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Ring Twice for Laura: Vera Caspary’s novel and film Laura

April 17, 2012

I imagine that I am like many people who, once they have seen the film based on a novel, struggle to return to the book and ‘picture’ the character the way the author had originally intended— a compelling dramatic performance has the downside of limiting our imagination through memory. This I found to be very true when reading Vera Caspary’s Laura (originally serialised as Ring Twice for Laura )(1942).

The novel and the film both begin with Detective Mark McPherson visiting renowned columnist Waldo Lydecker to question him about the murder of Laura Hunt.  The backstory introduces us to a woman adored by the men around her.  The proofs of Laura’s attractiveness, which give the men in her life motive and make them suspects, are made plain to the detective, who in turn, develops morally dubious and unprofessional feelings for Laura.

Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker and Dana Andrews as Detective McPherson

It was not the eponymous heroine, nor Detective Mark McPherson, that I had trouble revising when I began Caspary’s novel, (perhaps because in the film McPherson is a close-lipped, hard-boiled type, and Laura seems ephemeral, and changeful, a point emphasized by her adapting to each man she is with). Instead, it was the cultured essayist Waldo Lydecker that proved too difficult to break from Clifton Webb’s 1944 performance.  In the film, Webb sparkles with the acerbic wit of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward. He is at once loathsome and entertaining, pathetic and controlling. The audience’s own interest in him absolves Laura for not seeing his faults more clearly. In the novel, Waldo is fat from his indulgence in fine cuisine, and his physique is compared to McPherson and Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s intended, in a way that makes his inferiority seem too great a hurdle to overcome even in the duality between riches/poverty and brains/brawn that Waldo and Shelby represent as competing forces.  Webb’s confidence in the film, however, is ebullient. That is not to say he’s unaware of his age, and his relative frailty, but that he thoroughly believes his intelligence will eventually win out.

Yet in the novel, Waldo, and Laura’s fiancé the impoverished Southern gentleman Shelby, are given the additional flaw of being of the wrong era.  Caspary creates an unfavourable comparison between Victorian and Modern ages that aligns Laura with McPherson. I don’t think I’m spoiling the ending by saying that one-third of the way through the novel it is revealed that Laura is not dead. Diane Redfern, a love rival of Laura’s, has been killed and her corpse initially mistaken for Laura, who becomes a suspect once she turns up alive. In a fight between the newly resurrected Laura and Shelby, the characters make explicit references to ‘Victorian’ and ‘hardboiled’, creating tension between the Golden Age detective fiction and the hardboiled style:

Shelby: ‘He [McPherson] ought to be hardboiled. You’d expect him to be tougher. I don’t like him trying to act like a gentleman.’

‘Oh, pooh!’ I said.

‘You don’t see it. The man’s trying to make you like him so you’ll break down and confess. That’s what he’s been working for all along, a confession. Damned caddish, I’d say.’

I sat down on the sofa and pounded my fists against a pillow. ‘I hate that word. Caddish! I’ve begged out a million times to quit using it.’

Shelby said, ‘It’s a good English word.’

‘It’s old-fashioned. It’s out of date. People don’t talk about cads any more. It’s Victorian.’

‘A cad is a cad, whether the word is obsolete or not.’

‘Quit being so Southern. Quit being so righteous. You and your damn gallantry.’ I was crying. The tears ran down my cheeks and dripped off my jaws. My tan dress was all wet with tears.

McPherson’s thoughtfulness crosses the class divisions important to the tropes of the Golden Age, but his character is not typical either of the hardboiled style, i.e. he is interested in reading and high culture. Shelby fights against such subversion. Waldo, likewise, uses class and his education of Laura as a means to defeat his opposition. Yet in the novel, Laura is a gutsier, more defiant woman, who will not be bound by past structures; however, her cinematic counterpart is more malleable, and she almost remains a creation of the men around her even after her reappearance.

In Caspary’s novel, the narrative is out of Waldo’s control, an important point to her ‘defeat’ of the Golden Age/Victoriana through him. Caspary’s unique and unsettling approach breaks from a tradition of trusted narrators to rotate between the main protagonists, with Waldo offering a part of the story. By contrast, in the film Waldo is the only narrator, a shift created and fought for by the director Otto Preminger. Although the other characters reveal their feelings through conversation and interrogation, the story remains his, even in his downfall.  

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