In case you just tuned in, I’m using Louella Parsons’ May 15, 1944, item on Rouben Mamoulian being replaced as the director of “Laura” to take a meandering look at the making of the film, which was released in Los Angeles in November 1944. Previous posts have examined the writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary and the state of the detective story in 1941, when she was writing the novel.
At long last we’re going to open the book and begin the deconstruction of “Laura,” not as a reader who might casually indulge in a mystery novel for recreation, but with the eye of a writer in considering an adaptation for the screen — for the novel is merely the beginning of the journey to the film. Producing a script for “Laura” was a daunting task that required a series of writers.
In the next series of posts, I’m going to dissect the novel, beginning with this overall introduction, then take a look at the settings, the characters, the props (there are several critical ones) and even the music, and finally examine the sections of the book, all with a focus on what was ultimately used in the film, what was thrown out and what was invented or adapted by the screenwriters.
For those who know nothing about the film, “Laura” deals with a New York homicide detective investigating the death of a beautiful young career woman who was killed with a shotgun, rendering her unrecognizable. The detective becomes increasingly obsessed with her as he questions her friends, all of whom are suspected of killing her. A long way into the story, she returns from a weekend trip to the country, stunning everyone, especially the detective and whoever killed the wrong woman by mistake.
For those who have never read the novel or who haven’t read it in a long time, the book is broken into five sections. (Caspary said she was imitating Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone.”)
The first is told by snippy newspaper columnist and radio commentator Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film). The second is told by solid, generic New York Homicide Detective Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews in the film). The third section is a transcript of Mark’s interrogation of Laura Hunt’s oily boyfriend/fiance/gigolo Shelby Carpenter (played by Vincent Price in the film). The fourth is a diary entry by Laura (played by Gene Tierney in the film). The novel concludes with Mark reporting the outcome of the case.
As was abundantly clear in her original stories for the screen and her plays — even the subsequent stage version of “Laura” — Caspary had insurmountable problems in crafting a clear, coherent plot. She worked diligently to teach herself plotting, going so far as to analyze 100 plays, according to her autobiography, “The Secrets of Grown-Ups.” But plotting remained an art that was beyond her reach. Coincidences and improbable plot twists appear in every work, along with background characters who mutiny over their small roles and threaten to take over the story.
Except when she got to writing the novel “Laura.” In an astute move, Caspary broke the story arc into sections and was therefore only confronted with the task of plotting each part individually, then making sure the parts fit together. In breaking up the plot this way, Caspary ensured that one of her minor digressions in one section could never threaten to hijack the entire book as it would if the narrative was all of a piece.
In doing so, Caspary broke one of the rules set forth in Howard Haycraft’s “Murder for Pleasure,” which was published in 1941, when she was writing “Laura.” In the book, Haycraft warns against using multiple viewpoints in a detective novel, particularly for first-time mystery writers such as Caspary.
The difference between “Laura” and a structure such as “Rashomon” is that the characters narrating “Laura” are confined to portions of the plot; no one tells the story from beginning to end. In fact, none of Caspary’s characters would be capable of telling the entire story, not only because of what they knew and didn’t know, but because it would be impossible to maintain an entire novel in the voice of any of her characters.
Waldo’s biting sarcasm and well-developed fetish for antiques (more about that later) is entertaining for 80 pages, but would be insufferable for an entire book. Mark has moments of insight, but using his voice throughout the novel would be dull— another reason there were no sequels to “Laura.” Structurally, using Laura’s diary for an entire novel would be impossible because she is supposed to be dead. The only alternative would have been to write the novel entirely in the third person, which probably would have been beyond Caspary’s ability.
There’s no way of knowing whether Caspary realized that this method would allow her to escape avoid the challenge of plotting, although her stage version of the story argues rather forcefully that she never had that sort of insight. But however it came about, the use of multiple viewpoints allowed Caspary to avoid her biggest weakness.
It also posed a significant challenge in adapting the novel for the screen. But we’ll get to that later.
To be continued.