Although occasionally referenced among those movies described as “film noir” the reality is that the only people who consider Laura to belong to that particular genre are those who think that any movie filmed in black and white after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that has something to do with crime automatically qualifies as film noir. The much simpler truth is that Laura is simply a nifty little mystery about a cop trying to determine the identity of the killer of Laura Hunt.
What has transformed Otto Preminger’s adaptation of the novel by Vera Caspary into a bona fide classic rather than just another forgotten suspense movie of the 1940s is much less simple. While it is true that the film essentially boils down to “who killed Laura Hunt” the plot actually is forced to expand into a meditation upon how motive is considered inextricably linked to murder. If the motive of the killer was to murder Laura Hunt and then Laura Hunt expectedly and mysteriously turns up very much alive, how does that impact the investigation?
Not to suggest that Laura is a film that turns its attention to that question; it merely raises it in a tangential and almost subliminal way. Still, the fact that the woman the first half of the movie sets up as being murdered turns out to be alive still ranks as one of the most artistically satisfying plot twist in movie history. Not that giving that plot twist away is much of a spoiler, however, since the plot does not turn on the supposed murder victim being alive. One of the ways the film does address the question of how to handle motive when that motive turns up alive is the very simple answer: it makes no difference if the killer doesn’t realize a mistake was made. The motive stays the same regardless.
An even more important reason that revealing the twist is not much of a spoiler has to do with the question of where to place Laura into the crime film genre since it is not a good fit for film noir. It is also not a good fit for a standard murder mystery since the focus changes to such a significant degree once the victim shows up alive. Probably the most appropriate genre for Laura would be psychological thriller since what the film is really about is obsession. Everybody is obsessed with Laura, including the detective investigating her murder. He actually falls in love with her image as described by witnesses and visually portrayed by enormous painted portrait of his suspected victim. Once Laura shows up in the flesh, he is forced to confront the idealized image he’s created of her with the very human reality. What is most fascinating about the movie, however, is that the two men vying for Laura’s attention while she was alive are also revealed to be in conflict over the disconnect between their idealized portrait and the more complex human being.
It is this unexpectedly perverse psychological element (for its time) that contributed to the lasting power of the film and landed Laura in the number 73 slot on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American thrillers of the first 100 years of film. One of the keys to the film’s ability to connect so powerfully with audiences was the composition of the haunting “Laura’s Theme” which is now considered one of the earliest examples of the essential integration of a film’s soundtrack to its overall success; a precursor of such iconic scores to come as Jaws and The Godfather, the two films ranked immediately above the film’s 7th place ranking on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American film scores. In one of the most telling demonstrations of the inability of members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences to recognize a future classic when it kicks them in the shins, that musical score was not among the 21—twenty-one—movies nominated for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.