Never has a trailer offered more insight into a film than in Otto Preminger’s 1944 Laura. Much like the movie itself, the trailer opens-not on the titular Laura (Gene Tierney)-but on her stunning portrait. It is this portrait that will inspire Detective McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) near rabid infatuation. To say Laura was the focal point of the other characters’ obsessions would not be to overstate. “Everybody,” the trailer asserts in bold, curvy typeface, “is talking about Laura.” As in the actual film, the trailer spends the majority of its time depicting various admirers preoccupied with our captivating lead character. “Who is Laura?” it wonders as it displays a ravishing Gene Tierney in an exquisitely sharp-shouldered nightgown, “What is Laura?” This seemingly insignificant shift from “who” to “what” captures the central issue of the film: Who is Laura, really? Is she the sophisticated career woman? the winsome, magnetic socialite? or the stereotypically frail, pathetic victim of men’s mistreatment? Can we ever truly know Laura? or is she more of a conception than an actual person? Laura-I would argue- is not a person but an object, an idol for men to both desecrate and worship.
Of all the male characters, dandy, effeminate journalist Lydecker (Clifton Webb) most clearly objectifies her. As a radio host and newspaper columnist, Lydecker literally devises stories for a living but, figuratively, he narrates the events of Laura’s and, thus, our story. Interestingly, we only learn of the alluring murdered girl through a series of his flashbacks- she never “speaks” for herself. Laura is oddly barred access from her own narrative, a flagrant form of objectification. As the camera pans across Lydecker’s lavish apartment to reveal chic glass vases and an elegant vintage clock, we learn both Laura and McPherson at one time figured as characters in his accounts, McPherson as the “man with a leg full of lead” who apprehends a homicidal gangster at the siege of Babylon, Laura as his star. When perennially calm McPherson begins to fall for the enchanting New York socialite, he isn’t so much enamored of Laura the girl as of Laura the myth. We see this most evidently in the way he longingly gazes at her portrait. Much like a novel which is a fictional rendering of the world, Laura’s portrait is an invention of its painter’s mind, a representation of Laura- not Laura herself. As the film progresses, McPherson finds himself bewitched-it seems-not by Laura but by various male constructions of her, particularly Lydecker’s. In a way, the real woman is like the film’s cinematography: slippery, as hazy and surreal as a dream.
The first time we actually see Laura is during one of Lydecker’s flashbacks. Lydecker and McPherson sit at a cozy table with red-and-white checkered napkins in what appears to be a romantic Italian restaurant. Behind them, a large window opens up to an outdoor patio where couples drink merrily and vines cover the building’s brick walls. Lydecker, we learn, “selected a more attractive hair dress” for Laura and taught her what clothes were “more becoming” to her figure. It was because of him that she was able to gallivant among New York’s elite. He was the Pygmalion to her Galatea, the sensitive artist who sculpted her otherworldly beauty from stone.
From a feminist perspective, Lydecker’s conception of Laura offends on multiple levels. First off, in his retelling of events, Laura’s dazzling rise to adoration is a product of his labor-not her own. Though his connections as a columnist certainly help launch her career, it would be grossly unjust to disregard Laura’s role in her own success. She’s tenacious and career-oriented (qualities I’m willing to wager were uncommon among prim 1940s women). She’s gutsy (after all, how many of us would have the nerve to cold call an acclaimed writer in the middle of a restaurant? how many would be so determined that we would persist-even after being cruelly rebuffed?). Not to mention, she displays astounding initiative: we must not forget it was her idea to seek out Lydecker’s endorsement- not her advertising firm’s. Laura may possess an almost irresistible charisma but her most remarkable quality is her pluck. That Lydecker trivializes her part in her own accomplishments and in fact takes credit for them smacks of a patronizing sort of misogyny: to him, it’s inconceivable Laura alone could have made a name for herself.
Throughout his version of events, Laura figures as little more than an object. At one point, he confesses she became as well-known as his “walking stick,” a telling comparison proving she’s nothing more than a comely accessory to his pin-striped suit. “The way she listened,” he later divulges to McPherson, “was more eloquent than speech.” Though “eloquence” usually refers to the act of speaking, here it describes listening, a profoundly passive, non-participatory activity. Once again, Laura appears as a disempowered object, a mere receptacle for Lydecker’s instruction. While he educates her in the ways of worldly knowledge, she merely gazes dreamily through the smoke from her cigarette. In much the same way she is denied the right to her own story, Laura is consigned to silence, powerless to challenge either men’s portrayal of her or the dominant discourse.
Laura’s story is not just reappropriated by her male courters but by Bessie (Dorothy Adams) her maid, a plain woman whose demeanor is as homely as her name. Bessie seems similarly concerned with maintaining a certain narrative of Ms. Hunt; after the night of the murder, she hides a bottle of wine and scrubs a pair of glasses- irreversibly destroying critical evidence- all because she doesn’t want police to think Laura was anything but a “fine lady.”
