There is something undeniably classy about the 1940s. It might be the fashion of the times, or the very formal way people acted around each other. Or perhaps it’s that everyone smoked and drank with style and panache. Whatever the reason, this particular decade, especially when it is presented on screen, exudes a very distinctive brand of elegance. This elegance is possibly no better displayed than in a film like Otto Preminger’s Laura, a personal favourite of mine, and a film that is often criminally overlooked.
Laura is the story of New York detective, Mark Macpherson, who is tasked with investigating the murder of Laura Hunt, a well liked and kind hearted advertising executive, which would be an absolute contradiction in terms in modern society. He has to investigate the goings on of her fiancée Shelby Carpenter, who is something of a charmer and also works with Laura, Waldo Lydecker, a famous radio broadcaster/columnist, as well as Ann Treadwell a high society lady of leisure, who had been having an affair with Shelby. However, matters are complicated somewhat when Laura mysteriously returns, and it becomes apparent that she is not the victim of the murder, though she may have been intended as the target for the murderer.
It is not difficult to see why Webb was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Waldo Lydecker in Laura. From the outset he oozes charisma, firing razor sharp, yet brilliantly humorous comments at Macpherson. The slightly effeminate nature of his gesturing puts him in sharp contrast to the manly and rugged nature of Macpherson. Lydecker is instantly an untrustworthy figure, though his affection towards Laura also clearly runs deep, making him a truly three dimensional character, whom we are never entirely sure the motivation of, which is entirely a credit to Webb.
However, Webb is not the only actor who deserves plaudits for his part in Laura. Tierney is excellent as the eponymous heroine, who is just as shocked to find out about her own murder as the other characters, and is constantly portrayed as a kind hearted, highly likeable, if not slightly vulnerable young woman. Dana Andrews is also excellent as Macpherson, the typically rugged, but again very likeable honest cop, whilst also playing the aforementioned foil to Lydecker excellently. Finally, there is a young Price as the swaggering Shelby, who is self assured and enchanting to almost everyone around him. This is of course years before his more famous career rebirth as a horror icon, but he was no less brilliant playing it straight in a serious role here.
The story of Laura is highly captivating from start to finish, taking the majority of the noir conventions and acknowledging them but not relying on them. The script is light on brooding, and high on energy, and the film moves along at a steady pace throughout without overwhelming the audience or trying to create too many unnatural twists and turns. It retains a cluedo-like sense of mystery but does not take itself too seriously, nor does it veer into comedic territory, maintaining an excellent balance between the two.
The new print of Laura, which is the main reason the film is being re-released, is far from spectacular. It is a struggle to see much in the difference from the original version, but this is not a complaint as Laura still stands up today as an excellent film, if not a forgotten classic. If anything, it is nice to see a film that perhaps has not received significant mention or due praise in recent years getting the opportunity to impress and entertain a whole new audience, and to be seen by a whole new generation.