoy her elevated station in society and the lavish gifts she bestows upon them. The first of them painted that looming portrait, and the last was Shelby Carpenter, played by Vincent Price, a smooth Southern gigolo who claims to be engaged to our late heroine. The third pair of eyes looking at Laura, more skeptical but no less enamored, belong to Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the policeman assigned to her murder.
All this could have been a fairly straightforward potboiler, but the source material was a novel by Vera Caspary. Like Laura, Caspary was a career woman. She had worked in advertising before writing for page, stage, and screen, and had supported her mother since age 18. She knew the trials of being a woman in business, and had observed the way men, especially in Hollywood, claimed women by assuming that they created them. In an interview Caspary said “I thought of the character during some ordeals in the [Hollywood] studios, and there came to mind the real killer, the man who does away with what he can’t possess.” (Laura DVD Commentary by Rudy Behlmer). Mark, Shelby and Waldo each in their own ways desire Laura, but cannot have her. They build their own narratives surrounding her, trying to capture and create her. Their disparate images of Laura undermine the idea that she was who they say she was, and allow Laura to in effect tell her own story.
The road from novel to film was a rocky one, and one that Vera Caspary was not entirely pleased with. Otto Preminger met her when she was working on a play based on the novel, and he was captivated by the idea. He wanted to direct the play and collaborate with her on the adaptation, however they fell out over his approach to the material. Still, like a character in the story, Preminger became fascinated by Laura, and when Caspary sold the movie rights in frustration after the play, which was to star Marlene Dietrich, fell though, Preminger came on as producer. Preminger was the staunchest advocate for the film, standing by the idea when director after director passed it up. Under contract at 20th Century Fox, Preminger was not allowed to direct Laura after clashing with studio head Darryl Zanuck, and Rouben Mamoulian was hired instead, but 18 days into shooting Mamoulian was removed from the picture. It was not a coincidence that Preminger was there to pick up the pieces and direct his passion project.
In many ways Laura shares DNA with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; they both deal with a detective falling in love with the dead woman he is investigating, and the idealized idea of the woman perfected in death. But they differ in a very important way; Vertigo doesn’t care who Madeleine is, it is not her story, her character never ventures beyond the constructs made for her by the men in her life, she is herself a creation. Laura, on the other hand, remains fiercely independent, straining against the boxes (both real and figurative) that the men in her life want to put her in. Each angle on her is slightly different, fracturing the image and showing a complex whole woman. She refuses to be possessed, and that is why they need her destroyed.
“The picture on the whole is close to being a top-drawer mystery.” – T.M.P. NYTimes 10/12/1944