Antonius Block's Reviews > Laura

Laura by Vera Caspary
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's review
Sep 14, 2007

bookshelves: noir-fiction
Read in July, 2006

We’ve all seen the film, but Caspary isn’t a name that gets mentioned much. Recently reissued by The Feminist Press, Laura is written in a style that Caspary called “the Wilkie Collins method,” or that one could call the “Rashomon method,” in which multiple narrators, who are also characters in the drama, tell fragments of the story from their own perspectives. Waldo Lydecker opens the novel with an abundance of witty, stinging prose, much as he narrates the opening of the film and soon after relishes in a long flashback explaining his relationship with Laura to Detective Mark McPherson. McPherson takes over after the notorious twist with a dry, professional style, and Laura herself writes most of the rest with a perceptive focus on character psychologies and emotions – much of which doesn’t make it into the film except in brief, watered down bits and pieces.

The film version works because it brings the vivid, colorful characters to life, finding a voice for each that is highly distinguished from the others. The major plot points are kept intact although many of the details are changed. Plot, however, is far from Caspary’s main interest; the murder mystery is merely an excuse to create a multifaceted portrait of the modern, independent woman. The mystery here is not who killed who, but rather who is Laura, i.e., the modern woman. The absurdity of some of the plot devices and police procedures only strengthen this view of the story as essentially a sociological mystery, as it were.

As I see it, Laura, the novel or the film, can be considered noir if we consider that the hero is Waldo Lydecker, not Mark McPherson. McPherson is the hero of the conventional love story aspect, the good-looking but sensitive man who is not rich as Laura is, and whom she accepts as a member of the working class despite the misgivings of Waldo, her fairy godfather who in this “proletariat Cinderella story” (as Caspary called it) deglamorizes every man she takes an interest in. In contrast, Waldo is the hero who could not be a hero. Writing about this story, Waldo muses, “I wish I were its hero. I fancy myself a pensive figure drawn, without conscious will, into a love that was born of violence and destined for tragedy.” He is the noir hero, the man alienated by, in his case, physical defects (in the novel he is obese), and obsessed by his desire to possess something he can never have, leading him down a relentlessly tragic path. The novel contains a very telling scene that ought to have been in the film. McPherson and Waldo are driving along a street when they pass an antique shop. Waldo begs McPherson to stop, goes in and demands to buy a vase that he sees in the window and which he must have in his collection. The antique dealer, whom he knows well, says it isn’t available, that it was already purchased by Waldo’s great rival in antique collecting. Unwilling to let it go at that, Waldo intentionally causes an “accident” whereby the vase shatters, and Waldo pays the man its worth. Waldo would sooner destroy something he could not possess rather than let it fall into the hands of a rival; a piece of foreshadowing that is a microcosm of the greater story.

The film, too, has an interesting way of making Waldo’s noir hero the more identifiable protagonist. The movie’s great failing, to my eyes, has always been the poorly developed romance between Laura and McPherson, something which is a good deal more developed in the novel. As it is, Waldo’s line about Laura falling for McPherson simply because of his lean body actually seems accurate, as much as it exposes Waldo’s own jealousy. The movie doesn’t really develop any other motivating factor. The blandness of their romance effectively makes Waldo’s impossible desire that much more empathetic. And besides, isn’t an unrequited love always more compelling than a Happily Ever After?
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