In the latest in our series of in-depth panel reviews, four of our judges take on the enigma that is this 1944 noir.
"You'd 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."—Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb)
Recently it has been reported that scientists have discovered an irregularity in the earth's rotation. They may seek the source of this anomaly in geological or astronomical factors, but at DVD Verdict we know the real reason: the simultaneous jumping up and down of thousands of film lovers at the much-delayed, highly anticipated release of Laura on DVD. This classic from 1944 combines noir, mystery, romance, and black comedy into an unforgettable film experience, and its many fans have been waiting impatiently for its DVD debut.
Like so many golden-age greats, Laura is the felicitous result of second choices, happy accidents, and almost-wasn'ts. Its original director was replaced during filming, its leading lady was not the first choice, and even the famous theme music, which contributed greatly to the film's success, might never have been heard if producer Otto Preminger had insisted on his first choice. Yet despite the near misses and changes, all the elements came together to elevate what could have been a workmanlike B-mystery into an enduring classic.
In the Evidence segments that follow, you'll find different perspectives on the film from a variety of our judges, looking at everything from the film's casting and music to its depiction of homosexuality to the complex relationship between Laura and her mentor. Now, sit back and listen to David Raksin's haunting theme music as it transports you to a hot summer day and a posh New York apartment, where a man sits typing an obituary for the woman he loved…
Facts of the Case
Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven) seemed to have it all: beauty, class, a career, a handsome fiancé, and the powerful columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, The Razor's Edge) for a mentor. But one night a shotgun blast ended all that, and now Laura is dead.
It's up to Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives) to determine which of Laura's friends and admirers had reason to murder her. As he explores Laura's world, he discovers that the chic realms of high society seethe with the same violent passions as the criminal underworld. For a start, there's Waldo Lydecker. An acid-tongued celebrity with powerful influence, he took Laura under his wing and into the social limelight, becoming her constant companion…until Shelby Carpenter came on the scene. Shelby, Laura's fiancé (Vincent Price, House of Wax), is a smooth Southerner with a history of living off women. He seemed to have found a meal ticket in Laura, but his wandering eye might have put that cozy situation in jeopardy. And Laura's own aunt, the wealthy and worldly Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, Rebecca), has a weakness for Shelby—but none of Laura's youthful beauty. Even Laura's maid, Bessie (Dorothy Adams), seems unwilling to let the detective pry too closely into her late, beloved mistress's affairs.
McPherson's investigation leads him to spend more and more time in Laura's apartment, familiarizing himself with her possessions, even reading her letters and diary. As he forms his own impression of Laura through the descriptions of those who knew her best, and from the large portrait that hangs in her apartment, he begins to become obsessed with this woman he never knew.
And then one rainy night a startling event occurs that undermines everything he thinks he knows about the Laura Hunt case. It will take the investigation in an entirely new direction—and it will put more lives in danger.
The Evidence, Part I: Just the Facts, Ma'am
What is it that makes Laura continue to haunt us? For some, it may be its dreamy, unforgettable musical score (discussed below by Judge Jesse Ataide). For others, it may be the tour-de-force plot twist that comes halfway through the film, which still inspires debate. For still others, the key may be Laura herself, as embodied by the breathtaking Gene Tierney in flashbacks. Tierney's Laura combines exotic beauty with the sweet, wholesome appeal of the girl next door and the intelligence and independence of a career woman. Tierney is able to suggest still further possibilities in Laura—vulnerability one moment, a deceptive quality the next—which add to her mystique. It's easy to understand how, even after her death, men can continue falling in love with her and women can still be envious of her. Laura is the ideal woman (if also an idealized one), well worthy to be the focus of an entire film.
Another vital part of what makes Laura an enduring classic is its distinctive, witty dialogue. Waldo Lydecker gets most of the best lines; like that other acerbic narcissist of classic film, Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, he is deliciously, elegantly nasty, and endlessly quotable. Lines like "I never use a pen; I write with a goose quill dipped in venom" and "I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor's children devoured by wolves," delivered in Webb's dry, precise tones, elevate the dialogue in Laura above that of other celluloid mysteries. At the same time, Waldo's erudition meets its natural opposite in McPherson's bluntness, and some of the detective's lines carry a similarly sardonic humor, but coming from an earthier place—a bare-knuckle punch instead of a rapier cut. When Waldo asks if Mark has ever been in love, for instance, the answer takes us out of the intellectual ether and down to earth with a thud: "A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me," McPherson deadpans. The interplay between these two types of humor establishes a crackling undercurrent of class conflict that adds tension and interest to the investigation.
The cast is also a significant part of the film's distinction. Judith Anderson, carrying over hints of her balefulness from her famous performance as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca, perfectly portrays the middle-aged woman of wealth who is clutching at the vestiges of her youth with all ten fingernails. Ann Treadwell has her superior veneer firmly in place, but we can see the desperation beneath and recognize that she is all too aware that her money has not been able to buy those qualities that her niece possesses naturally. Vincent Price turns in one of his most enjoyable performances as the honey-voiced Shelby, who attracts women by playing up his boyish helplessness. It's a great technique—even as we see what a faker he is, we can understand why women are drawn to mother this blond giant. Price's deft performance proves that he was much more than just a horror actor, although that is how he is most often remembered. Dana Andrews is the perfect embodiment of the tough-talking, streetwise cop who is more accustomed to breaking down doors than having them opened for him by servants; his deadpan delivery and blunt directness puncture the pretense of the high-society suspects and serve as constant reminders that, for all the fancy words and fancy decor, we are in the world of noir, and a woman has been gruesomely murdered. Yet he, too, is more than he seems at first, and we recognize quickly that the snobbish suspects are likely to underestimate him. Without ever seeming less than powerfully masculine, Andrews is able to suggest—mostly through his eyes alone—the existence of the sensitive capabilities that make him susceptible to the posthumous charms of Laura.
