Laura (1944)

Otto Preminger | 1hr 28min

Hanging above the fireplace in the apartment of a recent murder victim is a portrait of a woman with a sultry gaze. This is Laura, the young lady whose body was apparently found lying in the doorway with a shotgun blast to the head, and whose visage continues to haunt the place with an ethereal presence. She lingers in the back of shots like an extra character in an ensemble of suspects, as much a part of Otto Preminger’s splendidly staged compositions as anyone else, though it is also through flashbacks that Gene Tierney’s performance builds on that charisma with, as her mentor Waldo Lydecker would call it, “authentic magnetism.”

There are no two better words to describe Preminger’s dynamic camerawork in Laura either. Certainly his ability as a director has always been married to his long takes, moving through sets in majestic manoeuvres as effortlessly as his small but powerful camera motions that shift the tones of entire scenes. But here the repeated choice to continuously track in on Laura’s face from low angles draws us in with it, endowing her with a visual magnetism that is perfectly fitted to Tiernan’s innate charm and the compelling narrative intrigue.

The camera always pushing in on Tierney’s face, a singular active movement that draws us into her aura.
The portrait of Laura becoming its own entity in Preminger’s blocking of actors.

Beyond its fascination with specific people is the camera’s applied scrutiny to objects, moving through apartments and the odd artefacts which crowd them out like an obsessive sleuth. Right after the opening credits play over the portrait of Laura, we fade into the first scene where a sculpture of an Asian goddess stands on a small pedestal, framed on either side by a candelabra and a display case standing in the foreground. Slowly, we drift to the right, observing the precious items sitting on the glass shelves, discovering an ornate grandfather clock, and then finally opening up to the larger apartment where we meet Detective Mark McPherson inspecting ornaments with a similar intensity.

In such a manner, Preminger often draws on a Sternbergian style of cluttered mise-en-scène to obstruct his frames with various pieces of décor, creating a dynamic environment through which his ever-moving camera continues to find new details to absorb itself in. And as we later discover, a few of these turn out to be far more relevant to the narrative than we ever expected. Mirrors also remain significant throughout in Preminger’s meticulous arrangements of actors and mise-en-scène, always keeping in mind those hidden, complex truths which underlie these characters’ motivations.

The Josef von Sternberg influence is massive – Tierney takes on the Marlene Dietrich role in becoming an endless source of the camera’s fascination in Laura, but Preminger’s dedication to creating these intricate frames obstructed by crowded decor in the foreground is impressive.

Lined with a series of shocking twists, this narrative is one that continues to test our understanding of subjective minds and reality, whereby long-gone ghosts are resurrected seemingly through the sheer power of wishful longing. Even McPherson, this apparently neutral force of justice, cannot resist getting caught up in the aura that surrounds Laura. In one scene as he falls asleep beneath her portrait, Preminger slowly tracks in on his face before pulling out again, appearing to bring us into a new world through the detective’s mind that teeters on the edge of dream and reality. The lack of clear motivation in this camera movement immediately puts us on edge, leaving the astounding developments that follow under a cloud of disbelief and apprehension.

A push in on McPherson’s face as he falls asleep, while the portrait of Laura hangs over him – is what happens next a dream sequence or reality?

This is the film noir atmosphere that Preminger so thoroughly understands and infuses in Laura, gradually destabilising McPherson’s perception of truth and security, though there is also a clearly Hitchcockian leaning to his precision. Much like the master of suspense himself, Preminger’s slow, deliberate camerawork can draw out the painstaking tension of a shot as simple as a door creaking open, inching forward ever so slowly while a clock ticks in the background. As the killer emerges from it and prepares to strike again, their target is listening his disembodied voice read out a poem over a radio broadcast, indirectly describing his own reprehensible motives.

The layers of character work here are impeccable, organically weaving in with the film’s camerawork and blocking so that they may all eventually wind back to that one figure at its centre, whose allure often proves to be more of a curse than a blessing. Whether those forces be good, evil, or purely neutral, even death is no obstacle in their paths to get to Laura.

Remarkable use of mirrors all through Laura, absorbing the images of these actors into the ornate set.
Unmistakably a Preminger film, though the expressionist use of lighting and angles to create this unstable noir atmosphere is also superb.

Laura is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.