*This post contains spoilers for Laura (1944, Dir. Otto Preminger)*
If I ever committed to a ranking, Laura is easily in the top ten of my favorite films of all time. I love the ensemble cast, the plot, Waldo Lydecker’s one liners, but above all I love its look. Laura was my introduction to film noir and it’s a perfect example of how the genre can tell a complex story with flawed characters. I may not have found the desire in my heart to rank my favorite films but I decided it’s time to rank my favorite shots in this film to illustrate why it is that it has captivated me for so many years.
10. Laura and Mark’s kiss
Laura and Mark’s kiss is the beginning of something new for the both of them. Ahead of this scene, Laura stands up to her closest friend Waldo telling him she wants him out of her life. She calls it the most difficult thing she’s ever done. Laura getting rid of Waldo is closing a door and opening another chapter. Her kiss with Mark confirms that. It’s a short and sweet kiss but it’s a big moment for both of these characters and thanks to Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews’ respective performances, it doesn’t feel out of place either. The way this scene is lit is significant. There’s a lot of darkness surrounding these two characters but at this moment they’re trying to move away from it with this declaration. The light that shines on this moment puts that into the spotlight as they look to begin a new life, moving forward together.
9. Waldo Lydecker’s apartment
Laura begins with a pan of a very ritzy apartment with a sophisticated male voice narrating. We soon learn who that man is and who this apartment belongs to when we are introduced to him…in a bathtub. It’s Waldo Lydecker, a newspaper columnist. Yet before we meet Waldo, we learn so much about him because of this long, pan shot. Looking at his collection of artifacts, we immediately learn this person has an appreciation for the finer things in life. We can guess that he’s an older, dandy type based on the types of pieces he owns but what I love most is the grandfather clock that’s tucked away. We see it but we don’t know just how important this will be to the plot yet.
8. McPherson drives to Laura’s home in the country
At this point in the film, the twist has been revealed. Laura, the woman whose murder McPherson has been investigating, is alive. We believe Diane Redfern, one of the women who models for Laura’s ads is the woman who has been killed but where does Laura fit into all this. Did she know? Is she the killer? Laura says she was at her home in the country because she wanted to get away from her fiance Shelby and her life for a moment. McPherson overhears Laura arrange to meet Shelby and it’s in this moment where the audience isn’t exactly sure who Laura is because she ‘pulled a switch’ on McPherson saying she planned on staying in and not speaking to anyone. Tension builds as McPherson drives to Laura’s country home in the dark rain. This shot is very “noir-y” with the contrast of light and darkness but to me, it mirrors are journey with Laura at this moment. At this moment, she represented all the light. She, in the eyes of Shelby, Waldo, her maid Bessie, and everyone else around her was the symbol of perfection. The light in their lives. But now for us, was there are darkness underneath? Does she have a role to play in the death of Diane Redford?
7. “Murder is my favorite crime,” – Waldo Lydecker
When we (and McPherson) meet Waldo Lydecker in his apartment, he’s taking a bath. In that scene this powerful newspaper columnist is in a position of vulnerability, naked and in water. Once he emerges, dresses, and turns to McPherson face-to-face we see just what a powerful, influential person Lydecker really is. We also see the strength of McPherson who isn’t at all intimidated by him but more intrigued. The framing of this shot only accentuates Lydecker’s status in New York as his city is directly behind him and McPherson and Lydecker is at ease so close to authorities.
6. McPherson’s game
Mark McPherson is a hard-boiled police detective investigating Laura Hunt’s murder. We learn about his reputation from Waldo early in the film when he realizes who Mark is. He says, “The Siege of Babylon, Long Island. The gangster with a machine gun killed three policemen. I told the story over the air. Wrote a column about it. Are you the one with the leg full of lead? The man who walked right in and got him?” Mark is a take no prisoners kind of detective but there’s a juxtaposition to this that provides some comic relief. When Mark is questioning suspects in Laura’s murder, he plays a puzzle when things get heated. Waldo notices this and asks him to stop playing with what he calls “that infernal puzzle” because it’s getting on his nerves, McPherson says it keeps him calm. When we see a close-up of it, it’s a baseball game that we presume is something children play with not adults and definitely not hard-boiled detectives.
