LAURA (1944) – Shades of a woman

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In a sense, Laura is a film-noir about movies.

Think about it. Laura begins her characterization in the movie as a portrait on the wall of her apartment. Into her milieu comes detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who is investigating Laura’s murder that occurred in that apartment.

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Via McPherson’s investigation (and some convenient flashbacks), we meet the two primary males who inhabited Laura’s life. The first is Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s milquetoast fiancee. It seems strange that the two are engaged, since Shelby gets along far more famously with Laura’s acerbic aunt Ann (Judith Anderson). Shelby seems to want Laura more for her social standing than for any romantic interest.

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Shelby has a way with a quip but not with a job, until Laura hires Shelby to work at her advertising agency. And how did Laura come to work at an ad agency? Through the machinations of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, who performs grand theft larceny on the movie), a nationally known columnist with whom she had crossed paths.

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Waldo carries on and on about his love for Laura, but his affection for her is as false as Shelby’s. Waldo’s way of showing his affection for Laura is to sic a private detective on any man besides Waldo who tries to start something up with Laura, Shelby included.

During Waldo’s endless narration of the story, he casually lets it drop that Laura was 22 years old at the time of her murder. And Waldo makes it clear that he and Laura have known each other for five years. It’s also made clear that Waldo (and definitely Clifton Webb) is no spring chicken. So, besides the movie getting one past the censors, it’s quite obvious that beautiful, spritely Laura is little more than a trophy girlfriend for aging Waldo.

Finally, there’s MacPherson. He puts together all of the information he’s gotten about Laura, looks at the only pictorial evidence he has of her — that painting (Didn’t these suitors ever take a photograph of her?) — and mounds it all together to form his vision/version of a woman, as a sculptor would mold some clay.

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Isn’t this the same thing we all do at the movies? We project our thoughts and ideas into or onto those characters on the screen. That’s why you don’t see a particular movie character in the same way that your friend or your spouse does — and why three different men have completely different visions of Laura, none of which hold up under the harsh light of reality.

But as Waldo Lydecker would say, this psychological analysis is for another place. Suffice to say, this movie is still riveting, with sparkling photography, dialogue, direction (Otto Preminger’s directorial debut), and performances. So project all you like onto Laura — like the characters in the movie’s second half, you’ll still get a lot of surprises.

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