Laura (1944)

“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.”  Thus begins Waldo Lydecker’s (Clifton Webb) narration, telling us how devastated he is by the horrible death of Laura, and how he is beginning to write her biography. Then he informs us that another one of those police detectives is waiting to talk to him.  That detective is Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews).  He is wearing a fedora and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth.  The two men could not be more different.  Lydecker is soaking in his deluxe bathtub, fixed up so that he can type while he so indulges himself in luxury.  McPherson is the kind of guy who takes nothing but showers.  He smirks as he looks at all the expensive artwork that adorns Lydecker’s house, probably regarding it all as a bunch of knickknacks for the maid to have to dust.  Lydecker was making him wait, to put him in his place, but becomes alarmed when McPherson cavalierly picks up an item that Lydecker regards as priceless, telling McPherson to be careful.

After that, Lydecker invites McPherson into the bathroom, at which point we see his old, scrawny body, which stands in contrast to what we imagine is McPherson’s young, muscular build.  As Lydecker rises out of the tub, we see another smirk on McPherson’s face, as he notes Lydecker’s member, which we can’t help but imagine as being little and wrinkled, as opposed to the big, swinging dick that McPherson lugs around.  McPherson asks Lydecker a few questions and then prepares to leave.  As he gets dressed, Lydecker ask if he can accompany him, saying that murder is one of his favorite subjects to write about, and McPherson consents.

As they leave, we see that both men wear fedoras, but here too there is a difference.  McPherson creases his hat in the teardrop style, characteristic of detectives, reporters, and gangsters; Lydecker’s fedora is in the center-dent style, with a crease down the middle, worn by businessmen and politicians.  As cynical as Lydecker is, he is therefore not hardboiled like McPherson, but just an effete intellectual with an acid tongue.

Later in the movie, Lydecker’s narration is addressed to McPherson, instead of to us in the audience, as Lydecker tells him about how he met Laura and how they became good friends.  It takes the form of a flashback, as Lydecker tells how he became instrumental in advancing her career in advertising.  And he tells of the men in Laura’s life.  These men made him jealous.  First, she started seeing Jacoby, the artist that painted her picture.  Lydecker says he never liked the man, saying, “He was so obviously conscious of looking more like an athlete than an artist.”  Lydecker wrote a scathing column ridiculing the man and his art.  Laura had no respect for Jacoby after that.  There were other men, but her own discretion soon eliminated them.  But then she met Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) at a party thrown by Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), a rich woman upon whom Shelby was financially dependent.  Eventually, Laura became engaged to Shelby.  Determined to put an end to their plans to be married, Lydecker proves to Laura that Shelby has been unfaithful to her, fooling around with a model named Diane Redfern and continuing his relationship with Ann as a kept man.  She becomes so upset that she decides to go to her house in the country for a few days to think things over.  But that was the night she was murdered.

All this can be thought of as a narration within a narration, so there is no logical difficulty with that.  Eventually, the movie becomes detached completely from Lydecker’s narration, either to us or to McPherson, for we see events unfold without Lydecker’s presence and without hearing his words.  Even this is not problematic, for we can suppose that Lydecker is still narrating, after a fashion, telling us about events he only learned about secondhand or filled in with his imagination.

One night, McPherson is alone in Laura’s apartment, going through her letters, 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 good 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 getting out of bed, taking off his pajamas, putting on his clothes, talking to people or doing stuff, after which he puts his pajamas back on, and then gets back in bed, so that when he wakes in the morning, we are not supposed to know whether he was dreaming or not.  However, there is one movie in which that sort of happens, The Night Walker (1964), in which Barbara Stanwyck keeps being awakened in the middle of the night, when she is in bed, and she is not sure whether these events really happened, or she merely dreamt them.

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 obvious 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 in the end, his narration, which began at the beginning of the movie, 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 William Holden tell us his story as he floats 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 loaded with buckshot, 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, who identified the body, nothing is said in that regard. In fact, Ann is so casual about her ability to identify Laura that we would assume Laura was shot in the chest, if we thought about that at all.  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 tried to kill Laura out of jealousy over Shelby, that he mentions that the woman Lydecker thought was Laura, Diane Redfern, was shot in the face with both barrels.  (She and Shelby were using Laura’s apartment to have sex while Laura was out of town.)

This raises the question as to exactly how Ann could have identified the body in that case.  Normally, when someone is murdered, the police take the body to the morgue.  So, I figured that Ann was brought to the morgue, and she identified the body there.  But how could she have known whose body it was, when it had its face blown off?  Then Ann says of Bessie, Laura’s maid, “I’ll never forget her scream when she saw Laura lying there.”  Does that mean they were both in the morgue at the same time?  No, that doesn’t sound right.  Perhaps the idea is that the police, contrary to what is usual, brought Ann over to the apartment where Diane’s body was still lying on the floor, and that’s where she identified it as Laura.  In that case, her identification was more inferred:  the body was of a young woman, wearing Laura’s negligee, and lying on the floor in Laura’s apartment.  And then Bessie came walking in, saw what she thought was Laura’s body, and screamed.

That would be fine, except that it was Bessie that found the body in first place.  She tells McPherson that she found the body the next day.  To protect Laura from any scandal, she hid a bottle of cheap scotch and wiped the fingerprints off the glasses before the police arrived.  That means she was already there when Ann was brought to the apartment to identify the body that Bessie had presumably already said was that of Laura.  But in that case, Ann would not have heard Bessie scream, her initial shock having long since passed.

In any event, this delay in giving us this crucial piece of information about a shotgun blast to the face 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), Cary Grant 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 James Woods 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 face.

