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.

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