Otto Preminger suddenly became the director of Laura as a result of his infamous unwillingness to compromise, a move that would catapult his career as a directorial crusader against Hays Code censorship as well as Gene Tierney’s into an icon of Hollywood glamour. Happy only with the casting of Tierney in the title role and Dana Andrews as the detective, but not with Fox Studios’ choice of Laird Cregar as the film’s villain (whose last role as Jack the Ripper in The Lodger would only scream “I did it” in this film), Preminger fought with Fox and then director Rouben Mamoulian to recast Laura’s most problematic role with Clifton Webb, whose “open secret” homosexuality initially prevented him from even getting a screen test.
These disagreements (and some unauthorized changes to the script) led to the firing of Mamoulian and an audition for Webb who so greatly impressed producers that he was cast immediately in the role of Waldo Lydecker, ultimately proving to be the most unusual and intriguing character in an equally unusual film. His role, oddly enough, steals the show from the carefully framed focal point that is Gene Tierney. A small number of critics point out the permeable yet never explicit suggestion that Lydecker is a homosexual sublimating his repressed sexual desires through an unhealthy preoccupation with the artifice of femininity that Laura embodies. This overt subtext must have been lost on its original audience, for Laura was an enormous success in Hays Code Hollywood and has been well preserved by critics in regards to its mostly uneven yet noticeably strange mixture of melodrama, murder mystery, and film noir.
Laura is the story of a hypnotically gorgeous and magnetic woman who grows into an obsession for every man (and woman) whose eyes fall upon her. Like Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca four years earlier, her posthumous (non)presence has a tangible hold on everyone who knew her, a wistful apparition and measure of their own guilt and ulterior motive that none of them can seem to shake. But unlike Rebecca, Laura’s rise to social and professional prominence is disclosed within a flashback account from Lydecker as he confesses to Detective MacPherson how they met, how he took her under his wing of social connection and cultural elitism, and how he self-sabotaged their relationship to remain nothing more than a friendship before her disappearance and murder.
In true murder mystery fashion, more players are cast under a shadow of suspicion as Laura unfolds, each person forced to disclose the dirtier details of their relationship with Laura as the detective pieces it all together. Along with Lydecker, Laura’s unrefined love interest Shelby (Vincent Price) is a suspect for reasons of class, her aunt Ann (Judith Anderson, who plays the villain in Rebecca) due to her secret and questionable intimacy with Shelby, and of course, Laura’s faithful maid Bessie (Dorothy Adams), whose bizarre degree of servitude to Laura is highly suspect by any standards.
In typical film noir form, Laura is framed from an investigative perspective, aligning us with a detective’s judiciary eye and process of elimination as facts around the central crime are revealed. While MacPherson characterizes the noir detective with the same gruffness and aloof cool as Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s A-list noir Double Indemnity (1944) or Tom Neal in the gritty B-movie Detour (1945), he doesn’t share their desperation or their poor, impulsive judgment. His method is surprisingly calm and centered, so much so it proves immune (and annoying) to Lydecker’s orchestrated manipulation he enacts on everyone. However, MacPherson is not immune to the sexual allure of Laura, or at least, herlarger-than-life persona incarnated by a magnificent portrait hanging above her mantelpiece at the murder scene. In this regard alone, Laura seemingly completes the fatal attraction of film noir, and Laura herself can be assumed as the film’s femme fatale.
Richard Dyer has said film noir “indicates the complex, ambiguous ways in which heterosexual women and men are thought and felt about in that culture, and how gays are represented is always part and parcel of the sexual ideology of (that) culture.” The sexist, distinctly American construction of femininity as poison, the femme fatale, usually seals our hero’s downfall as he’s sirened under her spell of ruthless, self-serving deceit hidden behind her beauty and lascivious body language. In Laura, this allure comes from beyond the grave, established in the sordid details of Laura’s gruesome murder and her (mostly) innocent life before her demise, details that take on an obsessive nature for MacPherson as he’s forced to ponder her essence alone while combing her apartment for clues. Highly uncharacteristic of film noir, Laura wasn’t really guilty of anything beyond pursuing her romantic interest in Shelby while still alive, and it isn’t until after the film’s most surprising, disorienting twist that she truly begins to wear the femme fatale’s shoes once her own degree of manipulation and secrecy is exposed.
