‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 38


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 breaks 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 | Part 34 | Part 35

James Ellroy to script remake of ‘Laura’

Spoilers ahead; N-word alert

Caspary tells “Laura” in the voices of several characters.   This section (Pages 167 to 216) takes the form of diary entries by Laura Hunt (played by Gene Tierney in the film).

One of the three objectives of this section is to reinforce Laura’s transformation from apparent murder victim to prime murder suspect through the suspicions of her fiance, Shelby Carpenter (played by Vincent Price in the film) and columnist Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film) and by emphasizing two key props that seem to provide the motive and the murder weapon.

The first item is an expensive gold cigarette case that Laura gave to Shelby, who in turn has given it as a romantic souvenir to his lover, Diane Redfern, a tangential character who is the actual murder victim.

Laura writes that after a fight at a party a few days earlier, she had lunch with Diane on Friday before leaving town for the weekend, and that during their meal, Laura saw that Diane had Shelby’s cigarette case, which he claimed he had lost, providing conclusive evidence of their continuing affair.

The other item is a shotgun – possibly the murder weapon – that Shelby had given to Laura for protection at her remote cottage in Norwalk, Conn., where she often spent summer weekends.

Laura’s apparent guilt is further underscored by Shelby’s insistence that that they must keep their engagement for appearance’s sake, despite her realization that he was involved with Diane, and by Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film), who is the actual killer but is delighted to throw suspicion on someone else.

The second objective is to dispose of Shelby and Waldo as Laura’s admirers, leaving the way open for the third objective, which is to develop the quickly forming romance between Laura and Mark (played by Dana Andrews in the film). In addition to praise about Mark from Bessie the maid, Laura is told that she is in love with him by her aunt Susan Treadwell (renamed Ann in the film and played by Judith Anderson) and by Waldo.

And here is how Caspary goes about her objectives.

Mark returns to Laura’s apartment after discovering the cigarette case in Diane’s room and finds Laura with Shelby.

Mark confronts Shelby with the cigarette case (Page 183), and Shelby vanishes from the story after the explanation (Page 198) that he had gone to the police, confessed that he was in the apartment when Diane was shot and that he had been lying to protect Laura on the assumption that she was the killer.

Laura’s relationship with Waldo is more complex and it takes longer to get him out of the picture.

After the confrontation over the cigarette case, Mark goes to Laura’s cottage in Connecticut to get the shotgun, which is assumed to be the murder weapon.

In the meantime, Waldo arrives at Laura’s apartment and promises to help her fight the gathering suspicions that she is the killer, warning her that Mark is romancing her merely to win a confession.

Mark returns to Laura’s apartment after getting the shotgun. There’s some business about the radio at her cottage (she had claimed she didn’t know about the killing because the radio was broken, but Mark found that it worked). The section concludes  with an emotional scene in which Waldo says he will defend Laura’s innocence against Mark’s accusations, while she finally realizes that out of jealousy, Waldo has destroyed any perceived rival for her attentions. Rather than pushing them apart, however, Waldo drives Laura even more forcefully to Mark.

Angry but defeated, Waldo makes his exit. But instead of remaining to comfort Laura, Mark quickly follows him, ending Laura’s section.

The section’s strengths are that it finally presents, in intimate first person, Laura’s conflicted thoughts about the men in her life and it offers some of Caspary’s first-rate observations.

It falls short when Caspary struggles with the plot involving Laura and Shelby, especially their arguments (they have a ridiculous spat over Shelby’s use of the word “cad,” Page 170). This is primarily because Caspary needs to get rid of Shelby so Laura can fall in love with Mark, leaving Shelby as nothing but windup toy who goes from Point A to Point B without any pretense of realism.

Here’s a sample from Page 178: Powerful writing marred by the error of portraying Shelby as if he were from an old plantation family in the Deep South, although Caspary writes that he is native of Covington, Ky., which is just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

Shelby came from “gentle people”; they had slaves to comb their hair and put on their shoes. A gentleman cannot see a lady work like a nigger; a gentleman opens the door and pulls out a lady’s chair and brings a whore into her bedroom.

Even worse, Caspary  begins the section with a more significant error. Laura opens by saying that she is thankful she destroyed her diary so that Mark would never be able to read it. However, on Page 43, Waldo tells us that after a visit to Laura’s apartment, Mark left with  “odds and ends piled on Laura’s desk, her address and engagement book, letters and bills bound by a rubber band, unopened bank statements, checkbooks, an old diary and a photograph album.”

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 38

  1. I was inspired by this fine series of posts to (finally) buy a copy of the novel. Not very far into it yet but already there are many Waldo *bons mots* that didn’t make it into the screenplay.


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