Saturday, July 16, 2016

Who Murdered Laura?

Recently I read The Feminist Press's re-issue of the mystery novel Laura by Vera Caspary. I greatly enjoyed reading the book, including the editor's afterword that discussed Caspary's life and successes. Among those successes was having her novels and screenplays adapted into Hollywood flicks, with Laura being notable on that list. I decided to track down the film version of the story and found that easy to do with it being right on Netflix for instant streaming.

Laura is the story of a young socialite who is murdered in her apartment late one night, just days before her upcoming wedding. In the wake of this event, her friends and acquaintances are shocked while her fiancé starts acting a bit suspicious. Added into the mix is a tough, street-smart detective who is determined to find Laura's murderer and won't be belittled by her society crowd. He soon finds himself obsessed with the dead woman.

The afterword of the novel primed me for the possibility of significant changes between the book and the film by noting that Caspary was appreciative of some of the changes made by Otto Preminger, the film's director, and critical of others -- to the point of getting in a shouting match with Preminger at a restaurant. With that being said though, the changes were actually not hugely dramatic in the end. Those changes include:
  • The viewer gets to see a glimpse of what Laura's life was like with the party scene that was absent in the book but added to the movie. This is undoubtedly a bonus.
  • There is a significant change in the murder weapon from novel to film, which Caspary apparently objected to greatly and lost that battle. The symbolism therefore changes, but in the end, I don't think this was a huge detractor to the story being told.
  • Lydecker is vividly described in the book as an overweight man with a van Dyck beard and a walking cane (which is most likely just an affectation). This person is transformed into a svelte, mustachioed gentleman. Classic Hollywood for you -- everyone has to be pretty, even if they are specifically described as otherwise.
Why?? At least keep the van Dyck beard, if nothing else...

  • Lydecker has a radio program rather than a column. This is quite fitting with the audio-visual medium and is thus a logical change. It also makes for a very haunting scene towards the end when we hear Lydecker's spoken essay on love voiced over a very dramatic moment.
  • Laura's aunt is less of an invalid and more of a fiancé snatcher. She seriously throws herself at Shelby way too much; it's rather disturbing how blithe she is about telling her niece that she's no good for her own fiancé who would be better off with her instead. (Side note: How strange is it to think of Vincent Price as "leading man" material instead of the king of horror??)
Unexpected but ultimately believable --
Vincent Price as old money, handsome "keeper" Shelby
The biggest change, which is the hardest to exactly point how or why it's different, is in the character of Laura herself. She seems like more a damsel in distress or naïve ingénue than the driven and successful career woman of the novel. Again, it's hard to place a finger on exactly what's wrong or different, but there's a je ne sais quoi about Gene Tierney's performance as the titular character that is just off a little. A reviewer for The New York Times back in 1944 says it best:

"Yes, you get the idea that this Laura must have been something truly wonderful. Now, at the risk of being unchivalrous, we venture to say that when the lady herself appears upon the scene via a flashback of events leading up to the tragedy, she is a disappointment. For Gene Tierney simply doesn't measure up to the word-portrait of her character. Pretty, indeed, but hardly the type of girl we had expected to meet. For Miss Tierney plays at being a brilliant and sophisticated advertising executive with the wild-eyed innocence of a college junior." (emphasis mine)

All in all, this is a solid adaptation of the novel that gets the basic story right and has a fantastic noir look to all its scenes, including the ominous black-and-white shadows present in numerous moments. Indeed, all of the lighting works to create beautiful effects. In addition, the moody atmospheric music seals the noir feel, even the romantic titular song written by Johnny Mercer for the movie. But unfortunately the characters are just a *little* wrong, which detracted somewhat from the viewing after readering the book. I'd recommend the novel over the film, unless you're the type who prefers movie watching to book reading. However, it's worth pointing out that, as always, this is just my opinion -- the novel has faded in to relative obscurity while the movie has been put on numerous "best of" lists and important histories of film.

For a Good Time, Call BUtterfield 8

For some reason, within the past month of so the movie BUtterfield 8 came up a couple of times. The first time I came across it (while researching ambiance and facts for a 1960s party I was throwing), it piqued my interest a bit after I heard that Elizabeth Taylor won a Best Actress Oscar for it. The second time it came up (when reading a book that mentioned several infamous cases involving the disappearance, death, and/or murder of young women in the 1940s), I decided I really had to check it out. So I found a copy through my local library and popped it in my DVD player.

Note: This review is going to have spoilers, so beware. But, hey, you've had 50+ years to watch this movie. ;)

BUtterfield 8 starts with Gloria waking up alone in the luxurious apartment suite of Liggett, a man she met the night before. At first, she slowly and seemingly happily wanders about the apartment, admiring the fancy clothes and sundry niceties belonging to Liggett's absent wife. But when she spies a note from him asking if $250 is enough, she goes into a rage and writes "No Sale" across the ornate mirror with lipstick before storming out of the apartment with his wife's mink coat as a revenge. This beginning is veeeery slow and feels like the type that wouldn't fly with modern audiences at all who expect an explosion or a plane crash or a murder in the first scene of any movie or TV show. It's only in retrospect that the viewer actually realizes what is going on, as we are unaware in the long, dialogue-free introduction who Gloria is, where she's waking up, or why she's there. This is not the kind of draw we're used to nowadays.

