“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died . . . “
Otto Preminger’s Laura was one of the top films of 1944 (the year being celebrated all month over at Rich Westwood’s blog Past Offenses). It centers around a lovely girl named Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) who, at the start, has been horribly murdered when someone rings her apartment doorbell and fires a shotgun blast into her face. A hard boiled detective named Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned the case, and he boils it down to three suspects: a brilliant but bitchy newspaper columnist named Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who had befriended Laura but had grown increasingly obsessed with her, a charming gigolo named Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) whose engagement to Laura didn’t stop him from cheating on her with her employees and with her own aunt, and Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), a wealthy socialite and the aforementioned aunt who would do anything to keep Shelby in her well-manicured clutches. As he puts together the events that led up to the murder, McPherson becomes increasingly drawn to the girl he has only seen in the portrait that hangs in her living room. The detective’s hunt through twists and turns to discover which person murdered Laura makes for what many consider to be one of the best films noir of all time.
Except for this: if the film really does center around Laura, it’s not really a film noir, at least not the way I have studied film noir! Take a look at Roger Ebert’s ten qualifications for this genre, a list I generally agree with. Then watch the film itself and see how many of these qualifiers are actually present, either in story or style. Where is the doomed protagonist, the femme fatale luring all men into her trap, the low key, high contrast lighting full of shadows, the sordid streets of the city, the world of crooked cops and psychopathic gangsters? Instead, Laura herself is a rather wholesome girl, not a morally ambiguous one at all. That’s why Mark, who has long been cynical about “dames,” falls in love with the memory of a real lady. Then he solves her murder and lives happily ever after, so there’s nothing ambiguous or doomed about Mark. The setting is mostly the upper class apartments of all the characters; there’s nary a scene set on city streets, and the whole thing is well lit.
Admittedly, it almost didn’t look this way. Vera Caspary, the author of Ring Twice for Laura, could not see eye to eye with Preminger’s vision of the story, either for stage or screen. Neither could Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox studios, who tried to tie down Preminger by making him producer and assigning the directing job to Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian cast Laird Cregar, an effectively ghoulish looking actor who scared the beejeesus out of everyone as a psycho cop in 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming, as Waldo Lydecker, which would have been a truly horrific miscast. The director then went on to alienate his actors to the point that Preminger ultimately got reassigned and was allowed by Zanuck (begrudgingly) to direct the movie his way. That meant recasting Waldo, hiring a first-class cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle), eliminating trick shots and spooky lighting, and making everything look very classy. What you end up with is a well done, slightly glossy whodunit with an all-star cast that is well worth your time. You could suggest that the central figure is Mark, making the argument that his obsession with a dead woman results in a more noir-like scenario. There are two arguments against this, however, and the one I will mention here is that Mark’s obsession lasts for exactly one scene. After that, for reasons I won’t go into here, he recovers and goes on to solve the case. Mark probably is the protagonist because he undergoes a bigger change than the title character in his journey through the film. But it is a change that results in job success and personal satisfaction, not any sort of loss, which contradicts the fate of a noir hero.
So for all of you who haven’t seen it, you have a wonderful murder mystery in store. Stop reading NOW and go watch it. For the rest of you, I have a theory – a controversial one that you are free to fight against – that succeeds in making this film much more noir-ish in style and substance. To explain my theory, I have to spoil the whole shebang, so really folks, if you haven’t seen the movie, go away! Go watch the movie, and then come back. Here is Andre Previn playing the haunting theme from Laura, which we will all listen to while you leave the room.
(Are they gone?)
Okay, I maintain that Laura becomes a true film noir if we acknowledge that the central character is neither Mark nor Laura but Waldo Lydecker, the murderer. One cannot call Waldo the protagonist here: a mystery’s journey centers on the detective’s search for the truth and how that search changes him. And it’s true that McPherson does change as the film proceeds: he falls in love while investigating Laura’s “murder,” then he lucks out when the victim turns up very much alive halfway through the film. Mark then reverts back to a first-class cop, albeit one with a future girlfriend.
As for Laura herself, there is no real ambiguity about her character at all. We meet her in flashbacks, and we hear her described in conversations McPherson has with his three suspects, as well as Laura’s beloved maid, Bessie. All agree that Laura was a great girl, and when she comes back to life, it turns out they were all correct. This lack of ambiguity around Laura’s nature – she is suspected of being the actual killer for about a minute and a half – or of any other qualities normally ascribed to a woman in a film noir (she’s not really the heroine or the villain, only the prize over which the actual hero and villain fight) makes her actually the least interesting character in the film. (Many critics will tell you this is largely due to Gene Tierney’s vanilla performance.)
By far, the most interesting and noir-like character is Lydecker, in the way he is written for the film and the way Clifton Webb portrays him. The film opens with Waldo’s narration, a device that, oddly, occurs inconsistently through the first half of the film and is then dropped. Even though his first words announce Laura’s death, it is clear that Waldo’s life centers around one person – Waldo:
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her. And I had just begun to write Laura’s story when – another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door. I noted that his attention was fixed upon my clock. There was only one other in existence, and that was in Laura’s apartment in the very room where she was murdered.”
This image of the clock frames the story nicely for it will figure as a prominent clue to the murder at the very end of the film.
