Bright Lights Film Journal

Laura – And Mystery Women Generally

Eugenia from Los Angeles writes:

I just watched Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and didn’t find it to be all that noir! The heroine was too clean-cut, and the movie was more of a regular murder mystery to me than a noir, by my understanding of that term.

I think of noirs as dealing with the fall of man, basically. Plus, something rotten in the state of Denmark! Hamlet is pretty noir. The universe of Laura was just the universe as usually presented, albeit with some slimy folks in it. But I don’t see it commenting on or depicting a universe that is out of joint. Just a guy who is, and a couple of other characters that are, flawed, weak, even despicable, but not in a particularly noirish way.

How does Laura qualify? I stand ready to be enlightened.

Dear Eugenia:

I agree with you that Laura is one of those so-called noir classics (like The Maltese Falcon) which isn’t really all that noir. And for the same reason you cited – that its overall universe isn’t all that out of joint. But it does have some noir aspects – notably the casting of Dana Andrews (soon to become a noir icon) and the fascination/fetishization of Laura’s portrait (see also, Vertigo). Laura does have one terrific scene that qualifies as pure noir – Police Detective McPherson’s (Andrews) interrogation of Laura (Gene Tierney), the sadomasochistic relationship of interrogator/suspect existing simultaneously with the growing attraction between the two (there’s always something twisted going on beneath the surface in a real noir), and that scene also has the most noir visuals of any scene in the film, the way the policeman’s lamp is pointed directly at Laura’s face creating high contrast in an otherwise dimly lit room.

Gene Tierney’s Laura is not evil, and therefore not a true femme fatale in the manner of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Jane Greer in Out of the Past. She does not intentionally tempt others to evil, like Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. However, that does not mean Laura is out of place in the noir universe.

Tierney’s enigmatic Laura is a classic example of the “mystery woman,” another staple of film noir. The noir mystery woman is not evil in herself. As a tabula rasa (blank slate) she may provoke evil in others – notably, Laura’s Waldo Lydecker – but more often than not what she provokes is obsession.

Detective McPherson is just as obsessed with Tierney’s Laura as Lydecker is, but – being a different sort of fellow – McPherson’s obsession doesn’t lead him to doom; it leads him to romance and an apparently happy ending. Unlike another detective, “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, whose obsession with the greatest of noir’s mystery women, Kim Novak’s Madeleine, leads him ultimately to isolation and despair.

David Lynch, one of noir’s modern practitioners, has far more interest in the mystery woman than in the femme fatale. In Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series, the girl at the center of the mystery (Sheryl Lee) is also named Laura, and her lookalike cousin (same actress) is named Madeleine! The amnesiac Rita (Laura Haring) in Mulholland Drive is another one of Lynch’s mystery women, an enigma even to herself.

By way of contrast, Hilary Swank in Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia plays a true (i.e. truly evil) femme fatale. “The Dahlia” (Mia Kirshner) is The Black Dahlia’s mystery woman, not as a living person, but as a corpse, the black hole center of a mystery that obsesses everyone.

In short, Laura deserves its place in the noir canon, if for no other reason than it helped to define an essential noir archetype that is still with us.