‘Laura’ — The Making of a Film Noir Classic, Part 50

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“Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck,” edited by Rudy Behlmer.


On Nov. 1, 1943, Darryl F. Zanuck, the Twentieth Century-Fox head of production, issued a stinging critique of Jay Dratler’s first draft of “Laura.” In this post, we will look at Zanuck’s analysis of each character.

If you haven’t read the earlier posts examining the book, you should know that novelist Vera Caspary told her 1942 novel “Laura” from multiple viewpoints, using the voices of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Det. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), plus a transcript of the interrogation of Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price).

Spoilers ahead.

As we saw in her early screenplays, Caspary was painfully clumsy at story structure and character motivation, and although the technique of multiple viewpoints allowed her to skirt her weaknesses in plotting and characters, it posed enormous challenges for the succession of five writers who adapted the book for the film.

In the end, virtually all of the first-person narrations were eliminated except for the opening monologue by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and a flashback sequence.

In general, Zanuck thought the characters were weak and poorly drawn except for Waldo (Webb), and even his character needed to be sharpened.

Zanuck doesn’t even mention Laura’s aunt, Anne Treadwell, the most peripheral of the five main characters.

Anne is a small but crucial role played by Judith Anderson, who does an excellent job of concealing the unexplainable motivation of her character. Anderson never receives adequate credit for her performance, but the strength of her personality conceals all the absurdities of her character. Laura is her niece and yet Anne considered killing her over Shelby – who is engaged to Laura and having an affair with a third woman?

Zanuck’s succinct view of Shelby: “a glorified pimp.”

Zanuck’s analysis of Mark is significant because the concept of Mark’s character was the main point of conflict with director Rouben Mamoulian and apparently led to his departure from the film.

Zanuck envisioned Mark as rather rough around the edges and more comfortable dealing with gangsters like Dutch Schultz rather than Park Avenue society cutthroats. He said Mark “shows flashes of a distinct characterization such as you might find in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or ‘The Thin Man’ but these are only brief flashes. There ought to be more of Cagney about him.”

Zanuck thought it was easy to believe Mark’s infatuation growing into an obsession with Laura, but thought the script failed to explain Laura falling for Mark at first sight.  Zanuck suggested a “Prizefighter and the Lady” setup – an attraction of opposites. “She is in a hell of a jam,” Zanuck said. “It seems to me that her mind would go to anything but romance.”

And he was brutal in his criticism of Laura’s character:

Laura is a mess. She is neither interesting nor attractive, and I doubt if any first-rate actress would ever play her. As it is now, she seems terribly naive…. Actually she is a puppet. She does no thinking in the picture at all. She has no decisions to make. She doesn’t try to solve anything or really think in any situation. She just acts as the scenario writer wants her to act….

Unless you work hard on Laura, she will continue to be a nonentity. This is the most difficult problem you have to overcome…. She has to become a distinct, definite personality.

To be continued.

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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1942, 1943, 1944, Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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