Laura: Vera Caspary (1942-3)

My mind was foggy. I was going somewhere, but I’d lost the road. I remember asking myself about clues. What were clues, what had I looked for in other cases? A smile couldn’t be brought into court as evidence. You couldn’t arrest a man because he trembled. Brown eyes had stolen a peep at gray eyes, so what? The tone of a voice was something that died with a word.

Earlier this year, I read Vera Caspary’s novel Bedelia and then watched the British noir film version. I became interested in Caspary and admired the manner in which she adapted Bedelia for the screen, so it was just a matter of time before I turned to the more famous Laura–a book made into and then overshadowed by the noir film. Laura, the 1944 film from director Otto Preminger, is one of the first noirs I ever saw. Not that I knew what noir was at the time, but as I watched Laura, I realised that I was watching a film that was stylistically far removed from anything else I’d ever seen. Laura often makes top-ten film noir lists. It isn’t one of my top noirs, but it’s certainly a memorable, stylish film.

Once you’ve seen a film version of a book, and what’s more you’ve seen it several times, it’s impossible to completely eradicate the film images from your brain. As I read the book, I found myself comparing the lovely Gene Tierney with the fictional Laura, and of course comparing dapper, bitchy Clifton Webb with Caspary’s completely different vision of Lydecker. In the novel, Lydecker is a large man, portly, we can say, or fat if we’re feeling mean-spirited. 

Anyway here’s the plot:

New York police detective Mark McPherson is assigned to a murder case. The victim is Laura Hunt, an extremely successful and well-paid advertising executive. From the clues at the crime scene, it seems that late Friday night, she answered the doorbell in a negligee and was shot in the face at point-blank range. Ok, so there’s a dead dame–a beautiful corpse on the slab at the morgue, but apart from the fact there’s a nameless killer running around, there are also a few unanswered questions about Laura. On the night of the murder, Laura was supposed to dine with her long-term friend Lydecker, and then she planned to leave town and travel to her country home, returning Wednesday for her marriage to Shelby. Why did she cancel dinner with Lydecker? Why didn’t she tell Shelby? Why was she still in town? And why are there two dirty glasses discarded in her bedroom? 

As McPherson digs around the case, it’s clear that the people who loved Laura–her fiancé Shelby, her friend and confidante, Lydecker and her neurotic aunt, Susan Treadwell aren’t telling the truth. What are they hiding?

Caspary switches narrators and creates a three-part novel. One section is narrated by Lydecker, another by McPherson, and you can read the book to discover the third. For those who’ve seen the film, you know where the plot goes, but it’s well-worth reading the book to note the differences in characterisation.  The book includes an extensive foreword: Women Write Pulp which is not specific to Caspary but rather it’s a broad overview of the role of women writers in pulp and crime fiction. The afterword is a synopsis of Caspary’s career with an emphasis on Laura–Caspary’s “turning point” novel. Caspary was, apparently, not happy with the film portrayals of either Laura or Lydecker.

One of the biggest distinctions between the book and the film is found in the character of Waldo Lydecker. Caspary states that she based him on a character in a Wilkie Collins novel–The Lady in White’s Count Fosco (played nastily by the hefty Sydney Greenstreet in the 1948 film version). Here, in the Otto Preminger 1944 film, Lydecker is an effete, effeminate, fussy product of New York society, and there are some differences, too, in Laura’s character. But the differences aside, Laura is still a capital mystery, and we still have lonely detective McPherson falling in love with a dead woman.

Caspary allows us to get the measure of the main characters in just a few sentences. Here’s Laura’s aunt, Susan Treadwell–a woman who drips honey but spits acid:

In the mirror’s gilt frame Mark saw the reflection of an advancing figure. She was small, robed in deepest mourning and carrying under her right arm a Pomeranian whose auburn coat matched her own. As she paused in the door with the marble statues and bronze figurines behind her, the gold frame giving margins to the portrait, she was like a picture done by one of Sargent’s imitators who had failed to carry over to the twentieth century the dignity of the nineteenth. Mark had seen her briefly at the inquest and had thought her young to be Laura’s aunt. Now he saw that she was well over fifty. The rigid perfection of her face was almost artificial, as if flesh-pink velvet were drawn over an iron frame.

McPherson is under pressure to solve the case, but his approach to the crime includes more than a degree of fascination with Laura. He takes an instant dislike to Laura’s fiancé, Shelby, a man whose southern charm grates on McPherson’s innate view of male-female relationships. McPherson seeks out Lydecker–after all he seems to know Laura better than anyone else, and Lydecker also served as Laura’s unlikely confidant. McPherson becomes obsessed with Laura. This starts as a normal part of the investigation as McPherson pieces together a portrait of the victim. He begins by wondering what sorts of books she read, but then moves on to more intimate information:

Last night, alone in the apartment, he had made unscientific investigation of Laura’s closets, chests of drawers, dressing-table, and bathroom. He knew Laura, not only with his intelligence, but with his senses. His fingers touched fabrics that had known her body, his ears had heard the rustle of her silks, his nostrils sniffed at the varied, heady fragrances of her perfumes.

