Blog Noir: "Laura", or, Mad Men Is So Anachronistic


(if you intend to watch this film, please don't read this review, for here there be spoilers. Watch it, then come back!)

I really enjoyed watching this, though there were so many things that just didn't work. This film is so beautiful in its construction, but is really let down by certain aspects of its execution.

Certainly there are smaller issues like, why are the cops bugging the apartment of a dead woman? Why does McPherson think to check the grandfather clock in the first place? Handwave, handwave.

But there are a number of more serious problems, chiefly centering on the character of Laura Hunt and her portrayal by Gene Tierney. For instance, why is she so dumb? A better actress might have sold the idea that a woman who is so wildly successful in her professional life* could be so willfully stupid in her personal life. I mean the only explanation offered is that she's a sucker for a "lean and hard body." Anyone in the audience could have told her that VINCENT PRICE IS A CREEP.

At least in the case of her falling for Shelby, we can accept that there are details we are not privy to, as the story of their courtship is recounted by Waldo, whom we resolutely do not trust. Hell, we've been TOLD not to trust him in the beginning of the film, when he says he often changes details to make stories more exciting (and to make himself look better, though he doesn't mention this explicitly).

Why, then, does Laura fall for Mark McPherson? Is it simply because he's another "lean and hard body"? It's clear why he falls in love with her, this idealized image of a beautiful dead woman who only lives on in a dramatic painting over the mantel. But there's literally nothing to explain her sudden love for McPherson apart from Waldo's intimation that she's flighty, which certainly doesn't seem true based on Tierney's performance or what we know of Laura. If anything, Laura is too steadfast and too bull-headed.

As mentioned before, everything we learn of pre-death Laura, we learn through Waldo's soft-focussed memories. She is described as an ideal of womanhood, an arbiter of taste and a paragon of ambition, just like Waldo himself. But when Laura comes back to life, Tierney's performance just isn't up to the challenge of simultaneously playing a flawed human being and a woman who would be idealized in such fashion not only by Waldo, but by everyone.

Sure, she's as unforgettably beautiful as Laura ought to be, but her performance lacks the conviction to sell us on the fact that not only is Waldo misremembering the details pertinent to the case, he does not remember Laura as she actually was. There are no subtle changes between how she plays Laura in misty-eyed flashback and how she plays Laura in reality. So when she gives her climactic speech to Waldo about being done with him, there's no emotional heft behind it, no mirror or recognition of the falsehoods and untruths that comprise the entirety of Waldo's character. To put it simply, her performance lacks depth.

Now I don't mean to rag so hard on this film, because as I said it has much to recommend it. The plotting is nearly impeccable, and has the perfect balance between the audience figuring things out and the detective figuring things out. Clifton Webb is superbly entertaining as the sort of Addison DeWitt gone horribly wrong, and it's wonderfully jarring to see a young Vincent Price play a suave "pretty boy". The dialogue is pitch-perfect.

What bothers me isn't that what is left on the screen is bad, persay, but that there are a number of missed opportunities. But I can't help but think this movie ranks high up in all the AFI lists just because Gene Tierney is so damn beautiful (and she really is. She makes Rita Hayworth look like the girl next door).


Let me know what you think about Laura in the comments!

*Laura's professional success reminds me of one of the chief criticisms of Mad Men that's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore: that Peggy Olson's journey is 20 years too late. The offices of Sterling Cooper are diversifying in the 1960's, while it's well documented that women were holding Don Draper's position in the 1940's (like Laura) and even African-Americans were integrated in the 1950's. Not to cheapen Peggy, who is one of my all-time favorite characters, but it does lend credence to the frequent critique of Mad Men as being all about the superficial trappings of the 1960's while inventing a social reality that simply does not exist. Likewise, Betty Draper's journey would have happened in the early 1950's, not the mid-60's.


Stop by at Park Circus for an ongoing series about film noir, particularly focussing on Gilda, which I wrote about previously here:

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10 Responses to “ Blog Noir: "Laura", or, Mad Men Is So Anachronistic ”

  1. Hey this is Jade from the Poison Pen Cinema,

    A few things, I think Laura is a good film marred by Gene Tierney's performance. I have never been a fan of hers yet she does pop up in films I otherwise enjoy. I actually found Laura (the person) to be devoid of anything besides beauty to lend credence to why EVERYONE falls in love with her. Tierney felt detached and stubborn. She's a great example of issues of idealized women on film. There is not much beyond what everyone projects upon her and her beauty.

