Spoilers throughout for the 1944 film Laura.
At a swanky cocktail party in New York City, glamorous advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) artfully rebuffs pretty playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) when he begins flirting with her the minute she catches his eye. You can hardly blame Shelby – with her impeccably coiffed curls, simple yet chic gown, and otherworldly face, Laura is a vision to behold. Later in the evening, she bumps into Shelby again and allows herself to be charmed by the smooth-talking southerner. As they sit on the terrace, pausing in their conversation to draw on their cigarettes, Shelby blows out a cloud of smoke that obscures Laura’s face as David Raksin’s exquisitely wistful theme song drifts in.
It is a moment that lasts only a few seconds, and yet every time I see Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura, it makes me gasp. “That’s it,” I think, “that’s the movie’s entire thesis right there.” From the very beginning, we’re told that Laura has been murdered, thus placing her story in the hands of those closest to her as Det. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) tries to figure out how such an elegant dame ended up viciously shot in the face. With each reminiscence, the enigma of Laura blooms more, her truth lost in a haze of others’ definitions and beliefs, an idea that is so succinctly represented by those smokey seconds on the terrace.
Because we don’t meet Laura herself until halfway through the film when she is revealed to be alive, we’re left to surmise who she is primarily through the men who love her. Their words shape her thoughts and her feelings, hijacking her narrative in order to fold it into their own and thus revealing Laura as one of the best examples of the cinematic male gaze. The mystery at the center of the film may be who killed Laura, but the more fascinating question that emerges is “Just who is Laura Hunt?” The newspaper headlines coldly declare her just a “girl victim in brutal slaying.” Shelby, who became her fiancé, rhapsodizes about her sweetness yet still believes she could be a murderess. According to her mentor, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), “Her youth, her beauty, her poise and charming manner captivated them all. She had warmth, vitality.” Her maid, Bessie, deems her “a real fine lady.” Even her painted portrait conveys a woman of serene sophistication as it gracefully looms over all who walk into her apartment. But does any of this capture the true Laura?
Undoubtedly narcissistic, columnist Waldo Lydecker is convinced that he is the only one who truly knew Laura. Much of what we learn about her we learn through his conversations with McPherson, which includes a flashback sequence where Waldo explains how he launched Laura into high society after she approached him to endorse a pen. Intrigued by the young woman’s gumption, he appoints himself her Svengali, bragging to McPherson about how he changed her hair and clothes and helped boost her career by arranging meetings with important clients. “I gave her her start,” he remarks, “but it was her own talent and imagination that enabled her to rise to the top of her profession and stay there.”
As Waldo eulogizes about the past five years he and Laura have spent together, we’re treated to a montage of questionable veracity as we see Laura blissfully smiling at Waldo and clinging to his side wherever they go. When she became interested in a painter named Jacoby — the artist behind her portrait — Waldo jealously attacks the man in his column and claims that Laura was so gleefully amused by the character assassination that she could no longer take Jacoby seriously. Would someone as kind and drawn to the underdog as Laura really find pleasure in such a thing, though? Given Waldo’s monumental ego, we cannot take at face value the rose-colored glasses he has us looking through during this montage.
Waldo may love Laura, but it is as an object, a doll to be dressed up and paraded around. “She became as well-known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation,” he observes to McPherson. A collector, Waldo’s apartment brims with shiny glass display cases, carefully curated tchotchkes, and priceless antiques. Perhaps due to his influence, Laura’s apartment is similar and even houses items of Waldo’s that he lent to her. To him, Laura belongs alongside these tactile reminders of his good taste and social stature. With her on his arm, people are sure to talk about Waldo Lydecker and his striking companion. Her “innate breeding” and ethereal loveliness please him, but only when he can dominate it. Any time Laura exhibits control over her life, especially in matters of romance, Waldo becomes angry and manipulative, even cruel. Just like when he snaps at McPherson for handling one of his figurines, he sneers at the detective for his attraction to Laura. Waldo’s possessions are not to be touched, and Laura is his most prized one of all.
An opportunistic snake — albeit a handsome one — Shelby Carpenter can’t hide who he is from Laura. During their conversation on the terrace, she immediately senses that he isn’t wealthy like he pretends to be and, to his credit, he doesn’t try to deny it. When he remarks that he hasn’t had luck in securing a job, Laura hires him once she realizes he is serious. Noticing their budding romance, Waldo reveals to a hurt Laura that Shelby hasn’t been faithful and implies the man is a golddigger. Shelby’s money troubles, however, don’t concern Laura; she sympathizes with his desire to belong in the upper echelon despite his empty bank account and resents how he is made to feel like an outsider because he isn’t as witty or refined as the rest of their crowd. She isn’t blind to Shelby’s faults, but she does confuse her compassion for him for love.
Similar to how Waldo appreciates Laura for the social cache she provides, Shelby values the beauty, wealth, and style that she brings to the table as his fiancée. It is easy to see that he honestly likes Laura — he doesn’t hesitate to admiringly tell McPherson how generous and loyal she is to all of her friends — but he fails to understand who she is at her core. When it is discovered that the woman who was slain in Laura’s apartment was in fact Diane Redfern, a model whom Shelby was secretly seeing, Shelby assumes Laura killed the woman out of jealousy. Not only is the idea a blatant misreading of Laura’s inherent goodness, it also exposes the level of Shelby’s vanity: of course his irresistible charms would drive his fiancée to dispose of his sidepiece, what other option is there?