Tierney's rightness in the role of Laura, while obvious now, was not so evident at the time the role was being cast; it was only when the original actress pulled out of the production that Tierney was brought on board, resulting in a career breakthrough performance that remains one of her most memorable and beguiling. (Judge Brett Cullum's discussion below offers a more in-depth look at the casting of Laura and other prominent characters in the film.) Clifton Webb, likewise, was not an automatic casting choice, yet in Waldo Lydecker he creates one of the most vivid film characters of the decade. Although the novel by Vera Caspary on which the film was based depicts Waldo as a corpulent man, the prisoner of a surplus of flesh, the whip-thin Webb creates a perfect characterization of a man who has always had to use words as both armor and weapons in the absence of superior physical gifts. (See the discussions by Judge George Hatch and Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees below for more insights into the character of Waldo.)
It may be surprising to some viewers that Laura should be chosen to inaugurate Fox's film noir DVD series, since this film initially eschews many of the characteristics most associated with film noir: a visual style that makes extensive use of darkness and shadows; a gritty, mean-streets locale; the character of the femme fatale; a nightmarish sense of being trapped in a downward spiral. The look of Laura is more elegant and less harsh than that of most noir films: Most scenes take place in the realm of the wealthy and privileged, especially in Laura's ultra-feminine apartment. It's not until the second half of the movie that we have a lot of night scenes, including some views of rain-drenched streets, which are more traditionally noirish. Also in the second half of the film McPherson interviews a suspect at the police station under the hot lights—taking the interrogation onto his own territory for a change. In fact, hard-boiled McPherson is by far the most overtly noirish resident of the film, and once the story begins unfolding more from his perspective and less from Waldo Lydecker's, we see a much more prominent noir quality emerge. Thus, Laura may not look like a true noir at first, but over the course of its running time viewers will begin to see why it is classed in that genre.
The transfer Laura receives here is good to excellent. I've never seen the film look so good: In the distinctness of detail, the richness and depth of its greys and blacks, the clarity of its whites, it is extremely attractive. The picture is not entirely free from speckling and other defects, but these are kept down to a low level and scarcely ever distract. Audio is offered in both the original mono and a 2.0 stereo mix. As with many films of this vintage whose mono tracks are rendered in stereo, the stereo mix sacrifices the crispness of highs when it gains breadth of sound, which results in its sounding muddier than the mono track. Nevertheless, both tracks are wonderfully clean and present dialogue distinctly, a definite priority in this dialogue-driven film. In both tracks the orchestral overture shows the limitations of the original source material, but otherwise the audio is perfectly respectable for its age.
The bevy of extras on this disc is impressive indeed, setting a high standard for subsequent releases in Fox's film noir series. There's only one real disappointment here, so I'll get it out of the way first. The contents list promises us a deleted scene, a tremendously exciting prospect for longtime fans of the movie. The truth is that, although the footage in question was indeed deleted upon the film's original theatrical release, it was restored so many years ago that it's old hat to many of us. I had expected material I'd never seen before, so it was a real blow to find that the restored "scene"—which consists of only a few seconds during the montage in which Waldo describes having molded Laura's look and personal style—was already quite familiar. Likewise, the cover copy touts this as the "extended" version of the film, with a longer opening scene, but in this respect as well it's the same as the VHS release from 1993.
Fortunately, the remainder of the supplementary material does not disappoint. This release is graced with not one but two commentaries, both featuring very knowledgeable speakers. One track features film historian and frequent commentary speaker Rudy Behlmer, and the other David Raksin, the film's composer, and Jeanine Basinger, a film scholar and author who has also recorded a number of fine previous commentaries for classic film DVD releases. Basinger brings her usual astute observation skills to her commentary with Raksin, drawing our attention to the artistic and story elements that shape the film's impact and filling in interesting background on the cast and crew. Raksin's comments, interwoven with hers, are often sparse but do offer some fascinating insights not only into his compositions but into the film production and his contribution to it. Raksin appears in a supplementary role, as Basinger provides the main body of their track, but the result is a meaty and illuminating commentary. Behlmer's commentary track, while a little more staid, is nonetheless a font of information on the evolution of Laura from original idea to play to novel to film (and to its later radio and television adaptations). We learn more about the switch from original director Rouben Mamoulian to producer Otto Preminger, a dramatic change in the characterization of Mark McPherson, and the revisions the film's ending underwent—Behlmer even reads a truly ludicrous segment of deleted dialogue. There is some overlap between the two commentaries, most noticeably when Behlmer narrates almost verbatim Raksin's two main anecdotes, but both are rewarding and enhance our experience of the film.