Gloria then waltzes her way over to the cramped and less refined apartment belonging to her childhood friend and current struggling musician Steve, where she shows off her new coat and whines that the man dared to actually pay her, which confuses Steve -- and frankly, the audience as well at this point -- because he doesn't quite understand what she wants from these meaningless relationships she starts with men. He worries about her future, which she pooh-poohs before getting his girlfriend to come over and lend her a more appropriate outfit to go home to her mother in, as she doesn't want her mother to know who she really is and what she does with her time. The girlfriend is furious at Gloria but complies while she is present, later giving her boyfriend an ultimatum to choose between her and Gloria, to which he sighs that he can't give up on Gloria because he has such a strong bond with her and feels it is his "brotherly" duty to watch out for her. (Although it's difficult to see what exactly he's doing to help Gloria, for it seems that he is only enabling the very behaviors in Gloria that he says he worries about. Also, their "brother-sister" relationship seems to have far more sexual tension than the one between Gloria and Liggett, perhaps not unsurprising given that the actors playing Gloria and Steve - Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, respectively - were newlyweds.)

Eventually Liggett and Gloria make up when she gets him to understand that she chooses and drops men as she pleases and she refuses to accept money or any goods from these men, no matter how wealthy they are or how much they offer her. The two then run off together for days on end without telling anyone where they are or when they'll be back -- a particularly cruel move on Gloria's part as her poor mother sits at home worrying if Gloria is alive or dead. (Liggett's wife meanwhile is safely ensconced with her sick mother and unaware of what her husband is doing back in New York anyway.) Gloria comes to believe she is in love, even though the "romance" between the two is hardly shown and it doesn't seem that they share anything beyond a sexual attraction. This is not helped by a rather wooden performance from Laurence Harvey as Liggett, who always seems rather bored by Gloria except in later scenes when he comes alive with anger. Gloria happily returns to New York and starts bearing her soul to everyone -- from discharging herself from psychiatriatic help because she is "cured" now with her newfound love to finally confessing to her mother about her past indiscretions only to let her know that is in the past now that she's found someone permanent.

However, as someone wise said, karma's a bitch. When Liggett's wife returns home and notices her mink is missing, he immediately (and correctly) suspects that Gloria stole it. A huge and public fight ensues and ends with the two parting ways. A distraught Gloria ends up at Steve's apartment again, truly bearing her soul this time when she confesses to him that she was sexually molested by her mother's boyfriend when in her early teens, a scene that transforms her from a hedonistic character to simply a hurt one. Somehow this confession awakens some sort of bizarre sympathy transference in Steve that causes him to propose to his girlfriend, at which point Gloria quietly sneaks back home to her mother. Gloria decides to start life anew and move away from New York to Boston. But early en route, she is tracked down by a now remorseful Liggett who refuses to let her go. She dashes into her car without him and drives speedily away, but Liggett is just not the kind of guy to take no for an answer. He pursues her in his own car until, in her desperation, she unwittingly drives into a construction pit, her car wretchedly tumbling over and over again with fatal results for Gloria.

Talk about an ending. There is clearly no going back and starting again for a "bad girl" in the late 50s/early 60s. But for a cheating husband? Liggett returns home to his wife and the final lines of the movie are given to him expressing hope that they'll work on their marriage. Wow. Truly, despite all the times that Gloria is referred to as a "call girl" or "high-class prostitute" by other reviewers, the Gloria depicted in the movie makes it clear she doesn't take money from men, although she is happy to flirt with or sleep with whomever she likes. Clearly she has a broken past and her current relationships are in shambles (whether it's lying to her mother, provoking the anger of her only friend's girlfriend, or getting involved with already married men), but her life is not nearly so scandalous or salacious as the movie posters would have you believe. Nevertheless, she pays the ultimate price - her very existence - for living the life of a single woman making her own decisions. For a modern audience, this is a very bitter pill to swallow. It's not surprising to learn that, according to Taylor biographer Alexander Walker, Taylor herself was opposed to doing this movie as it cast in her such a negative role, but alas was under contract with the film's studio, MGM, to make this movie whether she wanted to or not.

The film is based on a novel of the same name by John O'Hara. Never having read that title, I'm not sure how this movie lines up with the book, particularly whether or not the portrayal of Gloria is any different. I suspect that like with many movies that came out in this time period, much had to be left unsaid -- for instance, Holly Golightly's call girl status in Breakfast at Tiffany's. However, as I previously mentioned, I can't say that for certain, not having read the book. It's worth noting that the book was based partially on a real-life drama concerning the mysterious death of Starr Faithfull, which occurred nearly 30 years before this movie was released. I wonder if that contributes even more to the feeling that this movie is very dated.

Indeed, this movie's biggest criticism these days is just how very old-fashioned melodramatic it is. Contemporary audiences give it pretty low rates for being dated and too much of a soap opera. I hate to be one more voice piling on, but these critiques seem fair. This movie is worth watching for a steamy and emotional performance by Taylor, but otherwise it falls flat and rankles with modern-day conceptions of women's autonomy rather than scandalizing viewers with the idea that people have sex outside of marriage.