‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 34


The opening lines of Vera Caspary’s “Laura,” as narrated by newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker.

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 | Part 33

James Ellroy to script remake of ‘Laura’

Spoilers ahead

The first section of the book is told by New York newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film) and covers Pages 3 to 80. Out of 237 pages, Waldo gets roughly a third of the book, the largest single portion of the novel.

As the book opens, Waldo is writing the obituary – the epitaph, as he calls it – of Laura Hunt, a beautiful, charming and successful advertising executive who was apparently killed with a shotgun blast that blew away her face, making her unrecognizable. Subsequent events reveal that the victim is a marginal character named Diane Redfern, and in the final pages, that Waldo is the killer.

Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews in the film) calls at Waldo’s apartment. After some exposition about Waldo’s fetish for antiques and fine food and drink, and Mark’s limp from a shootout with a gangster and his eclectic reading during a 14-month recovery, they discuss Laura.

Waldo says that on the night Laura was killed, she broke her date with him for what was supposed to be a lavish bachelorette dinner at his apartment before leaving for her rustic home (a converted barn) in Connecticut, where she was taking a few days rest before marrying her fiance Shelby Carpenter (played by Vincent Price in the film).

In a flashback, Waldo recalls meeting Laura when she came to his apartment in hopes of getting him to endorse the Byron pen. He put on a show of petty fury, but he says he was enchanted with her and persuaded her to stay for a drink. Waldo agreed to endorse the pen, beginning a relationship in which he transforms her.

Waldo says (Page 16)

“Under my tutelage she developed from a gauche child to a gracious New Yorker. After a year, no one would have expected that she came from Colorado Springs.”

And here (Page 16) we get the essence of Waldo’s relationship with Laura, at least as Waldo sees it:

”Was she ever in love with you?”

I recoiled. My answer came in a thick voice. “Laura was always fond of me. She rejected suitor after suitor during those eight years of loyalty.”

The contradiction was named Shelby Carpenter. But explanation would come later. Mark knew the value of silence in dealing with such a voluble creature as myself.”

“My love for Laura,” I explained, “Was not merely the desire of a mature man for a pretty young thing. There was a deeper basis of affection. Laura had made me a generous man. It’s quite fallacious to believe that we grow fond of those whom we’ve hurt. Remorse cannot compensate. It’s more human to shun those whose presence reminds us of a shoddy past. Generosity, not evil, flourishes like the green bay tree.*

Laura considered me the kindest man in the universe, hence I had to grow to that stature. For her, I was always Jovian, in humanity as well as intelligence.”

* Psalm 37:35, King James Version: “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.”

Which is not an answer, is it?

Mark leaves, and because Caspary is telling the story in first person, Waldo has a long explanation of how he can describe events he never saw and conversations he never heard, sometimes saying that he read details in the paper or learned them from someone else.

Mark visits the home on Fifth Avenue of Laura’s aunt Susan Treadwell (renamed Ann in the movie and played by Judith Anderson), where he meets Shelby, who recounts his relationship with Laura.  Shelby says that on the night of the murder, they had a few drinks after work and he put her in a cab to go to Waldo’s. However, the cabdriver reported that as soon as Shelby left, Laura told him to go to Grand Central Station.

Shelby’s alibi for the night of the murder was that he went to a concert and when pressed for why his engagement with Laura lasted so long, Shelby explains that she making far more money and the disparity was too awkward. At this point Ann enters and drops the secret that Laura was loaning money to Shelby.

With more than a bit of jealousy, Ann reveals that in addition to loaning Shelby money, she got him a job at her advertising firm. Ann also introduces, in passing, the character of Diane Redfern, a model for the ad agency who is  the actual murder victim and is eventually revealed as Shelby’s lover. Mark and Shelby leave together and Shelby confesses that he was the beneficiary of Laura’s life insurance policy.

That afternoon, Mark calls Waldo and asks him to come over Laura’s apartment, which is the crime scene. There is an elaborate description of her home, the upper floor of a converted Victorian mansion on East 62nd Street. Through an examination of her home, her decor, her books, her photographs and various bric-a-brac (including a baseball signed by Brooklyn Dodger  Cookie Lavagetto), her personality is revealed.

Before they leave, Mark takes Laura’s letters, bills, bank statements, diary and a photo album.

After several pages describing what Mark found in those items (and explaining how Waldo knows such details), Waldo returns to his apartment to find Mark waiting for him.

Mark deflates Shelby’s alibi that he was at a concert on the night of the murder and then the narrative jumps forward to midnight as Waldo is strolling past Laura’s apartment and finds the lights are on, hinting at Mark’s growing obsession with Laura.

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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