YES, there will be SPOILERS.
“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” – Waldo Lydecker
When it comes to film noir, the 1944 film Laura is a bit of an odd duck. Most detective noirs widen their scope to the lower echelons of society, including the underworld of organized crime. Rich characters may be revealed as slumming among the lower dregs of society, as drug addicts or other kinds of addicts (i.e. The Big Sleep). The crime may have international and/or political implications (i.e. The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown).
Laura never leaves the upper crust world of its handful of characters. It’s structured more like an English cozy mystery. Instead of a matronly busybody, a professional detective investigates the crime.
The film opens after Laura Hunt’s (Gene Tierney) murder has occurred and is narrated by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). He is a newspaper columnist and radio commentator who was her friend and mentor. Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) questions him. He also interviews her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and aunt, Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson).
As McPherson learns about her life, reads her letters and gazes at her portrait, he becomes entranced by the dead girl. While he sleeps in a chair in her apartment (dreaming of her?) in walks the very much alive Laura Hunt. McPherson must then ascertain who is the true murder victim, and if Laura herself is the culprit.
This is a simple plot for a noir, with a humdinger of a twist in the middle.
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her.”
I wrote last week about the shadow archetype. The McPherson/Lydecker dynamic is in many ways the classic hero/shadow dynamic. McPherson, in spite of not being in the military during wartime (explained with a story about getting a shin full of lead during a daring arrest) represents an ideal of masculinity of the “Greatest” Generation–physical, tough, and hardboiled in his attitudes about life and women. Lydecker is effete and debonair. While McPherson can land a zinger, he is taciturn. Lydecker is acerbic, witty and verbose. They are opposites and yet they share one thing in common: an obsessive love for the same woman, even when they both think she’s dead.
It’s impossible to discuss the character of Lydecker without speculating about his sexuality. Producer/director Otto Preminger pushed for the casting of Webb. Studio head Daryl Zanuck objected. The fact that Webb was known to be gay within the industry (though not the general public) was likely one reason. (Another may have been that Webb, who was already well into his 50s, had not done a film since the silent era.) Zanuck pushed for Laird Cregar as Lydecker. Preminger feared he was so well known as a baddie, the audience would suspect him as the villain right away.
(I unearthed a sad bit a trivia in my research for this article. Cregar died of a heart attack, possibly brought on by a crash diet he was on while preparing to play the Lydecker role.)
Preminger ultimately prevailed. He also prevailed in taking over as director, which Zanuck did not want.
According to Vito Russo in his book The Celluloid Closet, the original script made Lydecker explicitly gay. These references were eventually removed. It was not at all unusual for gay characters to appear in pulp fiction and film noir of the era. Because of the Hayes Code, references to sexuality in movies had to be circumspect. In The Maltese Falcon, there’s no doubt that Cairo and Wilmer are gay. In noir gay men (and sometimes women) were almost always cast as villains. Gay men were usually portrayed as women-haters, which is not quite the case with Lydecker. (He’s more misanthrope than misogynist.) They were also rarely the main villain–more likely they were minions of the main antagonist. Lydecker as a gay main character may have been a first for a Hollywood movie.
Reading the character as gay is plausible. It’s important to remember, however, that we read him that way because he fits certain stereotypes about gay men. Roger Ebert declared that the triangle of Laura, McPherson and Waldo only makes sense if Laura is a boy. I disagree. The love Waldo has for Laura is obsessive, and sometimes obsessive love doesn’t have a rhyme or a reason. While his sexuality is ambiguous, his obsession with her is not. Even if they had been explicit about his sexuality, Waldo is explicit about his love/obsession for Laura. He tells her that not having her has made him bitter and calls her “my love” as he is dying.
Both the subtext and text make it clear that he is not interested in her sexually. So it’s plausible to read the character as asexual. He could be a latent homosexual (perhaps his anger at Laura’s interest in other men is that he feared losing her as a beard). Or even a heterosexual older man who is impotent or fearful he cannot match up to the masculinity of the younger men in her life. Or, as my mother commented while she watched the movie with me just before I started writing this article: “He’s a prig! A prude!”
I think the ambiguity is one of the reasons Lydecker remains to this day such a beguiling character. The obsession with Laura doesn’t fit with the other stereotypical gay aspects to his character. Which makes him a far more layered and complex character than he might have been if everything had been spelled out for the audience.