The Biography episodes on Tierney and Price are both excellent supplements to the film as well as being valuable in their own right. "Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait," made in 1999, movingly explores the loves, losses, and personal tragedies that haunted this exquisite actress. Her former husband Oleg Cassini appears, as well as Jeanine Basinger and David Raksin, and performance clips give a vivid portrayal of how the hard-working actress developed her skill over the course of her career (although there are sadly no clips from one of her best comic performances, in 1951's The Mating Season). A substantial spoiler is included in the coverage of Laura, so beware. "Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain," from 1997, includes interviews with daughter Victoria Price, actress Jane Russell, and biographer Lucy Chase Williams. The program gives us a full picture of this multitalented, cultured man, from his early stage successes to his lifelong interest in fine art, and we are left with the recognition that his considerable work in horror film (probably his most enduring legacy) represented just one part of a rich and busy life. This biography also wins high points for featuring excerpts from one of my favorite Price performances, the role of egotistical soap magnate Burnbridge Waters in the delightful but little-known 1950 comedy Champagne for Caesar. We also get to see Price and Tierney together in clips from two more films in which they were teamed, the gothic romance Dragonwyck and the suspenseful melodrama Leave Her to Heaven.
The theatrical trailer, while showing a great deal of damage that reduces its visual appeal, is intriguing in the way it markets the film and creates a mystique around the title character. It also does some recycling by making use of the footage that was deleted from the film's montage scene. Viewers who have never seen the film shouldn't watch the trailer beforehand, though, because of the possibility of spoilage; although the trailer doesn't directly give the big twist away, it doesn't entirely avoid it, either.
Overall this is a very pleasing and enriching array of extras, although I imagine many of the legions of Laura fans would, like me, have been even more pleased to see a two-disc set that included one or more each of the film's radio and television adaptations. (Both of the latter, incidentally, featured George Sanders, Addison DeWitt himself, in the role of Waldo.) Nonetheless, for a single-disc release this is an excellent set of supplements, and they almost make up for our long wait for Laura on DVD.
The Evidence, Part II: The Music of Laura, by Judge Jesse Ataide
Throw the name David Raksin out on the table during a discussion of Laura and you're likely to draw blank stares. But without his unique talent, Laura would likely be a very different film from the one we love and cherish today. Raksin, one of the premiere Hollywood film composers of the 1940s and 1950s, composed Laura's lush and romantic score, unwittingly creating one of the most recognized and beloved musical themes to ever grace the silver screen.
Raksin, long considered one of film music's greatest storytellers before he passed away last year at the age of 92, has turned the origins of Laura's score into nothing less than Hollywood legend. Raksin recounts in the notes he wrote for the CD release of David Raksin Conducts His Great Film Scores (a terrific compilation of the music from Forever Amber and The Bad and the Beautiful as well as Laura) that after director Otto Preminger informed him that Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" had been selected as the theme song for the film, he insisted that Preminger give him the chance to come up with something he felt more suitable for the film. Preminger agreed after some arguing—but gave the young composer a single weekend to come up with a replacement song.
Raksin remembers that the weekend proved highly unsuccessful, and by Sunday night he was in a panic as he realized his big chance was slipping away. To calm himself he began to improvise on the piano while looking at an object, a trick he had picked up during his childhood. From his pocket he pulled out an unread letter from his wife, and while sitting at the piano he realized what the contents of the letter meant: His marriage was over. Raksin says that the realization hit him "like a ton of bricks," and it was at that moment that the music began pouring out of him. How appropriate: From the despair of personal tragedy sprang the iconic notes for the score of a film dripping with turbulent emotions, bitter nostalgia, and biting loss.
Preminger and Alfred Newman (who was then head of the music department at 20th Century Fox and a prolific composer in his own right) quickly approved Raksin's theme and put him to work writing the rest of the film's score. It would become his big break (he had previously been a studio composer working on B films) and promote him to the Hollywood A-list, allowing him the opportunity to work on a number of big-budget pictures that he undoubtedly enhanced with his distinctive musical vision and unique understanding of how music should be integrated into films.
Raksin's music is the first thing a viewer encounters when watching Laura, as the opening theme begins even before the opening credits start to play. The music, along with the breathtaking portrait of star Gene Tierney, makes a dramatic opening to the film, which introduces what could be argued as the film's two most recognizable elements (apart from the actors themselves).
The theme appears several times throughout the film in different guises. Early on, Mark McPherson puts on a record in Laura's apartment and Raksin's music begins to play. Waldo immediately commands him to turn it off, but Shelby notes that it was one of Laura's favorite songs. His comment? "It's not exactly classical, but sweet." A nice way to sum up the music's appeal.
After that, "Laura's Theme" shows up in subtle variations throughout the film, particularly in the sequences set in Laura's apartment. The haunting theme becomes so intertwined with the identity of Laura that even during scenes where Gene Tierney's character is not physically present, she always seems to be hovering silently nearby. Laura is literally present in each scene of the film, sometimes in the gorgeous form of Tierney, other time in purely musical terms.
But as famous as the score is, it is rather surprising how sparsely music is used in Laura, especially when compared to the use of music in modern cinema, where blaring orchestras easily overwhelm both films and audiences. Raksin obviously sticks to a "less-is-more" philosophy when it comes to arranging film music, and several times during his commentary track he makes observations implying that he could have added music to such-and-such a scene but it just wasn't necessary. This artistic decision keeps the focus squarely on the ever-present central theme, and the film is enhanced because of it.