Caspary takes her characters: shallow Shelby, quirky Lydecker and Laura’s vain aunt and places them around the borders of the crime. Under McPherson’s scrutiny, they all hover around the life of the dead Laura–minor sycophants still bound in the orbit of a beautiful and strangely unfathomable woman. In spite of the fact she’s gone, her presence lingers in her home which is dominated by a large portrait painting of Laura. Just as McPherson begins to understand Laura and regret the loss of a woman he never knew, we too begin to regret the absence of Laura’s vibrant personality. Here’s Lydecker:

For me the room still shone with Laura’s lustre. Perhaps it was in the crowding memories of firelit conversations, of laughing dinners at the candle-bright refectory table, of midnight confidences fattened by spicy snacks and endless cups of steaming coffee.

It’s all too easy to underestimate Laura’s aunt, Mrs Treadwell. While she’s mired in the depths of mourning, she’s ready to assess her dead niece’s wealth and squabble with anyone who imagines they’re entitled to a slice of Laura’s estate. As with all the characters in the novel, there’s more to Mrs Treadwell than it first seems. She’s vain and has spent a lifetime seeking the attention of men. At the same time, however, there isn’t much she misses, but her self-centered, dramatically-inclined character makes her easy to underestimate. Here’s Aunt Susan dropping clues and bits of tasty gossip to McPherson without appearing to have any idea about what’s she’s saying. She’s a study in feminine guile masquerading as foolishness:

You don’t like Shelby very much, do you, Mrs Treadwell?

“He’s a darling boy,” she said, “but not for Laura. Laura couldn’t afford him.”

“Oh” I said.

She was afraid I’d got the wrong impression and added quickly: “Not that he’s a gigolo. Shelby comes from a wonderful family. But in some ways a gigolo’s cheaper. You know where you are. With a man like Shelby you can’t slip the money under the table.”

After reading the novel, I can see why Caspary was annoyed by Preminger’s portrayal of Laura. Caspary’s original fictional Laura can be seen in contrast to Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan, like Bedelia is another manipulative demanding woman who gets what she wants by projecting feminine submission to the men in her life. Aunt Susan and Bedelia appear to play by the rules in order to subvert the male structures that hold them, tenuously, in place. Laura is different. She’s a career woman who’s opted out of the marriage & children paradigm, but her loving, generous nature traps her in a relationship with a man who is ultimately not worth the price.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Laura: Vera Caspary (1942-3)

  1. It sounds good. That idea of the detective being fascinated by the dead woman reminds me of something but I don’t remember what. That’s something I’d like to read.
    What did the foreword say about women writing pulp fiction? I’d like to read something about that. Your editions of books seem to include more interesting forewords and essays than mine.

  2. This edition is part of the Femme Fatales: Women Write Pulp series published by The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. The foreword delves into the fact that women often wrote pulp & crime under male pseudonyms as the books were more “saleable” that way. There’s also stuff on lesbian fiction , the different genre lines, the various publishers. I Have every book in this series.

  3. I like the movie. Gene Tierney is such a beautiful woman. I was totally unaware of the fact that it is based on a book. The book sounds much more interesting, more complex. Male writers of noir have often been accused of creating two-dimensinal, clichéd and flat female characters. From what you write I deduce this is the big difference between a female and a male writer, no? These women sound like strong, rounded characters, not just frames for the men at the center. What sounds very interesting (I can’t remember if the movie achieves this as well) is the presence of the absent woman.

    • Yes that is one of the points of the intro: that some of the male writers created flat or contrived characters. Another point made is that male readers were ‘put off’ by female writers of pulp & crime–hence the pen names many used. One good example I can think of is Marijane Meaker who wrote as Vin Packer.

      I read elsewhere that in the history of Black Mask Magazine (which was in business for thirty two years, 1920-1951), there was only one identified female contributor: Katherine Brocklebank with her series female character–Tex of the Border Patrol.

  4. This sounds good.

    It’s no surprise to me that women pulp authors wrote under male names. At that time and to that audience they probably wouldn’t have sold otherwise. It’s ironic though to think how many of the fans were guys who wouldn’t have dreamt of buying a book written by a woman but who waited eagerly for the latest Vin Packer or whatever.

    To be honest, this is one for me even without the foreword. The foreword though sounds worth getting on its own. I’m also curious to hear about the Lesbian fiction. Lesbians tend to appear in fiction as threatening figures with unnatural desires (in pulp era stuff, less today) or as sources of prurient interest. I guess there remains something threatening about women who get along fine without men…

    • Digging around a bit in the genre has been an education. I have a couple of the lesbian titles I’ll be getting to soon, so more on the way. You’ve seen the film Laura, haven’t you?