The detective who arrives, Mark McPherson, is invited to speak with Waldo in his bathroom where the columnist is luxuriating in his bath. What follows is a scene of pure homoeroticism as the detective and the murderer spark each other with verbal wit and sharp looks. In 1944, you didn’t find any openly gay characters in the cinema, but they were there. Look at the relationship between Casper Gutman and his gunsel (meaning: gay boy) Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon or the ménage a trois in Design for Living. Waldo plays on Mark with both his aging body and his real gift – his words. He compliments McPherson on a case he solved which the columnist had covered, and then he rises nude from his bath and requests his robe. McPherson, a straight man, plays along to get the information he wants from his suspect. In fact, he strings Waldo along in many manly ways, such as when he plays with a toy baseball puzzle to annoy the columnist. And Waldo preens for McPherson, as when he gazes at himself in the mirror and invites the detective to gaze at him:
“If you know anything about faces, look at mine. How singularly innocent I look this morning. Have you ever seen such candid eyes?”
Waldo invites himself along to watch Mark interview the other suspects (“I like to study their reactions.”), and he ultimately gives Mark a huge amount of information about Laura that plays in a long flashback sequence. To see it as the film was initially released, this shows how Laura and Waldo became friends when, as a struggling stenographer in an ad agency, she brashly approached Waldo in a restaurant and asked him to endorse a pen. Waldo slashes her to ribbons with a few acid comments, except Laura does not fall. Instead, she tells Waldo she feels sorry for him. This supposedly touches a spark of emotion in the cynical columnist’s heart: he seeks Laura out, endorses the product and becomes her close friend, only to lose her to Shelby Carpenter.
That’s how the scene played when it was released. But a significant sequence was cut by the producers because they felt that it would appear decadent to soldiers overseas as it shows Waldo grooming Laura to live a life of luxury in wartime. Waldo describes how he taught Laura how to dress and wear her hair, and he introduces her to all the right people. We see scenes of young men clamoring for Laura’s attention as Waldo sits back and enjoys the company. It reminds me of a later film, Suddenly Last Summer, where Elizabeth Taylor is used as bait so that Katherine Hepburn’s son can find men to play with. And if the cut sequence suggests that Waldo considered Laura his friend, the restored film clarifies that he considered her one of his lovelier pieces of property:
“She became as well known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation.”
Waldo sets Laura up and helps furnish her apartment, giving her the clock that matches the one in his own place. On the surface, we could interpret everything he does as an expression of love by an older man for a younger woman. But Laura serves two purposes for Waldo, both having to do with self-aggrandizement. In private, they have dinner together twice a week:
“On Tuesday and Friday nights, we stayed home, dining quietly, listening to my records. I read my articles to her. The way she listened was more eloquent than speech. These were the best nights.”
The rest of the time, they dine out, go to the theatre and to parties, where Laura attracts all the finest people to their circle. Through it all, Waldo never asks sexual favors from her, yet he systematically wrecks her affairs by ridiculing her lovers in his column. This keeps Laura amused and by his side until she meets Shelby. He tries to wreck her engagement by exposing Shelby’s faithlessness, but in doing so he destroys their friendship. An overweening egoist like Waldo can only respond to this loss with murder.
On some level, I believe that by trying to own Laura, Waldo in a sense can identify with her. Through Laura, he regains a sense of youth and attractiveness. He eyes her boyfriends up and down like a true predator. (It is not a positive rendering of sexuality, largely because despite Waldo’s larger than life character, he is still essentially closeted and frustrated.) He senses immediately Mark’s growing infatuation with Laura, and his reaction is complex. He warns Mark to be careful:
“You better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”
The idea here is that Waldo has grown jealous. But of whom? He believes at this point that Laura is dead, so why get upset that Mark is growing obsessed with her? One could interpret this as coming out of Waldo’s own insane obsession with the girl. I would suggest that the jealousy could also be a result of Mark turning his attentions away from Waldo, with whom he has flirted since the film began. Waldo seems to be the victim of hopeless infatuations like this, and if anything Mark is guilty of encouraging this as long as it serves the investigation. Waldo’s insistence on following Mark around (and he does follow Mark, even to the point of barging in on him when he is alone at Laura’s apartment) could be out of a murderer’s concern over how close the investigator is coming to the truth. Except Waldo’s ego doesn’t allow for lesser mortals to find him out. No, Waldo seems to increasingly enjoy Mark’s company, and he is enraged when he discovers in the final act that Laura and Mark have fallen for each other.
“It’s the same obvious pattern, Laura. If McPherson weren’t muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, you’d see through him in a second . . . I hope you’ll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly earthy relationship.”
Yes, a man like Waldo might consider himself to be above the “disgustingly earthy” pleasures of sex. As portrayed by Clifton Webb here however – and this was a performance that the Fox producers resisted for its effeminacy – Waldo’s act of violence could stem from his inability to find his own earthy satisfaction, in which case Laura is not the obsessive love he lost but the catalyst for his own sexual frustration. In the end, he tries to kill her once again but is fatally shot by Mark. He falls to the ground, stares at them both and cries, “Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love.” Is he talking to the same person? Or is he finally admitting his true feelings to Mark in a world where men like Waldo were sent to concentration camps for acting on their feelings? He is a murderer, yes, but he is a man trapped by the forces of a society that has marginalized him, that has reduced him to a “nelly” in film comedies, that rendered him invisible in America until he could do nothing else but explode in violence.
And that, my friends, is pure film noir!