After Laura's release, Raksin received over 1,700 letters regarding his score, a clear demonstration of its immediate popularity with audiences. But the music also continues to find adoring audiences with each passing year. During the Presidential Inaugural Ball this last January, Raksin's music was played in honor of First Lady Laura Bush. After the success of Laura, Johnny Mercer added lyrics to Raksin's theme to create the song "Laura," which has been recorded by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and is believed to be one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century, with over 400 different versions in existence.
Raksin, who passed away just last year within months of his contemporaries Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith (it was a tough year for film music aficionados), has long been my personal favorite film composer, and Laura was my first introduction to his work. Though I slightly prefer his soaring (and more technically sophisticated) score for the period potboiler Forever Amber (another Preminger film), Laura justifiably will remain his greatest contribution to the rich history of film music, and will undoubtedly be held up for years to come as an example of how to seamlessly integrate images and music together to create an unforgettable film experience.
Mr. Raksin will be missed, but his music will live on.
The Evidence, Part III: A Brief Look at the Cast, by Judge Brett Cullum
Laura was a movie that interested me for its unorthodox cast as much as any other aspect of the film. The leads in the film were a "mismatch made in heaven" that could only have come out of studio-era Hollywood. The original choice for the titular character was Jennifer Jones (Portrait of Jennie), but she turned it down. Hedy Lamarr (Samson and Delilah) was also offered the role of Laura and passed. When Hedy was asked why she turned down Laura she made a snide remark referencing the success of David Raskin's haunting theme: "They sent me the script, not the score." Nobody seemed to know Laura was destined to be a film noir classic, and certainly not the actors who ended up being ultimately cast in the roles. But how could it not with these people involved?
Gene Tierney was only twenty-four when she starred in Laura, and she had come to Hollywood after a couple of small parts on the Broadway stage. In one show she only carried a bucket of water across the stage once, and reviewers still noticed her, saying "That was the best looking water carrier ever!" She had prominent cheekbones and a cute overbite that charmed studio mogul Darryl Zanuck into signing her into a contract. He always contended that Gene was the most beautiful woman in the history of film. When she first tested for studios they claimed her voice was too high, and to correct this they suggested she start smoking. It did lower her voice, but also ultimately caused her to die from emphysema. While on a USO tour, Gene caught the measles from an innocent kiss on the cheek from a female fan, and as a result her first daughter was born mentally retarded. That tragic incident provided the basis for the Agatha Christie film The Mirror Crack'd. During the shooting of Laura she was married to fashion designer Oleg Cassini. She became a huge box office draw in the '40s, with Heaven Can Wait and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir being notable highlights of her career. During the '50s she would become the object of scandal as she divorced and had an affair with Aly Kahn. Her comeback vehicle, Advise and Consent, reunited her with Laura director Otto Preminger in 1962. She passed away in Houston in the early '90s.
Dana Andrews (Lt. Mark McPherson) was the son of a Baptist minister and had a degree in business. He was a trained opera singer, and early in his career he had a hard time breaking into movies. Samuel Goldwyn signed him in the '30s, but he was hardly seen as leading man material until Laura. He was troubled with alcoholism most of his life and was rumored to be hard to work with. Later in life he would sober up, and in the early '70s he became the first actor to record a public service announcement against drinking and driving. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild in the '60s and protested the exploitation of actresses who did nude scenes just to get a part. He was later immortalized by being mentioned in a song called "Science Fiction" in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He became a real estate mogul, and claimed he made more money from that than he ever did in movies. He died in the early '90s from Alzheimer's and its related diseases.
Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker) was a casting choice the studios didn't want Otto Preminger to make. He was a noted performer on early Broadway (he was the first to perform the Irving Berlin classic Easter Parade on stage) and had made a successful career for himself in silent pictures. A year before Laura he was Ayn Rand's choice to play villain Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead, but the studios blocked his casting. He was considered a risk because he was openly gay. Preminger chose him because Webb reminded him of the man the character of Waldo was based on, theater critic Alexander Woollcott, who wrote for the New Yorker. Woollcott was a famous wit who was (like Waldo) fascinated by murder. He was a frequent diner at the Algonquin hotel, which is where Laura first approaches Waldo. The role was a tour de force for Clifton Webb: He was a "comeback kid" at fifty-four and was nominated for an Oscar for the performance. He was the acknowledged inspiration for Mr. Peabody on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Clifton Webb died in 1966, his last movie being Satan Never Sleeps.
Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter) was a Yale-trained actor who was supposed to become a leading man in the studio system. He never quite worked as the romantic lead, though, and he found himself quite easily slipping into quirky character roles and horror films. He claimed that Laura was his favorite film, and he was quite proud of his role in it. He's probably the best-known actor to have come out of the film's cast, thanks to his career in horror and mystery films. House of Wax (1953) made him a household name, and he even rapped on Michael Jackson's hit "Thriller" in the '80s. He was a close friend of Cassandra Peterson (better known as Elvira) and a muse for Tim Burton, who was surprised when he agreed to narrate a short film called Vincent early in Burton's career. Legend has it he was at the stage premiere of The Rocky Horror Show in London, where he heard the reference to Dana Andrews in the opening song and smiled, thinking about his time on Laura. He died in 1993 with Edward Scissorhands as his last big on-screen role in film.
Otto Preminger's Laura is a study in an unlikely cast that made magic together. You had the tragic mysterious beauty, the alcoholic, the flamboyant gay man, and future master of the macabre, all cast in one single film. The perfect cast for a film noir if there ever was one. Just from the credits you can tell it was destined to be a classic.