    In terms of Mad Men, I appreciate that show but there are some issues with race, gender and how it is utilizing the time period. I think Mad Men has fascinating characters but it is interesting how they are portraying the 1960s in New York.

  2. Great critique. I think it basically agrees with mine. At the heart of this film is a woman who is, at best, an empty suit. (I don't think the film makers are oblivious to this point, by the way.) She's beautiful but that's it. But you know, the men aren't much smarter than she is. I think MacPherson will be happy with Laura because he is taking her at surface value OR else he sees her faults and is willing to put up with them BECAUSE of her beauty.

    Tierney was never a great actress. Except when she played the villain in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. There her on screen coldness worked for her. She was terrific.

    Her characters were all mostly fools about men.

    I worked in Manhattan in the 60's and I recognize some of what goes on in MAD MEN. Though I haven't seen the show lately, I thought they did a pretty good job portraying some aspects of the times.

  3. I also never understood why Laura falls so fast and hard for McPherson. Tierney did not sell it and the script glossed over this. Apparently the two were in love because the rest of the plot dictated that they had to be.

  4. Hi Jade! Thanks for coming by. I really want to like Gene Tierney, because her looks are sooo charismatic, but her personality just...isn't. She doesn't have a charm to make up for lack of acting talent, no exciting quirks to detract from dullness. But as I said, the movie is so good that it can survive despite her, which says something about the screenwriter.

  5. Yvette, I think you're right about the filmmakers being aware of Gene Tierney's emptiness. Thankfully they kept her scenes short and didn't really give her key dialogue, so though she was a problem, she didn't stick out like a sore thumb.

    I can imagine she'd make a MUCH better villain, and I look forward to checking that out!

    Re: Mad Men, I love the show, but there are plenty people who hate it, and this is one of the only criticisms where I can sort of see where they come from. But I'd love to hear more about your experience!

  6. @Ryan was it strictly necessary that they fall in love? I feel it would have worked easily well had they fallen into flirtatious banter but not "instant love"

  7. I love Laura but I see your point about the Tierney performance. I think by far her best work is Leave Her to Heaven.

    What MAY have happened here is that she was playing down (young and naive girl in the "big city"). It probably could have been better executed by a more capable screen actress but like I said earlier I see your point.


    Thanks to your analysis I think I am able to nail what draws me to this picture so much. It is the plotting. The fact that we are learning about the female protagonist as she "was" but then there is the U-Turn and we the audience must deal with the fact that the romanticized version of Laura as we know her will probably fall away as we have to deal with her in the flesh and not as an idealized apparition.

  8. I need to check out Leave Her to Heaven!

    The plotting is fantastic indeed. It's just such a complex, psychological drama, and probably the first of its kind (Hitchcock goes on to mine this territory more effectively I think, but this is definitely the vanguard).

  9. Hi, coming here from your comment on film_flammers over at livejournal.

    I love this film, I absolutely adore it. But I would agree that Gene Tierney is the weakest link in the chain. I like Gene Tierney, but I do not consider her to be one of the greatest talents at the time.

    Pulling in your two comments - one, that how could Laura be so smart professionally and so dumb socially, and two, that Lydecker is remembering an idealized version of Laura - perhaps the "dumb socially" things is part of Lydecker's remembrances. Meaning, he didn't understand Laura's relationships, so what we see of Laura and Shelby is not at all what happened, and when she returned from being thought dead, everything changed fundamentally.

    Also, just for a giggle, I mean, Sex and the City is entirely about women who are smart professionally and pretty damn dumb socially.

    Isn't it hard to talk about Laura w/o spoilers????

  10. Thanks for stopping by!

    I like your idea that Lydecker misremembers Laura's lack of social intelligence, but I still need Tierney to do something to differentiate her real-life self from Lydecker's memories.

    But you're right, it's still a great movie.

    I dare say it's impossible to have any meaningful discussion of this movie without spoilers!


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