Laura (1944) review

A mystery, filled with red herrings, deceptions and hilarious false leads, but at the end, when it’s all solved, it seems so obvious. The entire plot falls into place. How can anyone claim to forget who the murderer is? Roger Ebert claimed in his review that “I’ve seen the movie seven times, and the murderer still doesn’t immediately spring to mind.”

A woman’s body has been found, murdered, by gunshot wound, but that’s not where we open.  There is no blood at the start, no, we see a detective from the point of view of another character.

Many films are called timeless, and though this was written in 1944, this film looks almost like it could happen today.

Though Clifton Webb does not get main billing, his sarcastically witty, if arrogant, curmudgeon seems to me the main character, as “Waldo Lydecker” has the most lines.  But the official lead role belongs Dana Andrews, in the role of a very down to earth detective who’s mission it is to find out who the murderer is.  Even stranger is that the female lead plays what appears to be a murder victim named Laura Hunt.  The detective starts out knowing nothing about this Laura, except for seeing a large portrait of her (or of actress Gene Tierney).

Sharing the line up of suspects with the Curmudgeon is a womanizing mooch from Kentucky by the name of Shelby Carpenter (played by a pre-mustache Vincent Price), who was Laura’s fiancee.   Shelby Carpenter seems to be really in love with a less glamorous older woman named Ann Treadwell (this woman being the third suspect.  She is superbly portrayed by Judith Anderson.)

Womanizer, curmudgeon, or older woman?  Who was it?  At times, it looks like anyone could have done it, even the maid.

Laura’s portrait hangs on the wall watching over the case, listening to the weird fantasies and memories of those who were obsessed with her.  And strangest of all, the cop in search of Laura’s killer seems to fall in love with this portrait.

The mystery deepens as the two main suspects appear willing to help incriminate each other.  The tell white lies, to cover up misdemeaners, but are quickly found out on that front.  There are times it appears almost solved, but then the twist is pulled in a new direction.  However, despite all the twists and turns, the ending is very satisfying, almost as happy as a fairy tale.  And, the viewer thinks to himself, why didn’t I know that all along?

Along the way, there are laughs, and plenty of them, as the main characters reveal how rotten they are.  There is not much action, it’s more of a true “talky”, and despite the fact that the portrait was painted in color, and the film was released as late as 1944, the film is completely in black and white.  So, perhaps children would not appreciate this fine work of art.

But if you can see this on the big screen, it’s worth it (although I’m not sure it’s worth dragging the children along to the cinema.  No parent I know would find anything in this film objectionable, it’s just that I don’t think kids would get it.  The jokes are spoken, not physical.  It’s almost like theater.)

So, if there’s no slapstick, not a lot of explosions, no rainbows or magical elves or massive scenery, and none of the usual spectacle for those with short attention spans, why would I suggest watching Laura at the cinema?

Well, like a play, it’s the kind of story that you can really get lost into, if there are no distractions.  Unlike Television, it’s not made up of bite sized chunks, rather it is a continuous whole.  The photography, if mainly indoors, is superb, and the props and scenery are beautiful to look at.  Seeing five characters, or even a whole party, in one frame is great at the cinema, but on a small screen they’d merely resemble a bunch of ants.

Despite being released during World War II, it’s hard to date this film.  Sure, if you recognise the costumes and styles of some of the furniture, you’d have a time set.   But if I were setting the script in the present, I don’t think I’d have to change a word.


  1. As I somehow can’t fit this message into the space allowed for comments on the Aberystwyth Arts Centre Film Society blogspot(!) I’m taking the liberty of replying to you on your own Website:

    Your brief notice of ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ is much appreciated by those who recently brought it onto the FilmSoc screen at Aberystwyth’s Arts Centre; even for a not-for-profit outfit, programming this discursive epic was a risk. In the event the respectable number of 22 of our faithful film-fans gave it a go – and I think your comment accurately reflects the pleasant surprise we all got from seeing what is, for British audiences, a distinctly, though – as we now can appreciate – most emphatically undeservedly obscure Portuguese film.

    Your name seems to suggest that you may have some link to that country, or to it’s offshoots elsewhere on the globe, but the Film Society does not assume – any more than I do – that this necessarily implies any familiarity with the language; in light of your comment en passant that it was a surprise to you to realise that the film was subtitled, I do hope this did not impair the experience; considering the minimal publicity the film received in the English-speaking world, it is a wonder to me that a version with any English subtitles existed to enable us to appreciate this masterpiece of a recently-deceased film-maker of international repute – let alone such excellent subtitles, which I think strove to communicate as much of the flavour of the original as translation could permit. All hail to our mighty chief, Gareth Bailey, cinema manager extraordinaire, for having responded to member’s wishes, and sourced this gem for our new season!

    Originated as a tv serialization (or ‘mini-series’ in current parlance) Ruiz’s marvellously elegant and inventive direction did not seem to have been disrupted in his own two-part adaptation for the cinema, although it was obvious that some minor story-lines did not survive the transition from the small screen. Those I spoke to after the screening were at one with my feeling that another viewing immediately succeeding – had Arts Centre staff overtime permitted – would have been just as pleasurable.

    As you so aptly observe in your recent (very interesting) review – for your PTARA Website – of ‘Laura’, it is not a movie ‘for those with short attention spans’. This observation can especially be applied to ‘Mysteries …’! Our film society does try to venture into areas where no-one else will go, for the simple reason that so much excellent cinema would otherwise never be brought before a local audience. Our previous offering of a film of comparable length was Bergman’s cinema edition of his magical semi-autobiographical made-for-tv film ‘Fanny and Alexander’. With sufficient support, we’ll certainly seek out more films such as this, which require an audience willing to be immersed for several hours in any film whose length, far from being an artistic handicap, has, in fact, freed the creative team from excessively commercial restraints upon their abilities: Handled as brilliantly and responsibly as it is with Ruiz as director (he was originally mentored as a budding talent by the great Oliveira) cinematic time can be exploited to the full as a Proustian resource. (Not, of course, that a long running-time is our chief, or only criterion in compiling a programme of films – our tastes are as various as our members, and each Season ranges far and wide through the riches of film available today!)

    Finally, I note from your excellent Website that you have undertaken a film project in Aberystwyth. I wish you every success in this venture, and, if you ever feel impelled to share with our audience some of your experiences from the other side of the camera, perhaps you might consider letting Gareth or myself try to arrange a short, informal pre-movie chat, or talk, or presentation, or what-you-will, prior to one of our evening shows? I feel sure it would be appreciated by our regulars. But – seriously – please do not feel under any obligation: I just thought I’d indicate a possibility, and invite you to consider if this might appeal to you as a practising local film-maker.

    Our next show – which I’m sure you are already aware of – is Truffaut’s groundbreaking ‘400 Blows’, and perhaps I’ll see you that evening. I’m usually there, as you know, handing out the souvenir introductions to the film.

    Best wishes from all at the AAC Film Society.

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