‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 28


Detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews in the film version of “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.”

Finally, we’re getting to the major characters in the book. This time, it’s New York Police Detective Lt. Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews in the film.

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 | Part 27 | Part 28

James Ellroy to script remake of ‘Laura’

Spoilers ahead

As portrayed by Caspary, Mark is the standard mystery story detective who falls in love with the woman in distress. Of course, Caspary added some complications to his life to make his character slightly more three-dimensional, but he’s still fairly thin – so undistinguished that it would be virtually impossible to write any sequels to the book.

Using Waldo’s voice (recall that the novel is told by several of the characters) Caspary introduces Mark (Page 4):

Screened by the half-open door of my study, I watched him move restlessly about my drawing room. He was the sort of man, I saw at once, who affects to scorn affectation; a veritable Cassius who emphasized the lean and hungry look by clothing himself darkly in blue, double-breasted worsted, unadorned white shirt and dull tie. His hands were long and tense, his face slender, his eyes watchful, his nose a direct inheritance from those dour ancestors who had sniffed sin with such constancy that their very nostrils had become aggressive. He carried his shoulders high and walked with a taut erectness as if he were careful of being watched. My drawing room irritated him; to a man of his fiercely virile temperament, the delicate perfection must be cloying. It was audacious, I admit, to expect appreciation. Was it not slightly optimistic of me to imagine that good taste was responsible for the concentration with which he studied my not unworthy collection of British and American glassware?

And again in the voice of Waldo (Page 20):

He is definite but not simple. His complexities trouble him. Contemptuous of luxury, he is also charmed by it. He resents my collection of glass and porcelain, my Biedermeier and my library, but envies the culture which has developed appreciation of surface lustres. His remarking upon my preference for men who are less than one hundred percent exposed his own sensitivity…. The hard coin metal of his character fails to arouse my envy.

To distinguish Mark at least to some degree from the average fictional detective, Caspary gives him the back story of a rather threadbare childhood in Brooklyn, a sister whose main ambition in life was to get married , and a specialty in racketeering and white-collar crime. He is not usually assigned to murder cases, a plot detail that is attributed to office politics.

The most significant detail from Mark’s past is that he was badly wounded in a shootout with a killer named Mattie Grayson in the “Siege of Babylon, Long Island” (Page 7). His injuries give him a silver fibula (“a silver shinbone” in the movie) and a 14-month recovery period in which he reads literary classics, improves his mind and is able to hold his own with an intellectual snob such as Waldo. But Caspary goes to great lengths to establish that Mark is still an average working man who loves the Brooklyn Dodgers and sees police work as a 9 to 5 job. He’s had plenty of girlfriends, and says “a doll in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me” (Page 38).

Most important, he is a keen observer (he has to be, after all, because he is the reader’s proxy in the story) and he doesn’t waste words. Mark tells Waldo that he reads And More Anon, Waldo’s column, but notes: “You’re smooth all right, but you’ve got nothing to say.” (Page 8).

Caspary also lays the groundwork for what will become Mark’s obsession with Laura Hunt (played by Gene Tierney in the film) on Page 76:

We lived within half a mile of each other for other three years. Must have taken the same bus, the same subway, passed each other on the street hundreds of times. She went to Schwartz’s for her drugs too …. We must have passed each other on the street often.


Waldo continues:

He dwelt, for that brief moment, in the fancy of a meeting at Schwartz’s drugstore. He had been buying pipe tobacco and she had put a dime into the postage stamp machine. She might have dropped her purse. Or perhaps there had been a cinder in her eye. She had uttered but a single word, “Thanks,” but for him sweet bells jangled and the harps of heaven were joined in mighty paean. A glance at her ankles, a meeting of their eyes, and it was as simple as with Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan.

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.

2 Responses to ‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 28

  1. Benito says:

    Did the book include the movie scene where Waldo stands up nude in his bathtub, giving Detective McPherson the full view?


    • lmharnisch says:

      Absolutely not. In the novel, the police say that Waldo sometimes sits in a tub to read, but in that scene, Waldo is chastely sitting in his study. The whole bathtub bit was invented by the screenwriters.


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