As McPherson’s shadow, he represents repressed aspects of his personality. Does that mean the story is saying McPherson has repressed homosexual tendencies? Perhaps. It’s not unusual in stories for there to be an intentional homoerotic vibe between men who are in love with the same woman. Nor is it unheard of for male characters in pulp fiction to fight against homosexual desires (i.e. James M. Cain’s novel Serenade). Some reviewers make much of the first scene where McPherson interviews Lydecker while he sits in the bathtub with his typewriter. Then he stands up and asks him to hand him a robe. McPherson coolly hands him the robe and smirks slightly.
(It’s interesting to note that in a television remake of the movie, the scene is shot quite differently. Robert Stack, who plays McPherson, tosses the robe without looking at Lydecker and almost bolts out of the room. George Saunders–who was once in the running for the movie role–plays Lydecker.)
Later, Waldo recounts his history with Laura at their favorite restaurant. It’s almost like he’s taking McPherson on a date. What emerges from his tale is how he shaped Laura from an ambitious rube to an elegant and successful career woman. Waldo’s most telling line: “She became as well-known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation.” To Waldo, Laura was an accessory, an essential part of his persona. She was not an individual, living, sexual person.
This is a clue to both Lydecker’s and McPherson’s personalities. McPherson is a man who is just as afraid of dealing with women as human beings as Lydecker. He comments to Lydecker that “a dame got a fox fur” out of him once. He also claims he only knew one woman who wasn’t a dame, but ended it with her because she kept taking him to look at furniture. The implication, of course, is that he fears marriage.
The fact that he falls in love with Laura when he thinks she’s dead–well, there’s just no way around it. It’s creepy. Like Waldo, he seems to want to love only an idealized, untouchable, unattainable woman.
One of the most beautiful things about Lydecker is how he has McPherson’s number almost from the get-go. He catches on to McPherson’s growing obsession with Laura. He relishes tormenting him with the knowledge. A typical aspect of a shadow character is how they can pick up on truths about the hero that others can’t. Lydecker understands McPherson’s captivation with this woman even though he doesn’t know her. Though he declares in the opening monologue that he was the only one who knew her, neither man bothers to know her at all.
Noir often deals with male anxiety over female power and sexuality. Laura Hunt may be the nicest femme fatale to appear in a noir, but she’s still a femme fatale. She seems to know it. She blames herself for the suspicions the police have about her fiancé Shelby and for the death of Diane Redfern. (The true murder victim.) She is not a man-eater, though by her own admission she used Waldo to help advance her career.
She’s also amazingly stupid when it comes to men. (One of the best non-Waldo lines in the movie is when McPherson comments that she has surrounded herself with a remarkable collection of dopes.) Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen Shelby as a lazy user and horn dog from a mile away. (It’s amusing that Laura’s aunt’s maid sees it when Laura doesn’t.) In spite of his success with women, Shelby is a foil both for Lydecker and McPherson. He represents another less-than-ideal portrait of masculinity. He is weak and willing to let women take care of him.
While Laura may not be a man-eater, she is strong-willed. She ignores McPherson’s instructions to not talk to or see anybody after her “resurrection.” Her explanation: “You forced me to give you my word. I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will.” The idea of a woman with a free will is terrifying to both McPherson and Lydecker.
There’s a lot of complaining in reviews about some of the plot holes in the movie (yadda-yadda-yadda–I’ve yet to see a film noir with a plot that holds up to scrutiny). One of the big objections is how McPherson, after finding the murder weapon in the clock, puts it back and leaves Laura alone before Waldo has been arrested. Might there be a subconscious reason for it? In spite of the assumption that McPherson and Laura are heading for a happy ending, the brevity of their relationship and McPherson’s issues with women make it seem unlikely.
It’s also telling, I think, that it’s not McPherson who kills Waldo, but another cop. In most stories, the hero vanquishing their shadow is symbolic of the hero overcoming the dark and negative aspects of their personality that they shared with their shadow figure.
Waldo himself might disagree with that analysis, and declare: “Let’s not be psychiatric.” But I think there’s something to that. This is still a noir. Endings in noir always have some disturbing elements.
Zanuck did not care for the ending and insisted on a new one with the reveal that Lydecker had imagined the whole thing.
How’s this for irony? Columnist Walter Winchell, who was one of the people invited to screen that cut of the film (AND quite likely one of the inspirations for the Lydecker character) insisted to Zanuck that he had to change the ending.
Zanuck complied. Laura went on to great success. Lydecker became one of noir’s iconic villains, cementing Webb’s place in Hollywood history as one of the great character actors of his time.