The Evidence, Part IV: Waldo Lydecker: A Dandy in Conflict, by Judge George Hatch
"Laura, you have one tragic weakness. With you, a lean strong body is the measure of a man. And you always get hurt."—Waldo Lydecker
As a prominent newspaper columnist and an influential radio personality, Waldo Lydecker wields his power with "a goose quill dipped in venom," and, without sarcasm, he claims, "I'm not kind; I'm vicious. It's the secret of my charm." Waldo is notorious among the socially elite for his acerbic quick wit, flamboyant lifestyle, and singularly natty attire, complete with a white carnation in his lapel and his signature walking stick in hand.
Waldo is an incorrigible effete of questionable morality and dubious sexual orientation. By 1940s Production Code standards, this meant he was homosexual. In Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, Foster Hirsch goes even further by defining Waldo as "a memorable addition to noir's gallery of sexual grotesques…who turns out to be among the sickest of all noir villains."
So how does one go about interpreting his attraction to, and obsession with, Laura Hunt?
I believe that Waldo sees Laura as the perfect female extension of himself. When she boldly interrupts his lunch asking for an advertising endorsement, he rudely dismisses her as a "rustic" to whom "good manners are unknown, [and] suffering from the common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct." But Laura has touched a nerve and, upon reappraisal, Waldo realizes that he admires her spunk and spontaneity; so he decides to personally "remodel" her to his specifications. His "love" for Laura is on a purely Platonic level as he continues to educate her so that she, in turn, can flatter and inflate his ego. Like Narcissus, Waldo can look at Laura's face and see himself. Ultimately, he admits, "The best part of myself—that's what you are, Laura."
For all of his haughty attitude and self-proclaimed superiority, however, I think Waldo suffers from an acute inferiority complex. He's conflicted because he's homosexual, possibly impotent, and old enough to be Laura's father; he even acts in a paternally overprotective manner by keeping other men at bay. He's especially jealous of younger, well-built, better-looking men, and scrutinizes their motives and personalities. He'll resort to any underhanded and immoral tactic to ensure that Laura remains untouched and unattainable under his sheltering wing.
In her commentary, Jeanine Basinger points out, "Waldo's walking stick is a phallic symbol that compensates for his impotence. It is also symbolic of his destructiveness." Note that when Waldo is talking to Laura in her office, one of the other staff workers tries to eavesdrop on their conversation. Waldo raises his cane and threatens, "If you come any closer, young man, I shall crack your skull with my walking stick." In a lengthy flashback, Waldo describes how he destroyed the career of Jacoby, who had recently painted Laura's portrait. "I never liked the man. He was so obviously conscious of looking more like an athlete than an artist." After he sees them together, the scrawny Waldo returns to his bathtub and writes a column disparaging Jacoby's mannerisms, and dismissing his work as "cheap imitations of genuine artists." He proudly claims that his essay "was a masterpiece!—because it was a labor of love."
Waldo boasts, "There were others, of course. But Laura had innate breeding and used her own discrimination…before it became necessary for me to intercede." So he's both shocked and suspicious when, at a cocktail party, Laura is attracted to the smarmy, smooth-talking Shelby Carpenter. Shelby comes from aristocratic Southern stock, but squandered his inheritance and was forced to live on a trust fund. When that ran out, his gifts of glibness and good looks endeared him to the hearts and purses of wealthy older women. Shelby is currently carrying on two affairs, both of which are connected to Laura: Ann Treadwell is Laura's rich aunt, and Diane Redfern, one of her advertising models.
Laura falls for Shelby's ostensibly self-effacing manner—"I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes"—and she considers his marriage proposal. In total disbelief, Waldo says Laura "was extremely kind, but I was always sure she would never have thrown her life away on a male beauty in distress." So he sets out to discredit Carpenter. He presents Laura with a detailed portfolio of his investigation into Carpenter's shady background and advises her of the man's current affair with one of her own models. Laura is appalled. "By stooping so low, you only degrade yourself, Waldo…Why are you doing this?" Waldo says, "For you, Laura."
So Waldo has effectively eliminated from Laura's life one man who looked more like an "athlete than an artist" and another whom he considered a weak-willed "male beauty in distress." Waldo had firsthand knowledge of those two, and deemed them unsuitable; but now he must deal with Mark McPherson, the detective investigating Laura's murder, and a man Waldo knows little about, save for a heroic reputation.
Waldo has already given statements to two other detectives, and resents being intruded upon a third time, so "I had him [McPherson] wait." To intimidate him even further, Waldo calls McPherson into his bathroom, where he's sitting in his bathtub, typing a column. Having already seen Lydecker's meticulously displayed collection of art and artifacts in the living room, and taking into account his unorthodox invitation, McPherson determines that Waldo is a homosexual.
Starting with compliments about each other, the two thrust and parry. Waldo is pleased that McPherson recognizes and acknowledges who he is, and quickly recalls that McPherson was the cop who single-handedly took out the gangster who had just killed three of his fellow officers. "Are you the one with the leg full of lead? I wrote a column about it!" When Waldo tells McPherson to have a seat, McPherson pulls up a chair and turns it around. He straddles it, and the back of the chair forces him to spread his legs; but the latticework on the back suggests he's still untouchable—and possibly McPherson is just trying to tease and distract Waldo.
