‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 27



Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) and Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) in “Laura.”

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. We also explored some of the locations Caspary used in the book.

In the next few posts I’m going to look at the characters as portrayed in the novel, starting with the smaller roles and working up to Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film). Although the book and film are titled “Laura,” Waldo is the most important character and the one who required the most work, as Caspary noted in her autobiography, “The Secrets of Grown-Ups.”

The Making of “Laura” Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26

James Ellroy to script remake of ‘Laura’
Spoilers ahead

In this post, we are going to look at the character of Shelby Carpenter (played by Vincent Price in the film), the skirt-chasing fiance of Laura Hunt (played by Gene Tierney).

Shelby may be the most unsatisfying and unsuccessfully drawn character in the novel, primarily because of the function that Caspary has assigned to him. For Caspary’s plot to work, Shelby needs to appeal to the female characters in the novel  so that the readers will understand his romantic allure, but the readers must also see through his false charm and gentility so they will sympathize with Laura’s feelings for Detective Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews).

Even writers more adept that Caspary might find it difficult to make Shelby appealing but unsympathetic as a sort of dashing rogue with a handsome face and winning manner that conceal a ruthless heart. Caspary makes Shelby more of a coward who is beautiful rather than handsome, a rather unlikely and illogical character who was not easy to portray in the novel or the film.

The reader is introduced to Shelby at Susan Treadwell’s home (Page 24), which Caspary describes as “a mausoleum on upper Fifth Avenue.”

The long mirror framed [Mark’s] first impression of  Shelby Carpenter. Against the shrouded furniture, Shelby was like a brightly lithographed figure on the gaudy motion picture poster decorating the somber granite of an ancient opera house. The dark suit chosen for this day of mourning could not dull his vivid grandeur. Male energy shone in his tanned skin, gleamed from his clear gray eyes, swelled powerful biceps…. Shelby spoke with the voice of a stranger but with lips whose considered smile seemed as familiar as Mark’s own reflection.

Here’s one of the more telling passages, written in Laura’s voice (recall that the book is told from multiple viewpoints) and we can see Caspary’s difficulty in portraying Shelby (Pages 168-169):

Shelby became very man-of-the-house, protector of frail womanhood. It was all pretense, his courage was as thin as tissue paper, he trembled inwardly. Shelby used phrases like false arrest and circumstantial evidence; you could tell he was proud of displaying technical knowledge like when he could explain to people about the rules of fencing or backgammon. Auntie Sue once told me I’d grow tired of a six-foot child. Auntie Sue said that when a woman feels a need for a man that way, she ought to have a baby.

Many writers would find Shelby’s character challenging enough without adding more complications. But Caspary piles on a lot of unnecessary claptrap about him being a Southerner. In the structure of the novel, there is no need for Shelby to be anything other than a rather sleazy charmer without much background, but Caspary not only makes him a Southerner but does a poor job of it, showing a complete lack of understanding of the South and Southerners.

We learn on Page 174 that Shelby is from Covington, Ky., which is on the Ohio River and less than two miles from Cincinnati. Kentucky was a border state that did not secede in the Civil War , but Caspary portrays Shelby as if he is from the Deep South. This will carry over into the film with Vincent Price’s unfortunate attempt at a Southern accent. (For comparison, here is Covington, Ky., native Ron Ziegler).

Shelby is a weak, dissatisfying character; he is poorly drawn with unclear motives and overloaded with unnecessary complications. He is a mass of contradictions and impossibilities that the screenwriters had to at least try to untangle.

To be continued.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1944, Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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