Laura is a stylish noir whodunit that holds up well even after the passage of sixty years. It is cleverly written and handsomely cinematographed but it also comes with some murky psychological baggage that may or may not make sense. At the heart of the enigma is Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb). He's so head-over-heels in love and so ferociously jealous of Laura (the ingenue Gene Tierney) that he'll resort to anything, even murder, to keep her from other men. The premise is good whodunit fare, but it would make more obvious sense if Lydecker weren't both old and gay.
Clifton Webb was fifty-five when the picture was made, but he looks and acts ten or fifteen years older. He may be a bachelor, but he's not an eligible one. There's a rumor that Webb had a clause in his contract with Twentieth-Century Fox that barred the company from alluding to his homosexuality, but the prohibition, if it existed, didn't stop him from playing Lydecker with a pronounced gay affect. He's fussy, he's bitchy, he's a queen -- in short a stage homosexual in every aspect except that he's not obviously interested in men. (Well, almost never; he does expose himself to the detective Mark McPherson [Dana Andrews] when he steps out of the bathtub and asks McPherson to throw him a robe.)
One clue to Lydecker's character occurs in the first scene. He's spying on the detective, who's wandering around Lydecker's apartment, browsing an extensive collection of fragile objets d'art. McPherson goes to pick up a piece of glass and Lydecker calls out "Careful, that's very valuable" (I'm quoting from memory). From this incident we learn two things: Lydecker is a collector of beautiful works of art, and he's willing to let people look but not touch. This same attitude controls his relations to Laura: he cherishes her beauty, he molds her in a Pygmalion-like way, but he's hyper-protective. For him, she becomes an untouchable work of art (the portrait of Laura, on which the camera focuses so obsessively, is the metaphorical signifier of her place in his mental world). His cool sexuality (he's perfectly content with twice-a-week dinners) and his age (he's more interested in fathering Laura than in making love to her) are less significant than his pygmalionism.
By transforming Laura into a work of art, he attempts to preserve her virginity. He therefore shoos away her potential lovers: he destroys the career of Jacoby, the painter, by writing a vitriolic attack on him; he collects revealing information about the southern gigolo Carpenter (Vincent Price), and he competes with McPherson. It's a neat turn that to do so he becomes a detective himself -- loitering in the snow outside Laura's apartment, eavesdropping behind a post in a night club, etc. Eventually he comes to understand that he can't preserve Laura's "purity;" it's then that the film turns to violence. After all is lost, he gives away the game when he says to McPherson, with horror, "I suppose you'll have a disgustingly earthy relationship" [i.e. with Laura].
It's fascinating that McPherson, though he has all the outward marks of the macho gumshoe, is himself tepid about sexuality, lacks charisma and emotion, and that the film allows him and Laura only one slight awkward peck of a kiss. The detective is not a creature of passion, but he may be, like Lydecker, a lover of art; it's revealed that Laura's portrait will be auctioned and that McPherson has put in a bid on it.