The first part of Laura is narrated by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). At first, he addresses us in the audience, informing us that Laura (Gene Tierney) has just died and that another one of those police detectives is waiting to talk to him. Later, his narration is addressed to the detective in question, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), as Lydecker tells him about how he met Laura and how they became good friends.
Somewhat later, while going through Laura’s letters in her apartment, trying to figure out who murdered her, McPherson gazes at a portrait of Laura that is hanging on the wall. He falls asleep in his chair. Suddenly, Laura walks in through the door. This exemplifies the principle that if someone in a movie falls asleep in a chair, there is a chance that what follows is a dream. Falling asleep in a bed doesn’t count, because that is too ordinary. Furthermore, when a person falls asleep in a chair, he is fully dressed. As a result, we cannot be sure whether he has awakened from his catnap, or whether he is dreaming. It would be a stretch for someone to fall asleep in bed, and then have a dream that begins with his taking off his pajamas and putting on his clothes. Originally, McPherson’s dream was to have been made explicit in a final scene that was filmed but eventually cut.
That was a wise decision. People tend to feel cheated if they find out at the end of a movie that most of it was a dream. We never minded when Alice in Wonderland turned out to be a dream at the end, because the events after Alice goes down the rabbit hole are too fantastic to take seriously, and we are charmed by the idea that it was the dream of a little girl with an active imagination. It is for the same reason that we do not mind that most of The Wizard of Oz (1939) was just a dream.
But when it happens in a movie in which we are taking things seriously, we are irked by a dream ending. In the movie Woman in the Window (1944), a married man falls asleep in a chair. After he supposedly wakes up, he meets a beautiful woman. They go to her apartment, where he ends up having to kill her jealous boyfriend in self-defense. This is followed by a coverup, blackmail, and finally suicide. But instead of dying from the poison he consumed, he wakes up to find out it was all a dream, and he is still sitting in that chair. Presumably, those who made this movie thought a dream ending would be better than an ending in which the protagonist commits suicide, but the movie is weaker for it. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), a woman falls asleep in a chair, and so for the rest of the movie, we don’t know whether she was actually visited by a ghost and only dreamed him. The movie never makes it explicit that she is only dreaming, allowing us to enjoy the fantasy as though it really happened. Either way, when a character in a movie falls asleep in a chair, what we see from then on is probably a dream, whether this is made explicit or not.
Because Lydecker dies at the end of the movie, his narration is problematic. How can he be telling us a story in which he dies in the end? It has been done, of course, notably in Sunset Blvd. (1950), but we are supposed to be amused by the absurdity of listening to Joe Gillis tell us his story as he lies drowned in a swimming pool. In Laura, on the other hand, we just might think it was a goof to have the narrator begin a story in which he ends up dead. But if the second half of the film is only a dream, then Lydecker never dies, and his narration only applies to the first half of the film, the half that is real. He is not responsible for whatever McPherson dreams after that.
In his early discussion with Lydecker, McPherson says that Laura was killed with a shotgun, but no mention is made of what part of her body was shot. Even the second time the shotgun murder is mentioned, when McPherson is interviewing Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), nothing is said in that regard. It is not until almost the end of the movie, when McPherson has discovered the shotgun hidden in the clock, and he realizes that Lydecker is the killer, that he mentions that the woman Lydecker thought was Laura was shot in the face with both barrels. This delay in giving us this crucial piece of information is to keep us from becoming suspicious, because whenever someone in a movie supposedly dies, but either the corpse is never found, or it has been disfigured beyond recognition, then you can give long odds that the person in question is not really dead.
For example, in Mr. Lucky (1943), the title character is thought to be dead because the ship he was on was torpedoed during the war, and his body was never found. Naturally, it turns out that he survived. In Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the face of a major character has supposedly been severely burned, so we suspect right off that he is not really dead.
Therefore, if McPherson had said early on that Laura’s face had been blown off, we would have guessed right away that the woman was really someone else. Of course, once Laura returns, right after McPherson has fallen asleep, and we realize that it was another woman who had been shot, we infer that the blast must have disfigured her. What that other woman was doing in her apartment is a contrivance, one that need not concern us.
Just before McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment, he gets a visit from Lydecker, who has found out that the detective has put in a bid for Laura’s portrait, and thus realizes that McPherson has fallen in love with her. “You better watch out, McPherson,” Lydecker says to him, “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.”
More than a few movie critics have referred to McPherson as being a necrophiliac. To me, a necrophiliac is someone who is aroused by a corpse and wants to have sex with it, like those characters in Maniac (1934) that work in the morgue, and seem delighted when the corpse of a good-looking woman is brought in. Just being aroused by a painting of a beautiful woman who happens to be dead doesn’t qualify. And yet, I have encountered this elsewhere. On one occasion, when I commented on how sexy I thought Maureen O’Sullivan was playing Jane in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), going about all scantily clad in her loin cloth, the guy I was talking to said, “Ew! But she’s so old!” A few years later, I made a similar comment, and woman I was talking to recoiled, saying, “But she’s dead!” They think I’m weird. The feeling is mutual.
Anyway, Lydecker is not only amused by the idea of a McPherson’s falling in love with someone who is dead, but also by the incongruous notion that someone as refined as Laura could fall for the likes of McPherson, who is low class and crude. He contemptuously asks McPherson if he has ever dreamed that Laura was his wife, indicating how ill-matched they would have been.
This is the first reference to dreaming, but not the last. After McPherson figures out that Lydecker is the killer, he tells Laura to forget the whole thing like a bad dream. And during Lydecker’s radio broadcast, he quotes the poet Ernest Dowson, who speaks of life as emerging out of a dream and then closing within a dream.
Because McPherson has fallen in love with Laura, his dream is the fulfillment of a wish, the wish that Laura were still alive so that he could possess her. Given this, we don’t even know if Laura actually was shot in the face, or whether that was the dream’s way of making it possible for some other woman to have been mistaken for her. And because McPherson knows that Lydecker would be his chief rival for Laura’s affections, his dream makes him out to be the murderer, who is killed by one of the other detectives.
Because the explicit dream ending was cut from the film, the movie presents itself to us as a story about things that actually happen, and that is the way most people experience this movie, at least the first time. But even if we did not know about the original intention of making part of this movie be a dream, we might still come to the conclusion on subsequent viewings that it was indeed a dream, for the reasons given above. In this way we get to enjoy the movie both ways. More importantly, we can regard the second half of the movie as a dream without feeling cheated.
In interpreting the second half of this movie as a dream, I have assumed that it is McPherson’s dream. And I have suggested that another ending of this film was originally shot making this explicit. This was the impression I got from Danny Peary’s Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, page 202. However, according to Doug McClelland, in his book, The Unkindest Cuts: The Scissors and the Cinema, page 117, the alternate ending indicated that it was Lydecker’s dream. Maybe so, but it is hard to believe that Lydecker would dream that he was the one who was killed in the end. Moreover, there would have been no transition scene to his dream, as there is for McPherson, when he falls asleep in the chair. Whatever ending was originally filmed, regarding the second half of the movie as being McPherson’s dream is the only one that makes sense.