Writers and directors in the 1940s were in a heck of a bind. They weren’t allowed to have cursing, nudity, sex, or graphic violence in their movies.
What could they do? Filmmakers were forced to go all-in on crackling dialog and interesting characters. They had to explore the human condition, in all its eccentricity, depravity, and sorrow.
This was the era of Film Noir.
If I were teaching a film class (like I always do in my dreams), I would start my Film Noir lesson with “Laura.”
The picture begins with a bang. Lovely, talented advertising director Laura has just been shot to death. And hard-nosed Detective McPherson is going to chain-smoke his way to the killer.
Along the way, Detective McPherson meets some silly members of New York high society. Director Otto Preminger uses “Laura” to gently make fun of America’s materialistic, effeminate urban elites.
Vincent Price is surprisingly strapping as Laura’s no-good fiancé Shelby. He’s an unemployed two-timer so you’d think he’d be the bad guy. But Preminger has a soft spot for the young man.
Shelby has gotten addicted to the luxury of the upper class and doesn’t care to work. So what choice does he have? I’m not saying he’s a gold digger; but he’s not messing with no broke ladies.
Stage actor Clifton Webb steals the show as Laura’s benefactor boyfriend Waldo Lydecker. Fifty-five-year-old Waldo is a famous newspaper columnist with a poison pen. He is cynical, sarcastic, and openly insulting to everyone he meets so you’d think he’d be the bad guy. But Preminger has a soft spot for old Waldo as well.
Through flashbacks, we see Waldo and Laura becoming close friends. Maybe more than friends; but certainly less than lovers. Waldo uses his connections to further her career. And Laura is always by his side at cocktail parties, making him look extremely cool.
These days, an aging queen can demonstrate his power and wealth by having a younger guy by his side. But in the 1940s, a man like Waldo impressed people with his stunning girlfriend. Interestingly, we see Waldo become vulnerable as he kind-of falls in love with his beautiful beard.
In the film’s most raw and human scene, Waldo confesses to Laura that he has had her and Shelby tracked by a private detective. Waldo accuses Laura and Shelby of sneaking around and cheating.
Everything he says is true, but Laura is just sad that Waldo has become so jealous and cruel. For the first and only time, Waldo is speechless; he feels empty and ashamed. He realizes that being the cleverest guy in the city won’t prevent him from growing old alone.
“Laura” isn’t the greatest movie of the Film Noir era (that’s a tie between “Scarlet Street” and “Double Indemnity”). When it comes to surprising characters and witty dialogue, however, “Laura” is second to none. The normalization of foul language, sex, and bloody violence in cinema has probably made filmmaking easier. But it hasn’t made movies more intelligent or entertaining.