Just before McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment, he gets a visit from Lydecker, who has found out that the detective 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 the 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 not the first reference to dreaming, nor is it the last. Some references are minor:  Lydecker refers to Shelby’s dreams, and Laura talks about her dreams of a career when she was growing up.  More significantly, 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.  The theme song to this movie later had lyrics written for it by Johnny Mercer, the last line of which says that Laura is only 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.  But there might be another wish-fulfillment aspect to this dream:  homophobia.  When I first saw this movie in the late 1960s, back when I was in college, I never suspected that half the movie was a dream.  But another thing I never suspected was that anyone in the movie was a homosexual.  As far as I could see, Lydecker was in love with Laura, Shelby was engaged to marry Laura, and Ann was in love with Shelby—all heterosexual relationships.

I knew there was such a thing as homosexuality, of course, but I figured it was rare.  And what there was of it was informally segregated.  My fraternity brothers, as part of my education as a pledge, told me about a diner and a nightclub that was strictly for homosexuals.  They didn’t call them “gay bars,” of course.  For that matter, they didn’t use the word “homosexual” either.  But the point seemed to be that the homosexuals had their world and we had ours.

As a result, I never suspected that anyone I knew was a homosexual, unless I heard a rumor to that effect, and even then I didn’t half believe it.  More to the point, though I had seen lots of old movies on the late show, yet I never saw one where I thought to myself that one of the characters was a homosexual.  It would not be until I saw The Boys in the Band (1970) that I was aware of homosexual characters in a movie.  In that movie, a straight character is educated about the various forms of homosexuality, and I was almost as ignorant on the subject as he was.  Even now, I mostly know that old movies featured queer flashes and homosexual themes because I read about it.  In particular, I have read that Clifton Webb was a homosexual and that Vincent Price was bisexual.  As for Judith Anderson, though I have not read anywhere that she was a lesbian, yet her iconic role in Rebecca (1940) would apparently forever leave her with homosexual connotations.  Of course, just because an actor is a homosexual, that does not mean he is playing one in a movie.  But many critics seem to believe that the subtext of homosexuality in Laura is present through the characters portrayed by these three actors.

The point of all this is that I still do not see the any homosexuality in this movie, and on my own, I would never suspect any.  But always endeavoring to have an open mind, I am willing to consider that the movie is rife with homosexual undercurrents.  So, let us assume as much and see where it takes us.

To a homophobe like McPherson, it must have seemed to him that Laura lived in a world of homosexuals, something he detested.  At one point during the dream phase of the movie, Shelby puts his hand on Mcpherson’s shoulder as he starts to walk away, and McPherson turns and punches him in the gut.  The first few times I saw this movie, I thought he disliked Shelby because he was something of a gigolo, being kept by Ann, who regularly gave him money.  But if we assume that McPherson is seething with contempt and hatred for Shelby because he is a homosexual, then his brutality makes sense that way too.  When this movie was remade for television in 1968, Shelby was played by Farley Granger, another actor known for having homosexual relationships, and who played a homosexual in Rope (1948), although I would never have guessed that about him or the role he played either.  Just something else that I read.

Needless to say, McPherson has Lydecker killed off in his dream for the same reason.  It must have been maddening to him that Laura seemed to have an affinity for homosexuals, and his dream allows him to give vent to his violent impulses.  Ann is let off easy, however, for the simple reason that heterosexual men, even those that are homophobic, never really mind lesbians, as long as they are lipstick lesbians, of course.  In fact, your typical pornographic movie, intended for male heterosexuals, will usually have at least one scene in which two lesbians have sex.  That way the men in the audience get to see two naked women instead of just one.  But such a movie will never have a scene in which two men have sex.  Those scenes belong strictly in the homosexual subgenre of pornography.

Furthermore, we might interpret Lydecker’s motive as heterophobia, disgust at the thought of men and women having sex.  We never have the impression that Lydecker wants to have sex with Laura, which is consistent with his being a homosexual.  Rather, he seems to regard her as part of his expensive collection of beautiful art objects, the epitome of which is a pendulum clock, of which there are only two in existence.  He gave Laura the other one, symbolic of the bond between them.  While McPherson is snooping around in Lydecker’s apartment, it occurs to him that the clock might have a secret compartment, one in which a shotgun might be hidden.  He can’t figure out how to unlock it, however, so he kicks it in, shattering the glass door.  I always cringe when I see him do that.

This crude treatment of something beautiful is just what Lydecker imagines McPherson’s treatment of Laura will be.  When it becomes clear that Laura is in love with McPherson, he says to her, “With you, a lean, strong body is the measure of a man, and you always get hurt.”  Shortly thereafter, he says, “If McPherson weren’t muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, you’d see through him in a second.”  When Laura expresses her determination to marry McPherson, he says, “I hope you’ll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly earthy relationship.”

Having failed to kill Laura to keep her from marrying Shelby, Lydecker decides to kill her now to keep her from marrying McPherson.  In explaining to Laura why he is going to kill her and then himself, while holding the shotgun on her, he says:  “The best part of myself—that’s what you are.  Do you think I’m going to leave it to the vulgar pawing of a second-rate detective that thinks you’re a dame?  Do you think I could bear the thought of him holding you in his arms, kissing you, loving you?”  She manages to push the shotgun away and run for the door, just as McPherson and the other detectives have broken in.  One of the detectives shoots Lydecker, the shotgun blast destroying the other clock.

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.

And we can also enjoy the movie even if we think everyone is heterosexual, which is still the way I experience it.

2 thoughts on “Laura (1944)

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