Mark’s Dream Girl
Mark McPherson is unlike anyone else in Laura’s life. Sincere and down-to-earth, his rumpled trench coat and quiet stoicism couldn’t be further from Shelby’s “please-like-me” demeanor and Waldo’s flash and snobbery. (“I must say, for a charming and intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes,” the cop quips to Laura.) Mark studies Laura Hunt like he would any other victim… until we realize it has become something more. As a character who keeps his cards close to his vest, it is difficult to know who he envisions Laura to be out of the puzzle pieces that are presented to him. What is important to note, though, is that Mark, before he discovers that she is still alive, somewhat enables Laura to tell her own story by reading her private letters and diary (an action that upsets her maid and Waldo, even though it is a reasonable thing for a homicide detective to do). By studying such intimate documents as well as her apartment, it could be argued that Mark understands the real Laura better than anybody else.
What elevates this story from standard detective yarn to unique noir is the fact that Mark falls in love with the very victim whose death he is investigating. He is haunted by a woman he has never met and the life he believes he will never be able to share with her. Which makes her reappearance all the more incredible. Having fallen asleep in her home late at night, Mark is awoken by a light being turned on — and there she is. Wide-eyed and wearing a white raincoat and a matching hat that frames her face perfectly, Laura stands just feet away, pointedly juxtaposed with the portrait above her. (This twist has encouraged some to theorize that, because Mark was sleeping when Laura walked in, the rest of the film is actually his dream, a fantasy where Mark is able to be united with the one woman he wants and yet cannot have.)
The restraint of Dana Andrews’s performance is extraordinary — Mark is not a demonstrative character, but the crumbs he and Andrews offer suggest a kind of tenderness that neither Shelby nor Waldo possess. There is a subtlety to the way he treats Laura, such as when he brings her groceries knowing her kitchen is bare and when he avoids ringing her doorbell because that was what the killer did before mistakenly shooting Diane instead of her. Despite fantasizing about Laura before she came back, there isn’t a sense that Mark is disappointed by the real woman or that there are strings attached to his devotion like there are to Shelby and Waldo’s. And with Mark around, Laura is able to see she can no longer accept the phoniness and control of those two men.
In her autobiography, Gene Tierney wrote about her star-making role, “The part was unusual in that Laura dominated the story as a presence, felt but unseen, for half the movie. She was the victim of events she had not created and could not control. Laura was a woman of mystery and glamour, unattainable, the kind of woman I admired in the pages of Vogue as a young girl.” It is an apt description, but it also replicates the mythologizing of Laura that the movie does. Once the character has figuratively come back from the dead, the compassion, ambition, and intelligence we caught in glimmers from Mark’s interrogations prove to be true.
But there is also a steeliness and resilience to Laura that allows her to really become flesh and blood. When Mark chides her for making a phone call after he told her not to, she replies, “I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will.” Toward the end of the film, when Waldo accuses her of always falling for men of brawn rather than brains, Laura quickly retorts that the only pattern she sees is his unfailing jealousy every time she becomes close with someone else. Finally confessing to herself Waldo’s toxicity, she severs ties: “No man is ever going to hurt me again. No one, not even you.”
One of Laura’s more remarkable traits is her self-reliance and independence. As an advertising executive who pulled herself through the ranks and bettered her social mobility along the way, she is much more than a pretty face, although no one expects her to be. “My mother always listened sympathetically to my dreams of a career — and then taught me another recipe,” she tells Mark, revealing that she had always longed to be a careerwoman who could stand on her own two feet, and she succeeded.
For years, Gene Tierney’s legacy seemed to start and end with Laura. It became the quintessential Tierney text, the film that captured her indescribable magnetism and rapturous beauty so well that she might as well have been Laura Hunt in real life. However, just like it is wrong to assume that Laura can be defined by anyone other than herself, it is unfair to erase the labor and talent Tierney poured into all of her performances, including Laura. “I am not being modest when I say that people remember me less for my acting job than as the girl in the portrait,” she wrote of the role in her autobiography — a book that she cleverly titled Self-Portrait, signaling her intention to reclaim her narrative and illustrate that she was always more than Laura’s painting, the ultimate symbol of an immobilized woman fit only to be stared at.
To notice the distinctly male lens that is placed on Laura (and, by extension, Gene Tierney) helps to acknowledge the limitations and biases that impede her agency. Although the film’s iconography emphasizes the evocative absence of the mysterious dream girl at the heart of the story, it is crucial to recognize Laura’s personhood. She doesn’t exist to be a sparkling object or a man’s ego boost or, to quote the lyrics Johnny Mercer wrote for Raksin’s theme, “the face in the misty light.” She is Laura Hunt, and thanks to Gene Tierney’s performance, she will forever haunt me not because she is gorgeous but because her vibrancy, her autonomy, and her depth will likely continue to be obscured — and that is a fate I cannot abide.
Laura will be screened at IU Cinema on December 5, concluding this semester’s Sunday Matinee Classics: A Century of Tierney series.
To hear more of my thoughts on Gene Tierney, check out my conversation with fellow Tierney lover Emma Kearney and host David Carter on the November 25th episode of A Place for Film: The IU Cinema Podcast.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Cultureand an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.