Laura takes a drastic detour in its narrative course when, all of a sudden, Laura herself shows up on her doorstep alive and unscathed, confused as to why there is an unknown man dozing in her living room chair. MacPherson is equally dumbfounded as she is, and his own investigation takes the same detour to now pursue answers around a corpse that is no longer hers. Now with her sexual visage reincarnated, MacPherson begins to question her own hand in the murder of an unknown woman, especially after peripheral love triangles are revealed around Laura and the unknown victim. The film’s strangely reversed depiction of Laura as first a ghost and then a live woman quickly begins to cast her in light of the typical femme fatale figure. But as the film reaches its final revelatory act and Lydecker is revealed to be the murderer all along, she is proven innocent and even momentarily empowered when she calls out Lydecker on his unfair, unwavering disapproval of all her suitors. Their exchange does not feel like a romance gone sour by any measure, but more of a cat fight between a heterosexual woman and her own, warped version of a “fag hag.”
This is precisely the problem with the film’s attempt to construe Lydecker’s motivation to murder Laura as a result of sexual jealousy, for their relationship could not have been more chaste and passionless. Laura never once seems to desire him sexually, instead merely thinking of him as “the wittiest, wisest man she’d ever known”, and her motive in introducing herself at a restaurant is strictly from feelings of professional admiration. As Lydecker recounts their friendship to MacPherson, we learn nothing more than platonic, deliciously candid activities were shared between them: listening to records over cocktails in the afternoon, reveling in his own cultural critiques and bitchy witticisms, and attending social functions at which they mawkishly size up the lesser crowd’s attire. In other words, they do the sort of things a gay man and his single girlfriends would naturally do on any given weekend.
Only someone like Clifton Webb, a homosexual himself working within a (mostly) closeted industry, could have portrayed Lydecker with enough dimension to render the classic American film “dandy” stereotype beyond a single note. Lydecker’s profession as a writer and critic of the arts, a man whose talents are relegated to finding aesthetic perfection and pursuing it, obviously leads to an infatuation with the perfection Laura exudes. For him, she is an art object, not a sexual one, that he wishes to covet in his unfulfilled life. What’s most interesting about Lydecker is the number of instances in which he openly criticizes Laura’s string of suitors in terms of their physical masculinity and demeanor. He calls Shelby her “male beauty in distress” and notes to MacPherson that for Laura, “a lean, strong body is the measure of a man” before ultimately calling MacPherson and Laura’s own newfound romantic attraction “a disgustingly earthy relationship.”
Laura is an interesting case in which the apparent homophobia afforded by film noir is conflated with its apparent misogyny to be, in Dyer’s words, “part and parcel.” With Laura physically absent for half the film, Lydecker assumes the role of the femme fatale in the film’s first half. He and MacPherson are linked together in the film’s first scene (exactly like so many other noir detectives and dark ladies are) in a mildly homoerotic moment in which Lydecker asks MacPherson to hand him his robe as he rises out from a leisurely bath. He also insists on following MacPherson throughout his investigation, remaining right by his side as he questions Shelby, Ann, and the maid about Laura’s last whereabouts. As equally manipulative as any femme fatale, Lydecker knows how to play everyone’s insecurities off one another, including those of MacPherson, to construe a false portrait of murder as he sees fit, and it is not until Laura resurfaces that his hijinks take a back seat for her to take center stage.
Lydecker’s murderous motive makes more sense from a place of internalized homophobia and self-hatred. “When a man has everything in the world that he wants except what he wants most,” Lydecker tells Laura after she’s cast him out, “he loses his self respect. It makes him bitter, Laura. He wants to hurt someone as he’s been hurt.” What he “wants most” doesn’t really seem to be Laura at all, and this hurt comes not from her lack of desire for his intellect, but from the men he notes as physically alluring, and who keep getting in the way of objectifying Laura as another addition to his artful, decadent collection of objects typically associated with women. Sadly, Lydecker must die in the film’s final act, but Laura stills adds one of the more complex and illuminating (if unintentional) portrayals of a closeted man in film noir and American film dying for a connection. As a social misfit, it seems entirely appropriate he would appear in a film as mixed as this one, a mongrel of genres all preoccupied with the repression and punishment of sexual desire.