Bessie, Lydecker, McPherson: all are obsessed with writing Laura into a particular story. Why is this significant? For starters, when Laura violates the parameters of her male courters’ carefully designed plots, she finds herself (and those she loves) in great peril. Take Lydecker, her most zealous admirer. Lydecker’s narrative rests on the premise that him and Laura are a couple, which they absolutely are not. “Tuesday and Friday nights we stayed home,” he reminisces fondly, “dining quietly.” The image of them “dining quietly” on a Friday evening seems oddly domestic considering their relationship is entirely non-sexual. Laura, however, will eventually defy this prescribed part as love interest, infuriating the besotted Lydecker. As the film goes on, his obsession becomes more menacing. Indeed, he will come to exhibit all the tell-tell signs of a stalker: irrational, murderous jealousy, haughty narcissism, a possessive longing for control. The thing that outrages him most? The object of his idolatry violating her role. Laura may occupy a starring role in his fantasies, but he directs the story- he won’t stand for a nobody actress transgressing his hard-won script. When Laura calls to cancel a dinner date-a deed most would find only mildly disappointing- Lydecker confesses he feels “betrayed”; in fact, he feels so slighted by her “betrayal” that he marches to her apartment during a snowstorm. Seeing the shadow of another man through the window, he waits to glimpse his identity. The fact that he lingers for what must be hours in a blizzard only proves the disturbing extent of his devotion. When her companion reveals himself as the painter Jacoby, Lydecker sets out on a vindictive campaign of defamation: he brutally lambastes the artist in his column, calling into question his aesthetic, “demolishing his affectations” and “exposing his camouflaged imitations of better painters.” Like every controlling man, he claims to sabotage Laura’s chances at happiness because he “loves” her, because the buffoons she chooses to entertain aren’t “worthy” of her attention. But I beg to differ: Lydecker spoils her affairs, I would argue, not because he harbors any kind of real affection toward her, not even because he feels emasculated or vengeful seeing her with another man, but because her dating Jacoby dramatically undermines his glorified image of her. “Yet I knew,” he asserts with the obstinance of a child who insists in Santa, “I knew Laura wouldn’t betray anyone.”
Laura, of course, will go on to painfully betray someone: Lydecker himself. It all begins when she starts dating Shelby (Vincent Price), a hulky Neanderthal of a man with an innocent face and dopey Southern drawl. Mr. Carpenter sees no distinction among women: at one point, he flirtatiously tells Laura he “approves” of her hat- the same stock compliment he will later utter to Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). He even brings his mistress, model Diane Redfern, to Laura’s apartment and lends her his fiance’s most intimate belongings, a negligee and mules. Laura, Diane…to him both are little more than decorative baubles: pretty, perhaps, but completely interchangeable.
Though Lydecker envisions Laura as the darling of fashionable society, her relationship to such a philandering fool casts serious doubt on his conception of her as a bright young girl. Laura is bright but-at the same time-she’s stereotypically female: as in many a hackneyed love story, she falls for a deceitful womanizer who in no way deserves her. When Lydecker mentions an unsavory rumor that Shelby stole jewels from his Virginia host, she predictably defends him: “Of course they would say that,” she counters, “he’s not rich.” Later, she retreats even further into the overdone troupe of self-sacrificial, too-forgiving female: “I know his faults,” she rationalizes, “A man can change, can’t he?” Despite a bulky folder of evidence, Laura refuses to believe Lydecker’s accusations, insisting Shelby would “never” lie, “never” steal, “never” two-time her. This exchange reveals two things about Ms. Hunt: 1) she’s optimistic-even naïve- and believes love possesses the power to redeem the irredeemable and 2) her trusting disposition makes her easy to take advantage of. For Lydecker, this encounter brings about a devastating realization: Laura is not Galatea, a flawless goddess carved from stone- she’s a human being, ordinary and fallible.
When Laura doesn’t immediately dump Shelby and instead goes to the country to “clear her head,” she irreparably violates Lydecker’s conception of her. Upon learning of Shelby’s infidelity, she was supposed to break off their engagement, she was supposed to finally realize her buried longing for the desperate best friend who’s in love with her. But instead, she decides to reflect by herself, an outrageous assertion of selfhood which motivates Lydecker to kill her. Sure, he accidentally ends up killing the hapless Ms. Redfern but he’s a writer, not a career criminal.
In the end, Lydecker is more like Mark Chapman, the deranged fan who gunned down John Lennon. “How,” Chapman wondered, “could a man who preached love and peace, a man who condemned materialism and corporate greed, live so extravagantly?” Disgusted by Lennon’s hypocrisy, on December 8, 1980, Chapman strolled up to the Dakota apartments, pulled out a Charter Arms 38 pistol and slayed his favorite Beatle. I imagine Lydecker feels a similar disenchantment when- at the end of the film- he tries (yet again) to kill Laura. By this point, she’s committed a litany of offenses: dated a derivative second-rate painter, almost married a shameless womanizer. Expressing interest in McPherson, a man who tastelessly refers to women as “dolls” and “dames,” is the ace of spades that finally makes the house of cards topple over. McPherson embodies a brawny masculinity Lydecker despises but-again-this isn’t why he tries to kill her. He tries to kill her because-like Chapman-he’s lost an idol.