“McPherson, if you know anything about faces, look at mine. How singularly innocent I look this morning. Have you ever seen such candid eyes?”
“Laura considered me the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she’d ever met. I was in complete accord with her on that point. She thought me also the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world…. McPherson, you won’t understand this, but I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.”
“Have any luck?”
“Let me put it this way. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.”
Laura is a stealth movie. It sneaks up on you. It’s so beautifully made, its elements so seamlessly woven together that it’s possible to watch it a number of times and enjoy it for its formal components—Joseph LaShelle’s Oscar-winning cinematography, with its impeccably composed shots and gorgeous lighting; the sharp, clever dialogue of Jay Dratler, Betty Reinhardt, and Samuel Hoffenstein (adapting Vera Caspary’s novel), delivered by the uniformly excellent ensemble; Bonnie Cashin’s costumes, so flattering and chic on both Gene Tierney and Judith Anderson; David Raksin’s evocative score, most famous for its haunting title theme; and Otto Preminger’s brilliant direction—without feeling the undertow of its subterranean pull. Laura’s flawless surfaces are seductive, but that’s the point: The milieu of careless affluence and privilege carries with it a kind of rot that infects its characters. Laura’s distinctive finish, like that of its characters, conceals the murky depths beneath so successfully that you can love it without letting yourself be pulled into its deeper mysteries.
I’m assuming that you, Gentle Reader, have some knowledge of the film, but if you don’t, be advised that there are spoilers a-plenty. If you need a plot synopsis you can find one here.
Waldo Lydecker is our guide to Laura’s underworld, the urgent, unexamined desires that drive its characters and story. And it is Waldo, the wasp-tongued columnist and radio commentator, who bookends the movie, which ends with his last gasp and begins with one of the greatest opening lines ever:
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.”
If the movie itself is very close to impeccable, the characters are all flawed. Nobody in Laura is clean. Even Laura Hunt herself, played by Gene Tierney as a photographic negative of the gorgeous monster she portrayed a year later in Leave Her to Heaven, is not completely clean, though she certainly sits at the virtuous end of the continuum along which the other characters are arrayed, with Waldo at the far end and McPherson, Ann Treadwell, and Shelby Carpenter somewhere in between. Laura’s sin is one of omission, and it kills Diane Redfern and in the end almost kills Laura as well. She couldn’t bring herself to turn away from Waldo, who had done so much for her. It would have been awkward within their shared social circle. And as Laura knows all too well, Waldo does not let his enemies go in peace. So she tried to find a middle path, to begin to build a life for herself while keeping Waldo as a close friend.
Let’s talk about Waldo. He’d like that. Waldo talks a great deal about himself. He also thinks a lot about himself, his obsession with Laura, Laura’s obsession with handsome men, how he can disentangle her from the latest one, and how he can restore their normal routine, an unending series of evenings alternating between him squiring her to openings, parties, and restaurants, and quiet little dinners at his apartment, just the two of them listening to his records or better, her listening to him read his latest column—he says the way she listens is more eloquent than speech, and he loves her best as a passive listener with no needs, desires, or voice of her own.
Within the action of the movie, that is, in the wake of Laura’s murder, Waldo has new concerns: fingering Shelby for the murder and getting back his clock from Laura’s apartment before McPherson finds the murder weapon Waldo stashed inside its hidden compartment after shooting Laura/Diane.
Here’s a central question from which a great deal of bad analyses flows: Is Waldo gay? If we answer Yes, the story doesn’t make any sense. Robert Ebert’s analysis goes down this road and comes back empty, with Ebert concluding that the movie is all style, with which I respectfully disagree.
I too was an unexamined Yes to this question until I read Despina Veneti’s and Olivier Eyquem’s reflections on Waldo at their website Preminger Film Noirs. Some writers go a lot further, suggesting that both Shelby Carpenter and Ann Treadwell are also gay, while Foster Hirsch says that Laura herself may have some “sexual surprises” up her sleeve. Of these last there is not a single shred of evidence in the movie, and even Waldo’s assumed homosexuality hangs on rather flimsy premises. That Clifton Webb himself was gay is not in dispute. At the time of his star-making turn in Laura, Webb was a 55-year-old Broadway veteran, a musical comedy star with no significant experience in movies or playing drama. Webb had appeared in a few silents and was briefly under contract to MGM in the ’30s, but they let him languish until his contract ran out, and he went back to New York, back to the stage. But to conflate Webb’s sexual orientation with Waldo’s is an error, as Despina points out. Yet that one fact about the actor and a single line in the film, addressed to Laura just before Waldo tries to kill her for the second time (“The best part of myself, that’s what you are”) are the poor shreds of evidence that support the idea that Waldo is gay, and while the first is simply irrelevant, the second doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny.
