A review requested by Nik Evans, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Laura is a fucked-up movie about sex. There's much else to say about it, virtually all of it good, but I think that's the core of it. Movies released in America in 1944 didn't have the luxury of being terribly forthright in their depictions of human sexuality, of course, but but they were immensely good at being circumspect, and even in the lusty, fetid world of film noir, I can't offhand think of any other movie from the period so enthusiastically kinky as this story about a cop who wants to sleep with a dead woman, and his psychological struggle with the gay man who has been treating her as his favorite plaything.

Adapted by Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt from Vera Caspary's novel of the same name, Laura goes about its plot in a very damn peculiar way. It starts not so much in medias res as ex post facto, with the snobbish voice of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) opening the film in voiceover against a black screen (already an unusual choice) by solemnly affirming "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died". It's a snazzy bit of modernism that instantly sets the scene: Laura is not about what happens, but what happened; it is not a film of action but of a clean-up crew. Most of the movie takes place in a single New York apartment, because there's no need to leave it: practically nothing actually happens across the movie's trim 88 minutes, and the inordinately small scale suits it just fine.

I would like to imagine that the film is enough of a canonical classic that I needn't even bother with the plot, but that would be unreasonable. Anyway, so Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is dead, and Det. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is the NYPD officer trying to figure out who killed her. The obvious suspects are Waldo, a mercurial radio celebrity who has been intimately involved with Laura for years, and Laura's fiancΓ©, the shabby gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). It could also potentially be Shelby's last lover and Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). McPherson quickly stops caring, as his lengthy time spent in Laura's apartment, poring over her letters and diary, under the constant stare of a large oil painting of the dead woman herself, leads him to become more obsessed with the murder victim than the actual murder.

That already gives us plenty to gnaw on, and that's without even getting to the midway point of the film, when a very much alive Laura shows up after a long weekend in the country and is stunned and a little angry to find a cop rifling through her things. It is one of the most defining things about Laura that this reveal is completely underplayed: there's no shocked musical sting or dramatically intense close-up: she just walks through the door into a wide shot, inadvertently ripping the movie in half. Good on director Otto Preminger, whose career as a major director begins here (he'd already directed a handful of features, but none with any kind of lasting legacy), and who never really bettered this film in his frequently inspiring, thoroughly uneven career. It's got a fascinating screenplay and a lot of great actors, but Laura is always mostly a triumph of direction, not least in little places like that mid-film twist, where the decision to go so forcefully low-key is completely unintuitive, but certainly to the story's benefit: the suddenness of Laura's entry into the film as a living person thoroughly jangles all of our sense of what's going on in much the same way it does for the characters, making it infinitely more gripping than it had been just a moment before.

I have greatly drifted from my main point in all of this, which is sex. While I get into that, let us make a few things clear. First, while Tierney and Andrews are top-billed, and do in fact have the biggest, most plot-consequential roles, this is Clifton Webb's movie; he gets the first and last lines, he's the only person to speak in voiceover, and the movie gratefully cedes POV to him at every chance. Second, Preminger had to fight hard to get the 54-year-old Webb in the movie: his slight film career had ended during the silent era, and he was exclusively a theater actor at this point, and Darryl F. Zanuck thought he was a dangerously uncommercial choice. Third, Webb was unmistakably gay, and was out as much as one could possibly be out in 1944 and still be employable. I wouldn't say that Preminger fought for him solely because he reads as gay even by the deeply locked-down standards of 1944; he's a great actor and particularly great in this role, devouring the wonderful epigrams the script hands him with immense, obvious pleasure (I won't mire this review in a "favorite Waldo lines" exercise, but I could never pass up the chance to celebrate one of my favorite lines in a '40s movie: "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention"). Simply as a jealous, cruel older man, Webb's faultless ability to exude entitlement and chilly hatred and infatuation with his own cutting wit is one of the best things in Laura, if it's not the best thing.

But anyway, he most certainly was gay, and it's trivially easy to read that into the character, both in Webb's performance, and in Preminger's blocking of him - almost the first thing Waldo does is to stand nude (off-camera, of course) in front of McPherson and demand a robe. This is hardly for noble, progressive reasons (in fact, he's a stock-issue Evil Queer): it's because Waldo is an emotionally poisonous aesthete, whose obsession with Laura is pointedly not about sexual desire, but about something possessive and controlling. He views her as his creation (the scenes especially confirming this were cut right after the premiere and only restored in 1990, which is a terrible shame for the people who only saw the film within that 46-year window), a work of art to be displayed as an example of his own refinement and taste. The idea that Waldo is concerned with collecting fine things is established in literally the first shot, a probing moving take that looks around Waldo's whole apartment (foreshadowing a key clue in the process), ending by framing McPherson within the large glass display case of particularly handsome trinkets. Laura is the finest, poshest thing that Waldo has achieved, his vision of the idealised feminine.

Standing in opposition to Waldo is the ludicrous love story between McPherson and Laura, inspired by his adoration of her portrait when he thought she was a corpse whose head had been blown off by a shotgun. Not by any means the most stable, normative way to start a relationship, and yet the film treats their interactions without a detectable trace of sardonic detachment. But of course something's wrong anyway, so wrong that perhaps the movie doesn't even need to stress it. And it does actually stress it in the form of the portrait itself, which just looms all over the apartment. It is prominently out of focus, if such a thing is possible, in the back of many shots, almost worthy of counting as another character in its own right, particularly the insinuating smile that seems to smirk at McPherson even as he grows obsessed with it. It is the very visual embodiment of the male characters' obsessions with Laura, and the general superficiality of that obsession (for McPherson, who has access to her private thoughts and thus her "true" self, this is less so; yet he still first falls in love with the painting, making him arguably the most superficial of them all). There are actually two title characters, Laura as Waldo wishes to talk and think about her in flashback, and Laura as she exists in the real world. Tierney's exceptional performance effectively fleshes out those differences, showing the snappish, brittle Laura of reality as an unexpected counterpoint to the smiling ingenue of the flashback. Can't more directly indict the way the other characters think about her than that.

So we return to the idea of sex, in all its corruption: Waldo's possession of Laura's body as a proxy for physical intimacy, McPherson's fantasy girlfriend conjured up out of a corpse, Shelby's flimsy mercenary antics in lieu of actual attraction or sexuality (it's not much of a coincidence, I imagine, that both of the supporting male actors in the film were notably effeminate and carried themselves with an exaggerated dignity that verged on proto-camp). Even Ann gets in on it, with her late monologue explaining, basically, that she likes having Shelby around because his own venality makes her feel better about her own. Laura is uniquely decent as a human being in this cast, which is exactly why she ends up as the locus for all the other characters' warped sense of human relationships and sexual attraction.

It is not a nice movie; the best films noirs never were. It is a masterpiece anyway, with excellent visual storytelling (there's little of the shadowy under-lighting for which noir was named, admittedly, but the framing is beyond great throughout) to augment its excellent performances and impressively three-dimensional awful people - I think you could argue that every one of the leads other than Anderson is giving their career-best performance, certainly Tierney - and its striking, if toxic cosmopolitan attitudes. It's one of the smartest of all noirs, and thus among the most enticingly savage and dangerous.