In Love with a Corpse
On Saturday morning, I received a letter from the lady to whom I was married, and with whom I was very much in love, and I couldn’t figure out what she was saying… On Sunday evening, I pulled it out of my pocket, smoothed it out and put it on the piano and started to read it. And it suddenly dawned upon me, she was saying “Farewell, buddy.” And that hit me very hard, and believe it or not, as corny as it may seem, that’s when I started to play the theme on the piano.
—David Raksin, commentary track, Laura
Have you ever heard a ghost ask for eggs?
—Laura (Gene Tierney), Laura
The camera pans an ornate apartment, with glass cases, exotic statuary, exquisite vases, and a marble clock that chimes. “I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York,” intones Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). “For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone.” Ah yes. Waldo’s famous self-indulgence is all over Otto Preminger’s Laura, at once a sweeping romance, grim film noir, and devastating indictment of power—self-claimed, willfully ignorant, and masculine in all forms, ranging from fey to lesbian.
The opening scene introduces the film’s primary figures—Waldo, the apparently dead and unseen Laura (Gene Tierney), and the detective investigating her murder, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). Immediate tensions arise between the effete Waldo and the workaday Mark, whose cigarette dangles from his mouth and attention remains on the handheld puzzle-toy he carries at all times, a means to steady his nerve and help him appear more distracted than he might be.
The film inspires a sense of grandeur in its readers, as well, or at least it does in film historian Rudy Behlmer, who announces right off that if you haven’t seen the film—a “mystery,” after all—you need to turn him off and watch it through on your own. Not a bad idea. He goes on to “begin at the beginning,” tracing the story’s initial forms (possible play, novel, shopped-around screenplay) by Vera Caspary. Behlmer fills out his assessment with quotations from letters written by Caspary and her friends, especially regarding the creation of Waldo. In relating the film’s history, he includes the sorts of details you’d expect, dates, titles, and meetings from the principals’ careers, including Caspary’s struggles to bring the story to screen, possible sources for Waldo’s snidely persona, and Preminger’s early bit parts as Nazis.
A second commentary track features Wesleyan film professor Jeanine Basinger, with intermittent, unconnected observations by composer David Raksin (“We’re running the film Laura, and I am supposed to remember things about it, which I doubt I can be prevented from doing,” and later, “Now a little underscoring music, because there’s a slightly dramatic scene here, so the music is messing around with that”). This bifurcated track is slightly less concerned with background, though historical minutiae do bubble up: Webb was originally a stage singer and dancer, then typecast by Laura; Andrews is excellent in Best Years of Our Lives and “also sexy and his performances always contain an under-the-surface sense of highly charged emotions.” And don’t forget the guy playing the seeming gold-digging baby villain Shelby, Vincent Price, is here young and handsome, “always playing weaklings or misguided playboys,” not yet arrived at his “natural milieu, the horror film.” Or even the odd configuration, at Laura’s apartment, where Basinger notes, “You again see the beautiful Oscar-nominated art direction and interior decoration that caused this film to be nominated.” Such loopy notation is less helpful than distracting.
Thank goodness the film is superb. While Laura‘s plot machinations are surely famous in their own right (the dead woman who isn’t quite, the mobile frames that conjure subjective truths, the sinuous slides between past and present), they are most interesting as they than as Laura becomes an object of obsession for Shelby and Mark. Alas, in this venture they only try to keep up with the irrepressible Waldo, who insists early on that he loved her because she saw in him the best he might be: “I tried to become the kindest, gentlest, most sympathetic man in the world,” he sniffs, to accommodate her evaluation. That he doesn’t achieve that end comes as no surprise, but it’s rewarding just to hear him say it. Most sympathetic indeed.
The bulk of the film is comprised of Waldo’s recollections, as he possesses Laura in and as memory. On one level, he’s claiming her for the benefit of his new audience, the detective who finds himself swept up by Waldo’s version of the woman. Waldo recalls heir first meeting, when the young designer approached him in a restaurant, uncouth and youthfully idealistic. And then, as he recalls the moment when Laura met Shelby—primary though not only threat to his own barely submerged queer dominance—Waldo’s language reverts once more to a sort of rapturous viciousness. It was, he sighs, a party at Ann Treadwell’s (Judith Anderson, best known as scary lesbian Mrs. Danvers), he observes, “one of her usual roundups of bizarre and nondescript characters, corralled from every stratum of society.” Youch.
Waldo’s distaste is surely entertaining, as is his yowly loss of control, as he presumes his spying on Laura for the past few months has granted him not only access but also prerogative. It’s also at this point in Waldo’s narration that Mark begins to lose interest, or at least thinks he needs another perspective on events. When Mark tries out his own meeting with Shelby, he finds himself beset by a “delegation” of suspects, the fretful threesome made up of Shelby, Waldo, and Ann (revealed as Shelby’s erstwhile benefactor and would-be fiancée, if only Laura hadn’t attracted him away from her).
Mark, being a decent working class guy himself, has by this point also sought the counsel of Laura’s maid Bessie (Dorothy Adams), who not only loves her dead employer, but also comments freely on the arrogance of her so-called friends. And so he’s prepared to suspect all these rich folks (faux-rich, in Shelby’s case), who only seem to be playing games with one another, and are now trying to do the same with him, to monitor his inquiry. Waldo again instantly assesses and names the moment: “I just popped in to pay my dubious respects and inquire as to the state of your health. Insipid, I trust.” And now you know just why Laura was attracted to this bony-chested snob at all: Waldo is so deliciously dark and mean-spirited, so loquaciously intolerant of those he deems beneath him, that he’s delightful. He’s also nearly as smart as he thinks; recognizing the detective as a moony romantic, he sneers, “You’d better watch it McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”
McPherson is in love of course, as you are too. And with him, you want to see Laura rescued from these vultures. Waldo leaves him to doze fitfully in Laura’s apartment, beneath her “haunting” portrait. The camera pulls out, as if to enter his dream, and in walks Laura, in her pert raincoat and cap with strings. She’s been in the country, she says, not dead at all but only avoiding contact—broken radio, no newspaper. As Mark questions her, getting nowhere (suspecting she’s involved in the death of the girl who has been mistaken for her), the camera works to keep up with him, even in the relatively small space of Laura’s sitting room.
Laura, however, is willing to wait, to watch him move. And so the scene ends without resolution: McPherson angry for being so easily duped, Laura for being thought killed and now, killer. And this is the film’s focus, at last, the ways that perspectives shape experience. As much as Laura appears to omit or at least repress its title character’s story and perspective, here they return to challenge the male storytellers, Waldo, Shelby, and Mark. It’s a film noir about noir—about judging the woman, telling her story, and making sense of her body, dead or no.