Lydecker picks up on the move and swivels his typewriter shelf to the side, exposing himself under the bathwater, and asking McPherson to toss him a washcloth. McPherson gets up and, offhandedly, throws it to him. Still trying to push McPherson's buttons, Waldo stands up in the tub (off-screen) and asks McPherson to hand him his bathrobe. McPherson sizes up the naked Lydecker, looks down towards the man's genitals and smirks before tossing the robe. In his commentary, David Raksin oddly refers to McPherson's expression as "a grimace," something that indicates disgust or disapproval. I tend to disagree, because a smirk suggests sardonic condescension; and when McPherson sees Waldo fully naked, it confirms his initial assessment that the man is homosexual, and, perhaps, trying to make a pass. That smirk also conveys the fact that Waldo could never sexually satisfy a woman half his age. With all of the innuendo, this is an incredibly provocative scene for 1944.
Putting sexuality aside, Waldo also deftly evades McPherson's questions about love. When McPherson asks, "Were you in love with Laura Hunt? Was she in love with you?" Waldo says, "Laura considered me the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she'd ever met. And I was in complete accord with her on that point. She thought me also the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world. You won't understand this, McPherson, but I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world." Waldo has done everything possible for Laura.
When McPherson has finished his questioning, Waldo asks if he can accompany the detective while he interviews other suspects: "Murder is my favorite crime. I write about it all the time." I found this to be a too convenient glitch in the plot because no detective, police, or PI would allow one suspect to listen to the responses of others. But Waldo becomes joined at the hip with McPherson, goading out of him harsher and more probing questions to Shelby and Ann Treadwell. During these interrogations, Waldo begins to resent the detective's crude references to Laura: "McPherson, have you ever considered a woman something other than a 'dame' or a 'doll'?" To preserve the memory of Laura, Waldo decides to get more intimate with McPherson and invites him to dinner.
Had Laura been still alive, Waldo would have immediately determined McPherson to be another threat, because the detective has the looks and the "lean, strong body" that makes him "the measure of a man." "This was our table," Waldo says, wistfully. "Laura's and mine." And then, with great detail, he tells McPherson how he transformed a simple working girl into one of society's most glamorous and sought-after personalities. Unwittingly, Waldo creates such an alluring image of Laura and her charisma that McPherson begins to fall in love with her.
The life-sized portrait hanging over Laura's fireplace, and comments from her faithful housekeeper, Bessie, further intensify McPherson's emotions. "A fine, fine lady, she was," says Bessie. "I'd have worked for Miss Hunt for free, considering all the kindnesses she gave me over the years." McPherson finds himself spending more and more time at Laura's apartment, poring over her letters and diaries, sniffing her perfume, and fondling the intimate garments in her dresser. Waldo can't help but notice the detective's obsession and warns, "You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll end up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse."
When the real Laura appears midway through the film, McPherson promptly assumes Waldo's role as her protector. He's no longer in love with a fantasy or a corpse; Laura is now a physical presence, and one beyond his expectations. Waldo learns of Laura's "resurrection" and realizes that McPherson is indeed a new threat, so his inferiority complex kicks into full gear. He tries to demean the detective in Laura's eyes, salvage his Platonic relationship with her, and reclaim his sole protective status. "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."
Is Waldo's concern really about Laura herself—or the Laura who is a "female extension of himself," as mentioned earlier? Waldo said, "The best part of myself—that's what you are, Laura." This line is followed by, "Do you think I'm going to leave it (Read: "the best part of myself") to the vulgar pawing of a second-rate detective who thinks you're a dame? Do you think I could bear the thought of him holding you in his arms, kissing you, loving you?"
Are these genuine fears for Laura? Or, as an aesthete, do they represent Waldo's own nightmares—or forbidden fantasies? Waldo lives vicariously through Laura; he has refined her tastes to match his own, and polished her image into a paragon of his ideals. Would Waldo feel violated being vulgarly pawed, hugged, and kissed by some proletarian detective, or would he welcome it, as Laura does? This merging of identities and desires is the crisis that pushes Waldo over the edge. He can't simply "write off" McPherson in one of his columns; and he doubts that there would be any damaging information in the detective's background. What to do?
When Waldo learned that Laura was still considering marriage to that scheming lowlife, Shelby Carpenter, he decided to kill Laura rather than let his own reputation and alter-image be soiled. He chose a double-barreled shotgun in order to totally obliterate her face, and then he concentrated on preserving the legend of the woman he had created. McPherson's record, however, is without blemish, so his reputation can't be sabotaged in one of Waldo's columns. Realizing he's been outmaneuvered—and outclassed!—Waldo contrives a murder-suicide, using the same shotgun. He'll take the lives and reputations of both Laura and "the best part of myself" to the grave, and into immortality.
Waldo Lydecker is the real centerpiece of Laura. The film opens and closes with his narration, and it is Waldo's reminiscences through which McPherson and the audience are made aware of Laura's ethereal mystique. Note that Waldo's first line is "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died." He doesn't say, ."…the weekend Laura was murdered." We find that out in the next few minutes, but Waldo's rueful voice sets up the story and cleverly eliminates him as a suspect. In his commentary, I was surprised by one of David Raksin's remarks: "The narration is being done by a dead man." As many times as I've watched Laura, I never even thought of that Sunset Blvd. angle.