5. McPherson and Laura’s portrait
At this point in the film, we are starting to see McPherson act a bit strange in regards to Laura, the murder victim. The portrait of Laura that is so prominent in her apartment haunts McPherson as he spends his third visit in her home. He comes in after a rainstorm and stares at the portrait and then we see this close-up of him looking confused about his growing obsession. This shot in particular is so powerful to the story. All of his emotions are shown in Dana Andrews’ facial expression with the portrait literally and figuratively hanging above him in the background dominating both the room and his thoughts.
4. Shelby tries to woo Laura
Shelby Carpenter, oh Shelby Carpenter. He’s pretty much a snake but at this point in the film we don’t know exactly what to make of his character. He’s a charismatic and friendly Southern gentleman from Kentucky but there’s just something off about him in his attempt to woo Laura at a party. He finds Laura alone and flirts with her by talking himself up. “I also read palms, I cook, I swallow swords, I mend my own socks, I never eat garlic or onions. What more can you want of a man?” he says. When he smokes his cigarette, Joseph LaShalle’s cinematography captures the smoke clouding Laura’s face and in essence clouds Laura’s judgment when she offers him a job at Bullit and Company. It’s a beautiful shot that shows what we’ll learn later, Shelby is just all smoke and mirrors. He’s an obnoxious cad who isn’t masculine at all as he relies on woman to do everything for him including Laura’s aunt, Anne Treadwill.
3. Waldo arrives unannounced
Ready to begin a new life with Mark, Laura makes the difficult decision of getting rid of her close confidant, Waldo. After she tells him she no longer wants him in her life, Mark tells Laura that Waldo is the one who murdered Diane Redfern with the intention of killing her. Laura tells Mark she had a sinking feeling all along it was him but didn’t want to believe it. She even blames herself and it’s then we see just how far Laura has trusted Waldo and how much he means to her. Even though she told Waldo she didn’t want to see him anymore, her Svengali isn’t going down without a fight. His possessive feelings for Laura have once again gotten the best of him. He sneaks into her home, heading straight for the grandfather clock where he gets his shotgun. He’s about to murder her and enters her bedroom where she’s getting ready. This whole sequence plays out while his pre-recorded radio broadcast is playing in the background. In it, he’s talking about love lasting longer than death. When he enters Laura’s room, Waldo’s descent into madness is all in his facial expression. He’s reached his breaking point. It’s the most terrifying shot in the film. When Laura finally realizes he’s there, he tells her his plans to kill her in a murder-suicide fashion, “He’ll find us together, Laura as we always have been and we always should be, as we always will be.” This two shot in particular is a visual metaphor for Laura and Waldo’s relationship. Ever since their initial meeting during a lunch, Waldo has had the upper hand. As their relationship deepened, so did his feelings of possession and jealousy. These feelings have now driven him to murder twice. If he can’t have Laura, he’s out to make sure no one will.
2. Waldo in the shadows
This is a perfect noir shot at work in Otto Preminger’s film. This scene takes place right after Laura has given Waldo the boot but Waldo just can’t handle it. The thoughts in his mind are played out for the audience to understand using film noir’s signature shadows. The shadow (his conscience) symbolizes his jealous rage. It is taking complete control over him, giving him the motivation to attempt to finish Laura off.
Preminger uses another signature noir tool: the closeup. In this scene, McPherson has named Laura his prime suspect in the murder of Diane Redfern and has brought her in to interrogate her. When he puts the light on, she looks up and we have this shot. It’s a beautiful closeup putting Laura’s haunting look into focus. It’s the same look in the portrait that’s been haunting McPherson this entire film. Gene Tierney is absolutely striking and this shot reveals so much of her as an actress. Her ability to make Laura beautiful, vulnerable, and strong in one shot brings so much to Laura as a character. On paper, Laura may seem like a wasted part, a part that requires an actress to be nothing more than beautiful but Tierney truly made it her own. This closeup haunts the audience just as much as the portrait does. In a sense, it brings the portrait to life even though Laura has been declared alive in the film for a few days. Without Tierney’s performance, I doubt Laura would have the same impact.