Laura (1944)

*. The mystery of Laura Hunt. I like that family name, both mundane and thematically suggestive of what’s to come. But her name’s not the point. When I say mystery I’m referring to the popularly held notion of the character being an unattainable woman of mystery and glamour.
*. This was not the original of Laura, meaning the character created by Vera Caspary in her 1943 novel (which was, in turn, adapted from a play she’d written). Caspary’s Laura was a “bachelor girl” and career woman — someone not unlike Caspary herself. Working for a New York ad agency, she’s Peggy Olson twenty years before that character took on Madison Ave. Certainly ahead of her time, but mysterious?
*. No. In the book she’s a kind person (the word most often used to describe her is “generous”), and despite being a professional she has a romantic streak that gets her into what she later realizes is trouble. Caspary would later describe her, I think critically, as an “independent girl who earned her living and pampered her lovers.”
*. But like any good proto-Cosmo girl Laura sees someone like Waldo Lydecker, who she has some genuine affection for, mainly as a resource to be mined. Not quite a sugar daddy maybe, but pretty close to it. Though they also work well as a team. In one analysis she’s his beard, while he runs interference for her, protecting her from worthless suitors. But it was a good decision to cut the scene (included with the DVD) where Waldo talks about how he made her. That doesn’t ring quite true. I don’t think Lydecker actually understands her at all.
*. For Danny Peary, Laura and Waldo make “the best couple imaginable” in the film, meaning not so much that they’re made for each other as that the alternatives (for her) are so much worse. I think Molly Haskell means something similar when she called them “a dazzling team.”
*. I have to confess I don’t understand what Laura sees in Shelby at all. Neither did Daryl Zanuck, who had a lot of problems with the film at pretty much every stage of its production. Shelby’s just not in Laura’s league. But I don’t think McPherson offers much better. Surely she’ll grow tired of him in a couple of weeks.

*. But in the movie much of the information we need to judge these matters is lost or transformed. Part of the problem is that the book had a sort of collage narrative switching from different points of view (the model was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins). In the movie we only hear Lydecker’s voice as narrative, though the second half of the movie is usually seen as being “told” from McPherson’s point of view (and for which he was originally meant to provide voiceover). Laura herself becomes a kind of blank, not unlike her famous portrait. A portrait you can fall in love with, though without knowing what you’re falling for.
*. Another change from the book is the character of Lydecker. In the novel he’s “a big hunk of blubber” whose “fat flesh shook like cafeteria jello.” He also wears glasses all the time. This reminded me of the character of Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, who is also a fat, bespectacled man-boy. Certainly not Anthony Perkins any more than Caspary’s Lydecker is Clifton Webb. Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with fat people other than use them as comic figures.
*. As a side note, Laird Cregar was considered for the part. He’d actually played a similar obsessive in I Wake Up Screaming and I think he would have been great here. But apparently Preminger thought it was too much typecasting after Cregar’s turn in The Lodger, and that his appearance would tip the audience off right away as to Lydecker being the villain.
*. Making Lydecker trim (Webb thought he looked like Gandhi when sitting in the tub), doesn’t help much in understanding his attraction to Laura. Roger Ebert describes Waldo as “a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual.” I’m not so sure of that. Though Webb was in fact gay I don’t find his performance here as camp as many people do. Instead he just seems like an intellectual shit. The character he most reminds me of is Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Meanwhile, Caspary imagined him as impotent, a point symbolized by his gun being improbably concealed in his cane.
*. Building on this latter point, Haskell took Waldo as the “perfect example” of the figure of the “sexually unthreatening male.” Yes and no. If anything, I’d say Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter seems the gay, unthreatening one. Apparently, however, he is just meant to be dissolute. But in neither case does sexuality seem to be in play. Lydecker wants to possess Laura sort of like an art object (much as the next character Webb would play, Cathcart in The Dark Corner, would collect his wife Mira). Carpenter only wants her money, and is perfectly content to drop her for a sugar mommy of his own at the end (Judith Anderson).

*. This leaves us with McPherson as the last man standing, and if you’re picking up some romantic vibes coming off of Dana Andrews here then you’re more sensitive to these things than I am. He seems one of the least engaged (emotionally or intellectually) lovers I’ve ever seen. And is Laura really that interested in him? It’s hard to tell, though whether this is more the fault of the script or the performances is hard to say. Manny Farber described Laura as being “acted by Gene Tierney with no other qualities than there are in a fashion mannequin,” and dismissed Andrews’ McPherson as merely “wooden.” Ebert thought the two leads “cardboard”: Tierney “never seems emotionally involved” and Andrews is a portrait in indifference.
*. Yes, on the surface. And perhaps the surface is all we’re supposed to care about. But I think maybe they’re both playing the angles. I don’t agree with David Thomson’s thought that the film presents “a profound, nearly surreal romance in which desire is seen as more potent than any realization.” Unless. that is, you go on to explain desire for what?
*. It’s a movie that’s much loved (Pauline Kael: “Everybody’s favorite chic murder mystery”), probably more for its oddness than for any feeling we have for the characters. The median split, with McPherson falling asleep beneath Laura’s portrait is sometimes seen as opening the door for interpreting the rest of the film by way of dream analysis, which isn’t strictly justified but does go some way to explain the film’s swerve into ever greater weirdness. And if you consider the absurdity of the initial premise (because the victim was wearing Laura’s clothes and her face has been shot off she is misidentified as Laura?), that’s pretty weird.
*. To take just one example, McPherson doesn’t seem like much of a cop, does he? As Ebert observes, he never even goes to the station (though that depends on where you think he interrogates Laura). To which we might add he never seems to work much with other cops, preferring to let Lydecker follow him around. Is he already playing Lydecker, suspecting something is up? Is there any attraction between them? Critics have looked at that opening bathtub scene and raised their eyebrows. Is a game of seduction going on? And why does he leave the murder weapon at Laura’s place, saying he’ll pick it up in the morning? He can’t be using it as bait to catch Lydecker because Waldo has already stolen a march on him.

*. Not everybody likes it. Manny Farber concluded his contemporary review saying “it is hard to find anything good in Laura, or simply anything.” What he mainly objected to, I think, is the film’s emphasis on superficiality at the expense of moral significance. Even the film’s champions will go along with some of this. Laura is a clever and stylish picture certainly, but it’s also kind of silly and has a maddening (or mysterious) vagueness about it. The question I keep coming back to is whether that’s the point: that this is all there is to Laura and Mark.
*. It’s a movie full of memorable bits. From the opening line “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” through David Raksin’s Laura theme, the iconic portrait (actually a photograph of Tierney that was painted over), the opening scene with Lydecker in the tub and McPherson taking his measure, the unobtrusive way the clock keeps working its way into the frame, the justly celebrated turn in the middle of the picture with McPherson creepily going through Laura’s personal items before falling asleep beneath her portrait, and finally Lydecker’s hunting of Laura while his own voice, pre-recorded to play on a radio show, talks about love in the background. There aren’t a lot of movies that give you as many moments as this.
*. As observers have often pointed out, it’s a mystery without a mystery (since we don’t really care about poor Diane Redfern). It’s also a romance without any romance, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. It’s usually classified as a film noir, but the connection seems shaky there too. In the BFI 100 Film Noirs volume, for example, Jim Hillier admits it is “not a particularly typical film noir” (but then, what is?). In terms of its narrative it seems almost like a fragment: a story that the audiences comes in late for, and which ends before everything is wrapped up. That’s not a fault, but just another point that adds to its obscurity and appeal.

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