If Waldo wanted to be Laura, that wouldn’t indicate that he’s gay—gay men don’t want to be women. Nobody has yet suggested that Waldo was transgender, but I’m sure that notion is already in some critic’s pipeline. No, Waldo wants to be the person he thinks Laura thinks he is—“the kindest, gentlest, most sympathetic man in the world”: He knows he’s none of those things, but under Laura’s compassionate gaze he can pretend that he is both lovable and capable of loving. As long as Laura stays within the airless precincts of their relationship, Waldo can perpetuate his illusion that she is his creation rather than an autonomous person whose feelings he cannot control. But while Preminger’s Laura, lighter than air and very different from the character as Caspary originally wrote her, has less substance than any of the movie’s other principal characters, she still has desires of her own, and these threaten Waldo enough to go on the attack. The first threat was Jacoby, the handsome artist who painted Laura’s portrait and fell in love with her. Waldo dispatched him via a hatchet job in his column. Waldo’s second rival, Southern ne’er-do-well slime ball Shelby Carpenter, offers abundant dirt for Waldo to use against him, but Laura doesn’t ditch him fast enough, and Waldo’s frustration and bitterness finally boil over into homicidal rage.
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died”
Reflect for a moment on that line, Gentle Reader. Remember that it is spoken by her scorned Pygmalion, the man who went to her apartment, rang the bell, and emptied both shotgun barrels of buckshot into her face at close range. It is, oddly, spoken onto a black screen, and it hooks us instantly and totally, plunging us into the story. But when you stop and think about it, the line raises questions, such as, When and where does he say it, and Who is he talking to?
The screen lightens to reveal Waldo’s living room, his art collection prominently displayed. The clock that is one of the film’s central images and that figures so prominently in the plot is shown at the back of the frame, its top cut off by a glass shelf displaying Waldo’s glass collection, but we do not yet know the significance of the clock, so we see it only as another piece in Waldo’s extensive art collection.
“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 with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. [dramatic pause] I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her, and I had just begun to write Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half open door. [the clock chimes; McPherson walks to it to look it over] I noted that his attention was fixed upon my clock. There was only one other in existence, and that was in Laura’s apartment, in the very room where she was murdered.”
McPherson isn’t the only one interested in that clock, or rather its twin in Laura’s apartment. Next time you see Laura, notice that Waldo keeps showing up at the Laura’s apartment trying to retrieve the clock, which he claims he only loaned Laura. He drops in several times a day, hoping either to get the clock out when McPherson isn’t there or to blackmail the detective into letting him have it back. Waldo is very clever, so in each visit he assesses the current situation with McPherson and his investigation, and Waldo only brings up taking back the clock back if he thinks it’s safe to do so in that moment, that it won’t arouse McPherson’s suspicions.
One key to Waldo is that he is first, last, and always a writer. He thinks in sentences, always planning his next column or essay. Waldo Lydecker’s life is a story he is always writing. At the end of Caspary’s novel, the dying Waldo continues to write out loud, in the third person, until his last breath. Waldo’s ongoing, endlessly revised story about his life occasionally intersects with reality, but much of what he chafes against is the world’s stubborn refusal to conform to his version of it. When McPherson points out to Waldo that two years before, Waldo had reported in a book review that a man was murdered by the same means as Laura, a double barrel of buckshot to the face, but that the guy was actually killed with a sash weight, Waldo says, “How ordinary. My version was obviously superior.” That’s how it is with him—the reality of being Waldo is unendurable, so he obsessively rewrites reality. And the imaginary life he chronicles is as fragile as his priceless collection of glass.
