Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Laura by Vera Caspary

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

by Vera Caspary
The Feminist Press
Paperback ISBN: 9781558615052
256 pages

“You have so many friends, your life is so full, you’re always surrounded by people.” – Mark McPherson 
Laura: “It’s when you have friends that you can afford to be lonely. When you know a lot of people, loneliness becomes a luxury. It’s only when you’re forced to be lonely that it’s bad.” – Laura Hunt

Any film noir enthusiast will attest that Laura (1944), is one of the finest noirs of the era. It offers viewers an engrossing story, an air of sophistication, a couple of delicious plot twists and plenty of wit. Then there is the quartet of main players: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the bored aristocrat, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the sensitive police detective, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the spoiled Southern gigolo, and caught in the middle is the least femme fatale of all the femme fatale: Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Laura is the murder victim until she’s not and through both her absence and her presence we learn a lot about her as an individual and the men who want to possess her.

The story was born out of the imagination of Vera Caspary, a writer who was no stranger to Hollywood. In her lifetime she wrote 19 books and out of her novels, original screenplays, theatrical plays and other writing contributions, 24 film adaptations were made. Some of these include: Working Girls (1931), Letter to Three Wives (1949), The Blue Gardenia (1953), and Les Girls (1957). Caspary was particularly interested in writing about working women, like herself, and her stories dealt with themes of identity, romantic relationships, personal independence and crime. She didn’t consider herself a mystery writer and preferred to focus on character development and plot structure than genre form. According to writer A.B. Emrys, “Her novels revolve around women who are menaced, but who turn out to be neither mere victimized dames nor rescued damsels. Independence is the key to survival of such protagonists as Laura…”

Laura was written during WWII but its decidedly not at all influenced by the war. In fact, Caspary had spent much time exploring her political beliefs (she dappled in Communism which led her to be graylisted during the red scare), and decided she wanted a break from politics in order to return to writing. Laura started as a theatrical play and an original screenplay. When neither of those sold, Caspary wrote Laura as a novel. It was serialized in seven parts in Collier magazine and then published by Houghton Mifflin. Otto Preminger learned about the novel and presented it to Darryl F. Zanuck, with whom he had a long time feud, in order to get 20th Century Fox to acquire the film rights, which they did.

Caspary’s novel is divided into five parts, each giving the perspective of one of the four main characters before returning back to the police detective’s investigation:

Part 1 - Waldo Lydecker’s POV
Part 2 - Mark McPherson’s POV
Part 3 - Shelby Carpetner’s POV - as told through a police interrogation.
Part 4 - Laura’s POV
Part 5 - Mark McPherson’s POV

The film adaptation follows the book quite closely with some key differences. Lydecker is described as a middle-aged man who is overweight, pale and has lost his appetite due to the stress of the criminal investigation. He’s decidedly more biting with his remarks in the book than in the film. Clifton Webb really steals the show with his performance as Lydecker. Laird Cregar, who would have fit the novel’s characterization of Lydecker more closely, was considered for the role but Preminger thought his ominous presence would give away a key plot point.

Gene Tierney is as exactly as Caspary has Lydecker describe her in the book: “She was a slender thing, timid as a fawn and fawn-like, too, in her young uncertain grace. She had a tiny head, delicate for even that thin body, and the tilt of it along with the bright shyness of her slightly oblique dark eyes further contributed to the sense that Bambi had escaped from the forest and galloped up the eighteen flights to this apartment.” Her POV is strong and definitely the highlight of the book.

Mark McPherson isn’t much different than Dana Andrews’ role except that he’s more imaginative and his investment in Laura comes more from his thought process than his actions. The biggest different in characterization can be seen with Shelby Carpenter, who they indeed softened in order to give Vincent Price a much more friendly on-screen part. The novel’s Shelby is an insufferable cad. In fact, when I got to his POV I groaned loudly but lucky his part is reduced to a single chapter. Diane Redfern, the story’s true femme fatale and ultimate victim, plays a stronger part in the novel but like in the film, is never actually seen.

Caspary does a wonderful job exploring the male-female dynamic. She tackles misogyny, gender roles and obsession with clarity and confidence. It’s clear that each of the men sees Laura as an extension of themselves and their individual quests to gain complete control of her all fail in some respect. At several points in the novel, Caspary explores how a woman evolves into herself by her relationship with others, particularly men. But this also happens to men too. Laura is being molded by the men in her life but she is also molding them. It’s as though it takes group effort to blossom into the person you’re going to become. And because these characters are so dependent on each other for personal growth, there is a possessiveness that comes from that.

Laura by Vera Caspary is currently available as a stand-alone book from The Feminist Press or part of the Library of America’s Women Crime Writers anthology. You can borrow the stand-alone book from your local library through Overdrive. It’s a fantastic read and I highly recommend you check it out if you can.

I leave you know with a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Her flatter was never shallow. She found the real qualities and made them important. Surface faults and affections fell away like false friends at the approach of adversity.” – Waldo Lydecker
“I thought of my mother and how she had talked of a girl’s giving herself too easily. Never give yourself, Laura, she’d say, never give yourself to a man… That is why I have given so much of everything else; myself I have always withheld.” – Laura Hunt
“You are not dead, Laura; you are a violent, living, bloodthirsty woman.” – Waldo Lydecker

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