SPOILER ALERT: The twist and the ending are discussed at length.
At first glance, Laura is not a particularly special noir film. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) attempt to unweave the events that led to the death of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) place him amid a web of lies, fronts and deceits. Mark can easily see through some ruses, in fact, most of the people around him do a lousy job of keeping the truth from him.
When Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) tries to hide away a key to Laura’s cabin in her apartment, Mark doesn’t buy his cover, looking through the inventory made of all the items in Laura’s room by the cops who searched the place the night before. He’s calculated, cool, almost completely detached from the entire process even as writer Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), one of Laura’s friends, tries to weave fantastical tales of the possibilities leading up to her death.
But then Mark reaches a point where he realized how directionless and convoluted the entire affair is and how unlikely it will be for him to find the killer. In a moment of weariness and despair, he collapses onto a chair in Laura’s apartment, a painted portrait of the fair victim in the background. And somehow, someway, he’s become infatuated with the woman who is now dead. In that chair he drifts off to sleep.
In the next scene, Laura enters the apartment as if returning from a holiday. Mark is shocked, but soon it becomes clear that this indeed is Laura, alive and well, and that the woman who was killed was not Laura, but should have been. And—stop. While it’s easy to get caught up in the fantastic and odd twist of the story, there’s something off about the way the twist is introduced. I’d argue that it’s no coincidence that the scene before Laura’s arrival is of Mark drifting off to sleep.
That’s right folks, I think the latter half of this film is a dream sequence, and it’s not just because of that one moment. It’s the entire way the rest of the film plays out. While it’s still a game of cat and mouse as Mark tries to bait out who the killer was, the rest of the film is a clean ideological break from the dower film noir presented before. Yes, the visuals are the same, the characters still persists, but the ideas don’t align.
Scene by scene, Mark shifts into an entirely different kind of character. Far from the cool dupe of the noir flick, he becomes a hero, able to make sense of the puzzle, begin placing everything together and, most importantly, he starts winning the girl who is also falling for him. While the previous half of the film brought Mark deeper into the bottomless pit, the remaining act practically lines up everything in his favor.
His inability to solve the case in reality has forced him into the realm of dreams, into the realm of films where time is literally shattered moments before the film is resolved, a shotgun blast breaking away the inner workings of a clock. In another sequence Mark tells Laura to forget he troubles like they were a bad dream. Instead, he’s crafted his own good dream where he can overcome the troubles which would be insurmountable in another film noir.
Films allow audiences to fulfill fantasies which can never be achieved in reality, should it be any different that the characters of those fictions might have their own fantasies? In turn, these fantasies can only be realized in an illusion built within the illusion of film. The closing moments of the film have Mark discover the identity of the killer, find his whereabouts, see him shot down in a minor gun battle as Laura rushes into his arms. It’s the perfect fulfillment of all of Mark’s desires in one fell moment. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing