‘Laura’ – On Page and On Screen
Novel by: Vera Caspary
Film directed by: Otto Preminger
1944’s ‘Laura’ is typically considered one of the highlights early film noir. A murder mystery based around a detective’s investigations into the death of the titular character, Laura Hunt, the story is an engaging study into the twisted love and irrational obsession over the mere existence of another human being, and is considered a highly influential entry within the genre.
After having seen the film some months before, I stumbled across a copy of the original novel and decided, having quite enjoyed the movie, to give it a go. It’s a fairly short book (much like the film) and makes for suitable travelling reading. Upon reading it, I was surprised my how much I enjoyed it and followed it on with an immediate re-watching of the movie. Given how popular the film adaption is, I thought a comparison of the two might be of interest, particularly for those less familiar with the original novel.
*Warning – spoilers follow below*
In short, the story centres around the character of Laura Hunt – a successful and decidedly independent young advertising agent based in New York, mentored by a particularly renowned (if cynical) journalist, Waldo Lydecker, with whom she has an almost paternal relationship. The other key man in her life is a young playboy called Shelby Carpenter, with whom Laura is engaged. The story begins in the immediate aftermath of Laura’s tragic murder – the result of a gunshot wound in the face late one Friday evening in her apartment. Investigating the crime is Mark McPherson, a police detective in the classic hardboiled fashion. McPherson gradually pieces together the events of Laura’s life- the key events of her life, her blossoming career, her engagement with Shelby, and bit by bit, McPherson finds himself becoming obsessed not only with the case, but with Laura herself, as if falling in love with a person he only knows through stories, as well as a magnificent portrait of her resting in her apartment. One night, after falling asleep in front of that same portrait, McPherson awakens to find the real Laura walking into her apartment, as if summoned out of his dream. The dead body is revealed to have been that of a young model in Laura’s employ, and the case deepens as McPherson tries to identify the true killer, in spite of the efforts by Shelby and Lydecker to inhibit him, themselves convinced that Laura is the killer he seeks. The investigation points the finger initially in the direction of Shelby, then on to Laura herself, and is eventually exposed to be that of her mentor – Waldo – the act of a man unable to allow his young protégé to become married to a man he considers to be, in his hardened mind, inferior. Therein lies the key theme to the entire story – one person falling in love with an idea of a person, their soul and essence, rather than their reality.
The Novel – 1943
“Murder is the city’s best free entertainment. I hope it doesn’t bother you, Mr. Lydecker.”
Having read the book after seeing the film some months before, I was naturally familiar with the underlying plot and, critically, the final identity of the murderer. Unsurprisingly, the novel contains a number of elements and events which were omitted from the subsequent film version. What did surprise me was the unusual approach to telling the story that the book took, which certainly left a lasting impression and allows the book to stand up firmly against the film version which has come to overshadow it.
Rather than being a straight linear narrative, the book is told from the perspective of three different characters (four if you want to include a transcript of a police interrogation) – commencing with Waldo himself, journaling the initial parts of the investigation up to the return of Laura, before shifting to McPherson, detailing his discovery of Laura, his investigations into the death of Diane Redfern, then moving to Laura herself as the investigation reaches its climax, before finally reverting to McPherson once more. No one narrative is given any more or lesser importance or emphasis than another’s, but each can be considered an unreliable narrator. Waldo, later revealed as the true killer, naturally presents himself in a refined light, applying his characteristic cynicism to all he meets. McPherson begins cleanly and methodically, before finding himself (and his narrative) influenced by his growing obsession with who he believes the dead woman to originally be, and finally moving to Laura herself, detailing her life and protesting her innocence to the audience, in spite of the mounting evidence points towards her. It’s a very unique approach to telling a story of this nature, and certainly works well in helping to set up the story’s core plot twist about the identity of the murdered woman.
“I was business-like. I was crisp and efficient. I sounded like a detective in a detective story.”
The writing itself is excellent, and there are some incredibly well-written and memorable passages spread across each of the different characters’ narratives. Each narrator has their own unique voice and provides their thoughts and perspectives on the matter, told through their own unique voices. Waldo is cynical yet entertaining, McPherson is dry and precise, and Laura is tormented and tragic. The quality with which each character is developed this way really does show up Caspary’s strengths as an author, and in an impressive introduction to her works.
It’s a very refined work – the story flows smoothly, despite the intermittent changes in narrative, and the murder-mystery element is well-sustained up until the very end. It is fair to say that the limited cast of characters, as well as the gradual ‘finger-pointing’ of the suspects which the story takes means that the final revelations and exposure of the killer which takes place is not entirely unpredictable, but it’s certainly not unrewarding all the same. Much like many noir/pulp authors, the kickback for the reader is in the way the story is told, as much as it is in the actual solution of the crime. On which note, despite the fairly unique approach it takes, the story retains a distinctly hardboiled flavour which stacks up well against other books of the era (not least of all fellow female hardboiled authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes). The dialogue is crisp, witty and believable – the inner thoughts of Laura as she explains them to the reader are particularly insightful and provides a great insight into the character, but the remaining characters each get their moments to shine.
“Mark has never tasted it, but once his tongue had tested and approved the golden flavour, he tossed it off like Scotch whiskey. He came of a race of drinkers who look contemptuously upon an alcoholic content of twelve percent, unaware that the fermented grape works its enchantments more subtly than the distilled spirits of grain. I do not say that he was drunk; let us say, rather, that the Tears of Christ opened his heart. He became less Scottish and more boyish; less the professional detective and more the youth in need of a confidant.”
It’s not a massive read – the Vintage edition of the book totals to 171 pages, but there is plenty to enjoy throughout, and should definitely be picked up by fans of the movie, and anyone who cares much for crime fiction of any calibre. Certainly as an introduction to Vera Caspary (who, I must confess, I was largely unaware of previously), it’s an impressive start.
The Film – 1944
My initial impression of the film upon my original viewing was that it was a clever and well-constructed mystery, but occasionally felt somewhat rushed and unfairly compacted into an 83-minute running time which could well have been extended to allow for greater developments of the backstory and the investigations by McPherson following the return of Laura. My opinion on watching the film after a reading of the book remains the same, if not slightly hardened. Not to say that the film is not without its (many) merits, however.
Whereas the book alternates between a number of narrators, the film mainly focuses itself around McPherson and his investigation, intermittently interrupted by flashbacks to previous events of Laura’s life told through the eyes of other characters. Nevertheless, the film is, at heart, a fairly clear-cut adaption of the book, without the introduction or omission of any major characters. What it does do, however (but not unsurprisingly) is downplay some of the elements which fleshed out the book – specifically, the character of Diane Redfern. Whilst the role of the character is fundamental to the mystery element of the plot, the character herself is only given the occasional passing attention – whereas in the novel, her background and relationship with Laura (as well as a re-telling of a particularly memorable mid-party fight between the two for Shelby Carpenter’s affections) is studied in more detail and results in the emotions of tragedy following her murder being maintained, rather than displaced with relief, as is the case in the film version, upon the discovery of Laura’ survival. The following extract from the novel, taken from McPherson’s inspections into Diane Redfern’s apartment after he discovers she was the true murder victim, illustrates the kind of background development into the character that the film overlooks:
“I sat on the edge of her bed and thought about the poor kid’s life. Perhaps these photographs represented a real world to the young girl. All day whilst she worked, she lived in their expensive settings. And at night she came home to this cell. She must have been hurt by the contrast between those sleek studio interiors and the second hand furniture of the boarding house; between the silky models who posed with her and the poor slobs she met on the mouldy staircase.”
The idea of Redfern being a young woman much like Laura, only without the success she had, makes for an interesting comparison character which works well within the context of the book, but is largely overlooked in the movie, with the character left solely as a plot device without substantive development. Also trimmed down is the backstory of Laura herself – whilst her success as a career-woman is made clear, the chapters in the novel dictated by Laura herself where she reminisces about her childhood, her feelings towards men and her own despair about the death of Diane Redfern are, perhaps understandably, curtailed in the movie.
None of these omissions result in any major changes to the plot, but it does result in the film feeling like a bit of a speed-run through the book, whereas a longer running time could have allowed greater backstory development. That aside, the film stands up as a fine piece of work and is led by excellent performances from the principal cast.
Getting the casting right was pretty much essential for the film adaption to have worked, since there are relatively few background or peripheral characters in the story, and the story is almost entirely carried on the strength of the four characters -Laura, McPherson, Waldo and Shelby.
The titular character is played by Gene Tierney, who gives a career-defining performance as the troubled young beauty. Despite her titular role, the character herself doesn’t become directly prominent (aside from appearing in flashbacks) until around half-way into the film. Despite this, the character’s presence is felt throughout every scene, creating a kind of omnipotent presence. Tierney certainly brings the character’s passion and majesty to her performance, yet she never becomes overbearing or overshadows the rest of the cast, which could easily have become a risk in other circumstances. Instead, she brings a degree of subtlety and quiet refinement which, conversely, makes her performance stand out all the more.
Dana Andrews takes on the role of jaded detective McPherson, who plays him as a no-nonsense, tough-talking policeman, seemingly unsurprised by the tragedy surrounding the young Laura’s life, even as he finds himself seemingly falling in love with her. A dry, experienced detective who likes to concentrate on his work by playing a small toy puzzle whilst carrying out his questioning (to ‘help him think’), we get relatively little in way of a backstory, beyond a much-publicised shoot-out with a gangster years ago, as well as knowing that he refers to seemingly all women as ‘dames’ and having had one woman get an ‘expensive coat’ out of him (as Waldo makes a habit of pointing out), but despite this, he comes across as seemingly the least ambiguous of all the characters. He plays off well against Tierney (as is pretty much required of the whole cast, given the nature of the plot), but he particularly comes to life when up against Waldo, the two dryly exchanging barbs and witticisms against each other.
Vincent Price doesn’t sound like the sort of actor who would be best suited for the role of Shelby Carpenter – written originally as an athletic, slightly naïve young playboy, the film adaption drops some of the more aesthetic aspects of the character but keeps his essence intact. Needless to say, Price remains to this day the personification of the evil geniuses of the Hammer Horror variety,
To what extent the film version of ‘Laura’ can be considered true film noir is somewhat debatable, owing mainly to the lack of any real femme fatale character, but it still retains the book’s hardboiled attitude and the underlying murder plot is certainly in keeping with other films of the early 1940s, such as Stranger on the 3rd Floor. The movie captures the lonely and occasionally eerie settings of the novel, particularly in the emptiness of Laura’s apartment (were much of the film takes place), where McPherson finds himself increasingly falling under an obsession with his victim, owing to a masterful painting of Laura overshadowing the room, as if the character is watching the events of her death unfold in front of her eyes.
The highlight of the film, however, almost certainly falls to Clifton Webb’s portrayal of Waldo Lydecker. While he isn’t the short, overweight man described in Caspary’s novel, Webb perfectly captures the wit, arrogance and pretentiousness of the character, along with his occasional dry humour and, pivotally, his subtle affections for Laura, leading to his twisted, final acts of torment in the film’s final scenes. He also spars of well against Price, which itself was important to achieve owing to their relationship forming a key part of Waldo’s motivations and incentive.
In some respects, Waldo’s hidden love of Laura and his bitter envy of her choosing to love any man other than himself doesn’t seem in keeping with the cold, unloving appearance he displays to all who meet him, meaning his decision not only to attempt to kill Laura in the first instance but to then go and attempt it again, in full knowledge that he would inevitably be captured, seems out of place. But, the final words of the novel sums up the developments of the character in fairly poetic terms:
“Then, as a final contradiction, there remains the truth that she made a man of him as fully as a man could be made of that stubborn clay. And when that frail manhood is threatened, when her own womanliness demands more than he can give, his malice seeks her destruction. But she is carved from Adam’s rib, indestructible as legend, and no man will ever aim his malice with such accuracy to destroy her.”
A fitting conclusion…