The opening credits in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir roll over an oil painting of a beautiful woman; this is Laura, but as the story begins, she has already been found murdered. ‘I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,’ says Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in a voice-over, as the camera pans around his museum-like apartment, lingering on luxurious objects collected by the wealthy society figure, who delights in excoriating Manhattanites in his newspaper column and radio show. We soon learn that Laura has been shot in the face at close range, right in the doorway to her apartment, and Waldo is one of Lieutenant Mark McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) chief suspects.
So is Shelby (Vincent Price in an early role), something of a once wealthy playboy, now fallen on hard times. We discover through flashbacks, as their stories are recounted to McPherson, that the two men were engaged in a tussle for Laura’s affections. Lydecker ‘discovered’ Laura (played by the beautiful Gene Tierney), helping to further both her career and her climb up New York’s social ladder. So enamoured of his own status, Lydecker struggles to understand how Laura could fall prey to Shelby’s charms, failing to see the appeal in being with a younger, more attractive man (who also appears to have a lot to hide, including a love affair with Laura’s wealthy aunt).
This is film noir set in the rarefied milieu of the elite, rather than in the mean streets below the glittering penthouses. They eat out at the legendary Algonquin, not at seedy diners. Their world is beyond McPherson’s reach; his only chance at coming close to a woman as refined and elegant as Laura is through the - possibly distorted - imaginings of Lydecker and Shelby. Lydecker (who is given many of the film’s best lines, his caustic wit one of its highlights) in fact reprimands the detective when he crassly refers to Laura as a ‘dame’. For all of her success - she rises to the top of the advertising world, even hiring Shelby when he’s down on his luck - Laura is neither vamp nor moll, leaving McPherson and the audience to puzzle over her true character. What is clear is that McPherson finds himself seduced by the idea of Laura; and, in a terrific plot twist, it’s left to the audience to decide whether his desire for her, and with it his need to solve the case, is merely a fantasy, or something more real.
Always lingering beneath the genteel surface is the shocking brutality of the violent murder; Preminger makes the blistering case that the rich elite are capable of any crime if it means getting what they want. All of this makes Laura a thrilling, absorbing and original example of the genre; it’s also beautifully shot, pure escapist entertainment. It dates from a cinematic era when two characters could still fall in and out of love seemingly overnight, and when plots could be full of holes (common in the genre) without critics deriding the film as unrealistic. Despite some of the all-too-human mistakes that she makes, Laura is also a strong, independent and desirable woman, and an unusual, almost accidental femme fatale.