Just after Waldo’s opening narration, we finally get our first glimpse of him. He is soaking in the bathtub of his “lavish” bathroom (Waldo’s term, of course; it is roughly the size of my New York apartment). There he sits on this blazing Sunday, up to his chest in tepid water, writing on a desktop. He is middle-aged, thin, pasty, sunken-chested, graying, with a face that is not handsome but memorable, theatrical, and easy to caricature, and a voice vibrant with malice, curiosity, and disdain. He entertains McPherson from the tub the same way LBJ held conferences from the toilet, to assert his dominance, and then rises from it without embarrassment, giving McPherson the Full Waldo. We know this because we hear the splash of Waldo’s getting up in the tub, and a brief smirk crosses McPherson’s impassive face. Waldo’s second purpose here is to graphically demonstrate to the detective that he has nothing to hide.
Laura expanded the landscape of film noir into the upper class, and Preminger shows the moral rot beneath the well-maintained veneer with clear, understated references to decadence and corruption: Shelby, engaged to Laura while living off Ann and shtupping Diane Redfern; Waldo’s bathtub interview with Detective McPherson; the two quick and scattered references to the fact that when Waldo shoots Diane Redfern in the face, she is in Laura’s apartment with Laura’s fiancé, wearing Laura’s mules and negligee—Shelby certainly lives up to his own description of himself as “not the conventional type”: He’s not just cheating on his fiancée, and not just in Laura’s own bed, not just with a colleague who Laura herself hired, but he’s got her in Laura’s lingerie. Excuse me, I need a quick shower….
The other surfaces of note in Laura are those of the characters’ faces. In a standard movie convention, all of Laura‘s main characters have secrets they are at pains to protect. Even Bessie, Laura’s loyal, adoring housekeeper, destroys evidence in hopes of protecting her beloved boss’s privacy from the prying of the police and the press. Preminger uses this, revealing character by monitoring how successfully each manages their emotions and maintains their secrets. For example, McPherson’s little toy, which he pulls out whenever he wants to rattle Waldo; McPherson pulling out the bottle of cheap scotch Shelby had brought to Laura’s for his meeting with Diane and offering Shelby a drink from it; Waldo showing Laura the results of his private investigation of Laura, then taking her to Ann’s, where he knows they will find Shelby having dinner; Waldo initiating a party to celebrate Laura’s return without first checking with either Laura or McPherson.
Preminger was adamant that Waldo had to be a new face, somebody the movie audience had no preconceptions about. Having worked as a director in New York before coming to Hollywood, Preminger knew that Clifton Webb was not only unknown to film audiences, he was exactly the kind of dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker Preminger needed to ensure that Laura not feel like Los Angeles, that the rarified Manhattan milieu would saturate every frame of the film. Creating a sense of place is one of the mysterious elements of filmmaking. Mean Streets only shot in New York for a few days. Ditto The Apartment, and Rear Window was shot entirely on that extraordinary set at Paramount. But all of them evoke New York. It took some fancy stepping to sell Zanuck on Webb, but as Preminger so often did, in the end he won.
Caspary’s Waldo is as physically different from Clifton Webb as two men could be. Caspary’s Waldo weighs 250 pounds and has a Van Dyke beard. Laird Cregar was the obvious actor to play Waldo when 20th-Century Fox bought the rights to Caspary’s book in June, 1943, and the studio’s press release announced Cregar and George Sanders for the leads. But a lot happened between then and the movie Laura eventually became—for a long time Preminger was the only person who really believed in the project, but he marshaled his enormous energy, will and vision and against formidable odds and obstacles somehow managed to make Laura the film he wanted to make. His Waldo was the haughty, cadaverous Webb. Caspary’s Waldo is as insulting as Preminger’s, but not as succinct. Caspary sometimes said Waldo was partly modeled on Algonquin Round Table regular Alexander Woollcott, a pasty, rotund columnist, radio commentator and all-around character in the New York theatrical and literary scene, he was also the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner; on other occasions she denied it. But Caspary’s Waldo sounds like Woollcott, his rhetorical style flowery and ornamented. Preminger credited one of his screenwriters, the poet Samuel Hoffenstein, with transforming Caspary’s wordy Waldo into the movie’s terser but no less self-dramatizing version of the character.