And "the dead man talking" ties in with a neat twist at the film's end in which Waldo's narration is coming from a radio: "Love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout history. Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death." After he's been fatally shot by McPherson's partner, Waldo's last on-screen words to Laura are "Goodbye, Laura." As the camera pans away from him we hear, in an ethereal voice-over, "Goodbye…my love." The final shot is of the antique grandfather clock that had become so pertinent to the plot. The face is shattered, much like the woman found murdered in Laura's apartment. Springs, coils, and the other interior mechanisms that controlled the accuracy of its time have been shattered by Waldo's shotgun blast.
So Waldo's last words have truly reached "beyond the dark shadow of death" as he finally expresses his "eternal love" for Laura. It's a poignant way to end the film; and it has the echoes of a Shakespearean tragedy, particularly Othello. Both Othello and Waldo were influential and powerful, but they were destroyed by jealousy; and both reached the same conclusion: murder and suicide. Othello says to Desdemona, "I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this—killing myself, to die…upon a kiss." Waldo says to Laura, "They'll find us together, Laura, as we always have been, as we always will be, and always should be…"
Waldo Lydecker is the centerpiece of Laura because he's the most complex and conflicted character in the film. He could never truly access Laura's feelings toward him. He was constantly on the offensive when another "lean strong man" entered Laura's life. And Laura also rattled his conceit. "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention." In Laura, he did discover another subject worthy of his attention—but one with some minor "flaws" that he quickly rectified and refined to his own image. Think of James Stewart's Scotty in Vertigo.
Perhaps Laura, herself, best sums up her mentor to Det. McPherson when she explains: "Waldo dramatizes everything. And like everything else, I'm only half real to him. The other half exists only in his own mind." So does this earn Waldo Lydecker a place in the pantheon of Foster Hirsch's "sickest of all noir villains"? I sincerely doubt it. Waldo is obsessive, compulsive, and extremely possessive. His delusions forced him to overextend his reach by trying to realize a dream that proved unattainable. The down-to-earth McPherson sent Waldo into an emotional tailspin, and Waldo lost all control of Laura's sexuality and her attraction to a man her own age.
No, Waldo Lydecker is not "a grotesque." His conflicted personality, inferiority complex, and overwhelming jealousy make him more pathetic than "sick." But his sarcastic wit and clever manipulation of people make him one of the most unique—and quotable!—villains in cinema.
The Evidence, Part V: The Lady in the Frame, by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees
Warning! Here be spoilers. If you haven't already seen the film, skip to the Closing Statement.
Many modern critics seem to be baffled by the relationship between Waldo Lydecker and Laura Hunt—the relationship at the heart of the film, which sets the murder in motion and is crucial to the denouement. Roger Ebert, for example, in his "great films" essay on Laura, claims that the film's logic falters by portraying Waldo as "insanely jealous of [Laura] even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual," and he even finds it arbitrary for Waldo to be the murderer. The implication is that, because there is no overt sexual element to their relationship, it's impossible to believe that Waldo's feelings for Laura are strong enough to drive him to kill. Otto Penzler comes closer to the answer in his essay in the reprint of Caspary's novel when he notes that Waldo is more interested in being a Pygmalion to Laura, but even Penzler seems to find it baffling that this impulse is not coupled with a sexual attraction. Where both these gentlemen err is in assuming that sex must be present to explain the strength of Waldo's feeling for Laura, a feeling he calls love. I submit that in fact, although they do often coexist, the Pygmalion urge—a man's compulsion to mold a young, adoring woman, who will stroke his ego by both admiring him and drawing the admiration of others—is quite powerful enough to exist without any erotic interest. And, in Waldo's case, powerful enough to lead him to kill.
The Pygmalion myth, in which a sculptor creates his perfect woman, who then comes to life, became famous as a metaphor for male-female relationships through George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion. The film version with Leslie Howard and the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, focused on the lighter side of the Pygmalion story; for all his impatience with her, it's impossible to imagine Henry Higgins going after Eliza Doolittle with a shotgun. But this kind of relationship can have a darker side, as can be seen, for example, in many screen adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera, in which the heroine's shadowy mentor becomes dangerously, even violently, possessive. It's this sinister aspect of the Pygmalion story that Laura depicts so powerfully.
As Galatea to Waldo's Pygmalion, Laura is more than just a trophy girlfriend (although she is that as well). While the natural gifts she already possesses, which Waldo enumerates for Mark (her talent, imagination, and "innate breeding"), confirm Waldo's good judgment in choosing her for his attention, he has groomed her to embody his idea of perfection, so she has become a demonstration of his superiority and a public badge of his taste, discrimination, and intelligence. Every time others admire Laura—and she has many admirers—they are by extension admiring the makeover Waldo has done on her. For Laura's part, since she is a woman of taste in her own right, her respect for him, her deference to his judgment, and her admiration for him (the reason she seeks him out in the first place) provide further confirmation of his superiority. Thus, she doesn't have to be a sexual partner to fill a deep need in his life, or to inspire a kind of love. From my observation of both art and life (being a former Galatea myself), I've become convinced that vanity is one of the most powerful male drives, perhaps even more powerful than sex—particularly for middle-aged men, like Waldo. Think of Katharine Hepburn's father in The Philadelphia Story, who tells her that if she had given him enough unquestioning admiration he wouldn't have had to seek out a young mistress; in that case, sex is secondary to the gratification of wounded ego. Vanity, after all, both supersedes and outlives physical urges, so Waldo's age and sexual proclivities—if any—are irrelevant to the power of his feelings for Laura.
