Laura — the 1944 Film Based on the Novel by Vera Caspary

Laura by Vera Caspary 1943 film poster

Laura, the 1944 film based on the 1943 novel of the same name by Vera Caspary, has earned a secure place among the finest of the film noir genre.

The novel remains Caspary’s best-known work, and its even better-known film version has been preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for its significance. It was also named as one of the 10 best mystery films of all time by the American Film Institute.

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger, Laura starred Gene Tierney in the title role. The three men involved in Laura’s life and subsequently purported death are Dana Andrews as detective Mark McPherson, Vincent Price as Laura’s playboy fiancé, and Clifton Webb as pompous newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker.

 

Plot summary

Laura Hunt, a beautiful and successful New York City advertising executive, has been murdered in her apartment, her face rendered unrecognizable by a direct shotgun blast. The NYC police department has assigned detective Mark McPherson to investigate the case.

He sets out to grill the people in Laura’s life — Waldo Lydecker, the pompous columnist who could boast of using his clout to launch Laura’s career in its early stages; her ineffectual fiancé, Shelby Carpenter, who is also might be construed as a gigolo for her wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell; and Bessie, Laura’s loyal housekeeper.

Reading Laura’s letters, getting to know her through her friends, and gazing at the portrait of her in her lovely Manhattan apartment, Detective McPherson seems to be falling in love with the dead woman. The twist comes as he rests and ponders one night after poking around in her apartment — in walks Laura, very much alive.

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Laura by Vera Caspary -2012 edition

The Ultimate Caspary Woman: Laura by Vera Caspary
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Who was the murder victim, then? Why was she in Laura’s apartment wearing Laura’s robe, and who was she with?

It’s quickly revealed (and this is not a spoiler, as this is still about mid-film) that the victim was Diane Redfern, a down-on-her-luck model whose height and coloring match Laura’s. She was using the apartment with Laura’s permission, and as it seems, was likely canoodling with Shelby.

Laura quickly goes from presumptive murder victim to prime suspect. She is even arrested by McPherson, who is struggling to remain unbiased given his growing feelings for her. Shelby, who possesses a gun, and Lydecker, with his overbearing personality, remain under suspicion.

To say any more would be to reveal spoilers; if the gist of storyline intrigues you, the movie is available to watch on various streaming platforms. But do read the book first. What can’t be captured on film is the book’s shifting perspective between the main characters. Each tells their version of what happened in the first person, a device that inspired Caspary from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

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Laura film poster 1944 starring Gene Tierney
One of several posters for the 1944 film
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From page to screen

Though Laura is sometimes classified in the femme fatale genre, this isn’t accurate. The eponymous heroine is a smart, hardworking, independent woman (her dicey taste in men aside), and the prototype for what Francis Booth calls “the ultimate Caspary woman.”

The following insights into how Laura went from page to screen is excerpted from the forthcoming No One Named Vera Can Ever Tell a Lie: The Novels of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth (reprinted by permission):

Caspary had intended to try to get Laura staged as a play, having given up on Hollywood, and did in fact write the script with collaborator George Sklar. Then Otto Preminger came along. It didn’t go well. Caspary told her side of the story in an article for The Saturday Review of June 26, 1971, called “My ‘Laura’ and Otto’s.’’

Hollywood’s indifference did not break my heart, as I was working on the play at the time. The first draft had been a play that I had buried for almost two years before I wrote the novel. The book was constructed like a play, its scenes dramatically structured, the characters exposed in action, so I thought it a natural for the stage.

Meanwhile, my agent, Monica McCall, who was handling the dramatic rights, had given a typescript of the book to a Broadway producer and director. He liked the story and wanted not only to produce it but to collaborate with me on the revised play. I was flattered because he had a Broadway reputation, because he offered all of his Middle European charm along with an elegant lunch of blinis and caviar. His name was Otto Preminger.

But Preminger “wanted to make it a conventional detective story; I saw it as a psychological drama about people involved in a murder. We fell out over this, and I asked my old friend and collaborator George Sklar to work with me.”

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Film stil from Laura (1944)
Lydecker, Detective McPherson, and Laura’s portrait
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Preminger also wanted Marlene Dietrich to play Laura, which Caspary disagreed with. In the end, despite all the work she and Sklar had put into the play, she rang George one night to say she had decided what to do: “I’m going to offer Laura as a movie and be done with the bitch.”

As part of the contract, she handed over all creative responsibilities to Preminger. When she saw the first version of the script, she wished she hadn’t. She was nowhere near done with the bitch yet. Caspary continues the story in her autobiography.

Ordinarily, authors of books, plays, and original stories are not allowed to read screenplays. Perhaps because I was working for the studio and came twice a week to talk to my producer, Preminger gave me the first draft to read; perhaps because he wanted to show me how he had improved the story.

I had signed away the right to be indignant, but I forgot this and stormed into Preminger’s office. Preminger and the first writer had made it into exactly what I had objected to when Preminger had first offered to write the play with me.

“A commonplace detective story,” I ranted, “and how you’ve dulled the characters, especially Laura.” “In the book,” said Otto, “Laura has no character. She’s nothing, a nonentity.” I raged like a shrew.

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Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)
Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura
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His “well-publicized conquests had taught Mr. Preminger little about women, nothing about the maternal instinct, nothing of a woman’s satisfaction in consoling a troubled man.” Preminger had no appreciation of the qualities of a Caspary girl; probably no one in Hollywood did. “Naturally I resented Preminger’s turning her into the Hollywood version of a cute career girl.”

Caspary is, perhaps disingenuously, astonished at a top Hollywood producer’s lack of understanding of the strong, self-sufficient woman. “Couldn’t Otto understand that a woman could be generous, find jobs, lend money to a man without thought of paying for his sexual services?” No, he couldn’t.

But this was not the end of the matter: before shooting, the script was extensively revised, without Caspary’s knowledge or help, and ended up as something that even she liked.

He would never admit that the script was rewritten after our fight, but to me, this was obvious since the charm, the gaiety, the brilliant humor of the finished film (lacking in the version I read) could only have been the work of Samuel Hoffenstein, distinguished as a wit long before he came to Hollywood. This was not the end of my battle with Preminger.

It wasn’t. Preminger would reappear later, involved in The Murder at the Stock Club. But he hadn’t changed his mind about women.

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Laura by Vera Caspary

Laura  (the 1943 novel) by Vera Caspary
on Bookshop.org* and Amazon*
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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*These are Bookshop Affiliate and Amazon Affiliate links. If a product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

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