      I deliberately waited to rewatch the film (f0r the umpteenth time) until after I’d read the book and written the review. I wanted to assess where Caspary was coming from with her anger about the screenplay. Now I’ve read the autobio I understand. The characters in the film are horribly flattened.

      If you read Laura, you might want to check out Bedelia also by Caspary (both books have the same foreword and afterword). Of the two I preferred Bedelia, but I have a nagging feeling I’m in the minority.

  5. I like the film too … and must admit I had no idea it was based on a book. (The friends with whom I first really saw this film – around 1980, I had already seen it on TV in my student days but that doesn’t really count – actually named their second daughter Laura after the film.) I think now that I’d like to read the book then see the film again – such a stylish film but I can imagine that it might have been toned down for Hollywood.

    • I think it’s a very cleverly done film, but after reading the book, it’s easy to see why Caspary was so angry about the adaptation. When she sold the rights, the contract did not include any author control, and really Laura, Aunt Sue and Shelby are, I think, all changed for the worst. Lydecker is not recognisable in the move from book to film (even though a lot of the dialogue remains), but in Lydecker’s case, I think the film version of the altered character worked well.

  6. leroyhunter

    I’m a fan of the film Guy so as always interesting to read about differences between it and the source. I agree that the screen Lydecker is a successful character but it’s odd to find he’s so different from the print version. What lies behind such decisions, I wonder? There are always challenges adapting books for the screen but wholesale rewriting of plot / character etc is a different matter.

    Anyway, both Casparys are on the wishlist.

    • Caspary was quite insistent about Lydecker being based on Count Fosco. Fosco is a nasty piece of work in Lady in White but there’s a sort of slimy threatening sexuality about him too. The film’s Lydecker seems sexless (reminds me of a mild version of Quentin Crisp).

      The film makes Shelby a gigolo simultaneously having an affair with Laura’s aunt, so that makes him with 3 women at the same time. There’s no such affair in the book–although Aunt Sue does have a relationship with Shelby. She doesn’t seem to really like Shelby although his ‘Southern’ charm has some appeal and he does fit easily into her household (she likes keeping men around like pets).

      Caspary’s Laura is much more intelligent and a much more generous human being. In fact, it’s her generosity that gets her in trouble.

      The Preminger/Caspary divide appears to have occurred over, simply, a different interpretation of Laura’s character. Preminger said she had “no sex” and Caspary was insulted (my interpretation of her reaction) to the idea that Laura had to keep a gigolo.

      There was also a deleted scene (on my DVD extras) which never made it to the finished film. It shows Lydecker taking Laura around and boosting her career, even choosing her clothes. The scene was deleted as it was thought that the wartime audience wouldn’t like the scene of opulence and plenty. But the idea underneath the scene was that Laura was malleable (brainless) and also owed her career to Lydecker. She’s certainly quite passive in the film.

      There was also a scrapped alternate ending with a voiceover saying it was all a dream (shades of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, another 1944 film).

      Laura was in the advertising biz –as was Caspary (I’ll be reviewing her bio soon), and I think on some level, it was personally insulting to Caspary that Preminger moulded Laura into a ninny who owes her career to a male. These elements are entirely absent from the book. Caspary was an extremely hard-working woman, and she made a success in advertising when women were supposed to be there to type. Laura seems to be a creation of this portion of Caspary’s hard-won experience, so I can see why she was unhappy with the film–often considered Preminger’s best.

      This is just Caspary’s side. I don’t know what prompted Preminger to make the changes other than he interpreted the characters differently. Caspary said Preminger told her “Laura has no character. She’s a nothing, a nonentity.” Caspary wrote that Preminger’s “well-publicisized sexual conquests had taught Mr. Preminger nothing about women.” Ouch. Years later they had a shouting match on the same subject when they ran into each other at the Stork Club.

  7. leroyhunter

    Really interesting stuff Guy. I agree about the Quentin Crisp comparison with Lydecker and I also have that deleted scene you mention that makes her seem much more his creation. You can see how that would get Caspary’s goat.

    The changes to Laura herself are in some ways explicable by Preminger’s views or prejudices about women, their role etc. I find it curious that Lydecker, apparently quite explicitly described in terms of appearance and character, is totally remodelled. Maybe he just wanted Clifton Webb in the role, come what may?

    I must rewatch it before looking at the novel. I really like Vincent Price’s performance.

    Thanks for all the info.

    • I expect if we read a bio about Preminger, we’d uncover some rationale. The film is still a big hit, so he can’t be all wrong. The idea of Lydecker modelling Laura works with Clifton Webb in the role but not so well when I chew it over with Lydecker as an updated Count Fosco.

      Have you seen the Howard Hughes noir His Kind of Woman? It stars Vincent Price (along with Jane Russell & Robert Mitchum). Price plays an Errol Flynn type film star who gets caught up in some dicey adventures at a Mexican resort.

  8. Pingback: Laura. Best 100 Mysteries of All Time – The Bookshop Blog

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