From time to time, some online “best of” list declares that this, that or the other woman is the most beautiful celebrity (however the “survey” in question defines that word) of all time. The answer is always wrong.
The most beautiful celebrity (however that word is defined) of all time was, is and always will be Gene Tierney.
Gene Eliza Tierney (1920-1991) appeared in more than 35 movies over the course of her career, including two of the best films of the 1940s, Laura (1944) and The Razor’s Edge (1946). I may discuss The Razor’s Edge in a subsequent entry, but for today, I’m going to discuss Laura.
The film opens a few days after the reported murder of Laura Hunt (Tierney), with acid-tongued newspaper columnist and radio commentator Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) telling us he’s the only one who really knew her.
We later learn that he’d served as a mentor of sorts, introducing Hunt to the “right people” and helping her make the connections that landed her an important job at an advertising agency.
Lydecker, who types out his columns while sitting in the bathtub, is interviewed by police Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). After getting dressed, Lydecker ask to come along while McPherson interviews the lists of suspects, saying he wants to study their reactions.
“You’re on the list yourself, you know?” McPherson says.
“Good,” Lydecker replies. “To have overlooked me would have been a pointed insult.”
The suspects include Hunt’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) and Hunt’s possible fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who is currently “involved” with Treadwell.
It was Treadwell who identified the body, the victim of a shotgun blast to the face.
In response to McPherson’s questions, Treadwell says she’s very fond of Carpenter, adding, “Everybody is.”
“I’m not,” Lydecker replies. “I’ll be hanged if I am.”
It turns out that Treadwell has been supporting Carpenter financially. Carpenter was also at her home when McPherson and Lydecker came to see her.
When Carpenter asks what possible motive he might have for killing Hunt, given that they were going to be married that same week, Lydecker says she hadn’t definitely made up her mind to marry him.
“She told me herself last Friday when she called to cancel our dinner engagement,” he says. “As a matter of fact, she was going to the country to think it over.”
The murder took place the previous Friday.
Lydecker and Carpenter then accompany McPherson to Hunt’s apartment, where we learn that portions of Carpenter’s alibi don’t hold up. However, McPherson apparently accepts his story of having fallen asleep at a concert reasonable, saying he’s done the same thing, himself.
On the other hand, when the three men go into Hunt’s bedroom and Carpenter finds a key to her country place in a drawer, McPherson points out that the earlier police inventory hadn’t included a key in that drawer.
“You put it there, didn’t you?” he asks.
Carpenter say he did and that he didn’t want to give McPherson the key while Lydecker was present for, “private reasons that don’t concern him.”
Lydecker and McPherson then have dinner at a restaurant Lydecker and Hunt frequented on a regular basis. Via flashback, we learn how he first met her, several years earlier.
As Lydecker narrates the flashback, we learn that just as he’d introduced Hunt to the “right people”, we also learn that he’d steered her away from those he considered “wrong” for her. That list included other men interested in her. He used his column to tear down one such suitor.
He also had Carpenter investigated.
In the course of his investigation, McPherson spends a lot of time in Laura Hunt’s apartment, which features a large painting of her over the fireplace. He finds himself drawn to it.
“Have you sublet this apartment?” Lydecker asks at one point. “You’re here often enough to pay rent.”
He also reveals that he knows McPherson has put in a bid for the painting.
“Have you ever dreamed of Laura as your wife?” Lydecker asks. “…I see you have.”
He adds that McPherson should watch out, lest he end up in a psychiatric ward.
“I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”
Sometime after Lydecker leaves, McPherson falls asleep in a chair below the painting only to be awakened when a rain-drenched and very-much-alive Laura Hunt walks through the front door.
For Mark McPherson, Laura Hunt is no longer just an image in a painting, the sum of other people’s descriptions of her or the content of her letters; she’s a living, breathing woman standing in front of him.
Brought quickly up to date on what’s happened, Hunt says she realizes who the victim must be based on a dress she found in her closet. But why are there inconsistencies in her statement about her activities over the weekend? Laura hunt goes from murder victim to one of the suspects.
McPherson continues his investigation, even as Hunt’s friends celebrate the news that she’s still alive. The key questions now revolve around whether the murdered woman or Hunt had been the intended victim. If the former, what role, if any, did Hunt play? If the latter, will the killer try again?
With a strong cast led by Gene Tierney in the title role, Laura is film noir classic, well worth seeing.
Copyright 2018, Patrick Keating.