To me Waldo seems asexual rather than homosexual, a man so estranged from his own body, so disconnected from normal physical sensations that he is disgusted by even the suggestion of the sex act. “I hope you’ll never have reason to regret what promises to be a disgustingly earthy relationship,” he sneers at Laura when she tells him she’s going to be seeing McPherson romantically and that she doesn’t think she and Waldo should see each other again. Also, if Waldo were gay, wouldn’t he evince some desire for the handsome fellas Laura favors? Maybe, but Waldo would have to be at least emotionally functional enough to experience his own desire, and clearly he is not.
Waldo really believes he loves Laura. When she asks him why he’s doing this, as he reveals the results of his private investigator’s report on Shelby, he says, “For you, Laura.” He tells her this days only one day before shooting her (he thinks) in the face at close range. While Waldo’s dirt on Shelby drives Laura to reconsider marrying him, it also reminds her of Waldo’s last foray into controlling her romantic life, and she now doubts both Shelby and Waldo—with good reason: Shelby thinks Laura is guilty, and while Waldo vows to mount a vigorous defense of her in his column, it is as likely that he will use his platform to reinforce the evidence against her. This is what sets Waldo off, bringing his latent violence to the surface in the most brutal way. Brutal—that’s what the newsboys outside Laura’s apartment shout the day after the shooting—”Brutal slaying! Brutal slaying!”
Waldo is weary from the burden of his self-hatred. His constant need for attention, whether acclaim or shock, is his way of compensating and distracting himself from his ever-present awareness of his inadequacies as a man. Waldo’s feelings for Laura flower not when he meets her and sees her extraordinary beauty but when she tells him she feels sorry for him: “You’re a poor man.” She has glimpsed him through the monumental edifice of his narcissism, and he feels a bond with her that he feels with no one else.
Naturally, he sets out to make her a more suitable companion for his celebrated self. When she introduces herself to him as he eats his lunch at the Algonquin she is an untarnished 17, and he undertakes a makeover, changing her hairstyle and advising her on clothes. He also mentors her into a successful career in advertising and a place in New York society. Waldo’s Laura is no less his projection than Judy is Scottie’s in Vertigo—the girl he adores is the one he has created, the one he can control.
Waldo’s Laura is a dream, and the reality of Laura creates a conflict for Waldo that he cannot resolve. When McPherson falls in love with Laura the murder victim, his infatuation is first kindled via Waldo’s seductive depiction of her, then by McPherson’s fetishistic investigation of Laura’s personal effects in her apartment. It would be routine for the detective to read the victim’s correspondence, but McPherson indulges his burgeoning feelings with less ethical investigation, taking the top off a bottle of her perfume and inhaling it, obviously fantasizing about her. Thus, as Veneti points out, Laura is “a shared dream between two men.”
In the end Waldo is as tragic as he is dangerous, and that’s what makes him so compelling. His whole life is built on the fragile structure he has constructed, a huge collection of priceless glass, and his dream of Laura is central to that structure. Without her as his muse to see him as so many things he suffers from knowing he is not—a kind, gentle, sympathetic person, and a man—the whole thing collapses. His life becomes unbearable, and he has no option but to end it and to take his creation with him. The idealized relationship he spins to McPherson is a living death, a closed system in which he and Laura forever remain frozen in place. Laura is too much alive to submit to this static condition. Waldo, speaking of McPherson, tells Laura: “I don’t deny that he’s infatuated with you in some warped way of his own. But he isn’t capable of any normal, warm human relationship.” That is, he thinks he’s talking about McPherson, but we know what Waldo, as clever as he is, cannot see: He’s really describing himself.
“He’ll find us together, Laura, as we always have been, as we always should be, as we always will be”—nothing less than that, a static eternity, will satisfy Waldo. Those are his last words before he lifts the gun to take one more crack at the woman he “loves.” In a few seconds he will be fatally shot by one of McPherson’s men, and his own last shot will miss Laura and McPherson but smash the clock’s face. Waldo slumps, defeated, dying. Laura and McPherson move past the camera to go to Waldo, and the camera moves forward, coming to rest on the destroyed face of his priceless clock.
Again, as at the beginning, we hear Waldo’s voice offscreen: “Goodbye, Laura…. Farewell, my love.”