Wounded vanity may not sound like sufficient motive for murder, but think of the poet Robert Browning's character of the Duke of Ferrara, who narrates the dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess":
That's my last duchess hanging on the wall,
For Browning's Duke, his recently deceased young wife was also a trophy, and now she is literally part of his art collection. He had her killed, we gradually come to understand, so that she will no longer be able to exert her own will or humiliate him by failing to comprehend the full extent of his superiority. She failed him by accepting his "thousand-year-old name" without the proper awe and by responding to such trivial things as the sunset or horseback rides with the same degree of joy with which she accepts his rich gifts. In essence, the Duke has had her killed so that she will fit into his collection better: Now that she is reduced to a painting, he has complete control over her. Likewise, in life Laura is the crowning jewel in Waldo's prominently displayed collection of art and antiques, a beautiful possession to add to his distinction. Waldo even describes her in terms of an object: "She became as well known as Waldo Lydecker's walking stick and his white carnation," he tells Mark McPherson. He has made her into the perfect fashion accessory—and now she seems to be showing a lack of proper appreciation by wishing to marry Shelby. In the novel on which the film is based, there is a telling scene in which Waldo deliberately smashes a precious antique piece of mercury glass rather than see it become the property of another collector. This is, of course, exactly what he attempted to do with Laura: destroy her rather than allow her to become part of another man's collection. In both cases, his love for the possession is less important than his exclusive ownership of it.
The prominence of the painting of Laura is another strong echo of Browning's poem. Like Browning's Ferrara, Waldo draws a visitor's attention to the painting of the woman in question and uses it as a launching point for a monologue in which he shapes the listener's conception of her. Waldo complains that the painter didn't capture Laura entirely, but as he proceeds to create a word portrait of her for Mark, he, like the artist (and like Ferrara), is establishing how others will view her. Now that Laura is (apparently) dead, he can "paint" her to be the woman he wanted her to be, and she'll never inconvenience him by acting contrary to his wishes or his vision of her. And his influence doesn't stop there: Since Waldo is composing his obituary for Laura at the start of the film, we know that he intends to use his art to create a monument for her that will control the way the public at large remembers her. At last he will be in complete control of his wayward Galatea, and she will be everything he wants her to be—and nothing he doesn't.
Unlike the hapless young Duchess, though, Laura is lucky enough to escape death, and thus she has the chance to refute his description of her and refuse to be merely an artwork. Once she returns to the world of the living, she does exactly what Waldo was trying to prevent: She contradicts his claim that she belongs to him and reveals that she wants complete control of her own life. She even parallels the Duchess in showing "low" tastes, purportedly unworthy of her connection with the man who wants to control her—in Laura's case, her attraction to Mark, a mere policeman. The painting has stepped out of her frame, and she wants to leave the gallery. Naturally, she must be stopped…so out comes the shotgun again.
Power is also at stake here, as it was for the Duke of Ferrara: For Laura to leave him denies the clout that Waldo takes pride in possessing. Heretofore he has established his supremacy by metaphorically executing Laura's other suitors through the power of his writing and force of personality, but this time it looks as if he has lost his ability to keep her. Significantly, when she returns from the dead, he physically collapses: Her return to life has robbed him of his vitality. For the moment, Laura is the one holding the power in the relationship, and this too is unacceptable for Waldo. It's noteworthy that when Mark lets Laura's guests believe he's taking her to the police station to arrest her, Waldo's response is not "She's innocent" (which he, of course, knows better than anyone) but "We'll fight them. I have every weapon: money, connections, prestige, and my column." It can't have escaped him that if she is arrested, their relationship will immediately shift back into a form that's comfortable for him: She will need him again, he will be able to display his power by using his celebrity and talent in her cause, and if she is convicted—well, she certainly won't be leaving Waldo for another man any time soon. A literal prison would be quite as effective a place as a coffin for keeping her where Waldo wants her in their relationship. As Mark cannily observes, "You sound as though you wanted to see her tried for murder." A legal frame-up may serve the same purpose for Waldo as a picture frame: to immobilize Laura.
And what of Laura herself? She has become belatedly, painfully aware of the depth of Waldo's troubling fixation with her. When she tells him they shouldn't see each other any more, it's something she knows she should have done a long time ago, but, she says, "I owed him too much." Laura's own good qualities essentially trapped her in this relationship: Her very loyalty and kindness made her hesitate to hurt him, and thus perpetuated the dysfunctional couplehood. It's the same instinct that leads her to resume her engagement to Shelby even after she has ceased to believe she's in love with him—her loyalty and protectiveness take precedence over her personal wishes, even over her good judgment. One of the most encouraging things about the nascent relationship between Laura and Mark is that it's a relationship of equals. Waldo tries to convince her that "he liked you best when you were dead," but she knows better. "It's like he was waiting for me," she says. When she stepped out of the frame, she finally began to live for herself—and found a man who would let her.
When we weigh all the evidence, it's easy to see why Laura became a classic. There have been grittier noirs, more suspenseful mysteries, and steamier romances, but Laura retains its place as an irreproducible example of moviemaking, whose mysterious alchemy sets it apart from all other films. Fox has done well in giving it pride of place in their new noir series—and in providing it with a handsome transfer and a solid selection of extras.
Justice has been served. Laura is free to continue casting her spell over moviegoers.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
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