‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 33

Clifton Webb "Laura"
Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb in the film version of “Laura.”  In the novel, Waldo is considerably taller and much heavier.

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.

The first 30 posts were devoted to the writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary, the state of the detective story in 1941, when she was writing the novel, the New York locations Caspary used in the book and an examination of the major and minor characters.

This series of posts will break down the novel to study the challenges of adapting it for the screen.

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 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32

James Ellroy to script remake of ‘Laura’

Spoilers ahead

Set in New York, ”Laura” is the story of Detective Lt. Mark McPherson’s gradual obsession with apparent murder victim Laura Hunt, and Caspary designed the plot so that all the characters would be suspects except for Mark. Caspary said that she considered the average mystery story to be a  cheat in which the killer was eventually revealed as a minor, tangential figure and it was her intent to throw suspicion on all of her characters except for the detective investigating the case.

As the novel unfolds, Mark interviews Laura’s overly devoted friend, newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film); Laura’s oily, deceitful fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price in the film); and her aunt Susan Treadwell (renamed Ann Treadwell in the movie and played by Judith Anderson), who clearly has some sort of involvement with Shelby. Partway through the novel, when Laura unexpectedly returns from a long weekend and the murder victim is revealed to be Diane Redfern, a marginal character, even Laura becomes a suspect.

Recall that rather than using an unbroken story arc, Caspary divided the novel into sections told by her characters, beginning with the one who is ultimately revealed as the killer, Waldo.

As the most important and interesting character in the novel (and perhaps the only interesting character among a rather generic cast)  Waldo sets the tone for the opening scene, provides all of the exposition  — we meet all of the characters as seen through Waldo’s lens — and he even provides some of the development.

Caspary is clever in using this first-person technique for Waldo, particularly because it lets the reader know the killer’s thoughts, although Caspary clutters his portion of the book with explanations of how Waldo can recount scenes that he never saw and repeat conversations he never heard, something a writer would probably not bother with today.

Waldo calls himself as “a fat, fussy, useless male of middle age and doubtful charm “ (Page 21), which is precisely what he is. Waldo is prickly. He is snide.  He is an elitist and considers himself superior to most of the human race.  He extremely vain about his intellect and bemoans his soft, flabby, unattractive appearance. In fact, as harsh as Waldo may be on others, he saves his most extreme criticism for himself. He loves the musical theater and collects antique glassware and rare books.

In short, Waldo is a 52-year-old version of preadolescent boy who is overweight and socially inept, too bright for his classmates, who develops a razor-sharp tongue as a weapon against being teased.

But is Waldo gay or so immature that he has never reached adolescence? Caspary tiptoes around the question, possibly because of the era and possibly because she wasn’t sure. But if Waldo is gay,  what is his relationship to Laura? What makes Laura so precious that he would kill her to prevent her from marrying? It’s not as though Waldo has any inclination to marry Laura himself. The answer – an overly symbolic answer, unfortunately — comes in the last pages of the book.

This, then, is how the killer opens the novel:

The city that Sunday morning was quiet. Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer weekend had been crushed spiritless by humidity. Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda water glasses have been washed. Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that, among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing.

The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow. Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura’s epitaph. My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality.

It is a finely wrought piece of writing. In two concise paragraphs, Caspary firmly establishes Waldo’s personality, sets the scene, tells the reader that Laura has been murdered and gives Waldo’s reaction to her death. A nice piece of work. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the book isn’t of the same caliber.

And notice this line, which would be adapted many years later about Elizabeth Short in the Black Dahlia case: “Had she lived to a ripe old age, [she] would have passed into oblivion.” In other words, as is said about Elizabeth Short (and about Sharon Tate in “Helter Skelter”) death gave her the fame she wanted all her life.

To be continued.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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