Another installment in the blog battle between a classic book and the film it spawned.
I consider “classic film fan” as much a part of my description as my height and eye color. Unlike my weight, the part of me that is a classic film fan never changes. So, it always pains me to recognize aloud what we all know: Talking strictly and only about that aspect of film that purports to reflect real life, classic films sometimes do us a disservice as they give us a cleansed, Motion Picture Production Code–abiding, faux-pristine or just outright fake view of the time in which they were made. Yes, this can be true of modern films as well, but the defining category here isn’t classic films. It’s the untruths of visual media, with a focus on the classic film version of that concept. And, yes, films are designed to present a contrived view of the world. A story is pulled out of thin air, placed into a script, and pushed out in the form of a film. But there’s no getting around that the impressions we form about society—and about earlier times to which we have no contemporary access or the ability to form our own opinion based on observation—are very much connected to what we think we’ve learned from films and television. If those visual media are whitewashed by a stringent and subjective set of guidelines for what may be shown onscreen, such as those promoted by the aforementioned Code, then “fiction” can become “skewed portrayal”.
The most obvious example of the power of visual media is that anybody arrested by the police today would expect to have their Miranda rights read to them before the cuffs closed, not because we all learned in school that this should happen, but because we watch TV, where this is par for the course. And yet…many people don’t realize that unless police custody is accompanied by interrogation, the police do not have to read an arrestee his or her rights, and statements made voluntarily by the arrestee will likely be admissible. We think we’re so right about something we’ve got completely wrong because the power of decades of visual media telling us “what’s true” overcomes fact.
That same kind of influence is at work up and down classic films. While the specifics of the makeup of our perspectives form a very complex question better left to sociologists, anthropologists, historians et al., I think it’s safe to guess that some of our notions about “how things were” come from what classic films tell us. “People back then” did things differently, we say, and we use as the comparison to now what we see in films from then. We take what was depicted in older films to be a reflection of the times in which they were made instead of merely a concurrent art form, again, being very simplistic to make a broad point.
If misrepresentation of contemporary times is a crime committed by some classic films—or by some aspect of most/all classic films—an obvious choice for Culprit No. 1 is the Motion Picture Production Code. In another post, I touched on where the Code had value, especially as it regarded the protection of children, but otherwise, the Code literally wrote the book on skewing representation to achieve a desired impression. That was its whole point and purpose. One of the stated objectives of the Code was preventing a film from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it.” If we don’t show sympathy for criminals, then lack of exposure to same will prevent it from existing, went the thinking. Simply put, the Code scripted lies into movies by scripting out (entirely subjective) undesired behaviors and omitting norms it disapproved of.
Thus, the Code makes reading books written during the classic film era that much more valuable and enriching, for the Code didn’t carry over to books, where the First Amendment instead ruled the day. People in books written in the 1930s said, “Goddammit.” They got away with crimes. They abandoned their children without storyline comeuppance. They drank. Too heavily. They had sex with people they never married. If for no other reason than to get a bit of a fact-check on a decade long gone (because, admittedly, turning to fiction to verify other fiction only goes so far), it’s worth it to read classic books, and more to the theme of this post, books that were later made into classic films in order to gather a kind of juxtaposition.
I recite the above preamble because its notions stuck out glaringly when I recently read Laura by Vera Caspary, a book published in 1942 (but set primarily in the 1930s) that was made in 1944 into a film directed by Otto Preminger. The film starred Gene Tierney as Laura, and Dana Andrews as Det. Mark McPherson, which may cause some confusion for those who don’t recognize the actors and their unisex names. Anecdotally, the film is much beloved in the classic film fan community. As I write this, it has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 60 reviews counted. Alas, the film was watered way down from the book. Way down. Many books take a beating in film form, but this particular book abuse by a film did exponential damage as it perpetrated and perpetuated false norms.
The book tells the story of a young career girl, Laura, who is murdered (by page one, so, no spoilers there), and the week-long investigation into the crime. While the film has loose narration and blurry shifts in perspective (which works excellently—I’m in that “anecdotal” group who loves the film), the book is starkly divided into five sections and uses to wonderful effect a different first-person narrator for four of the sections. We hear from Waldo Lydecker, a lifestyle and crime journalist who mentored Laura in the early stages of her career; Mark McPherson, the detective assigned to the case; Laura, herself; and Mark McPherson again. Squeezed in there is a section consisting entirely of the transcript of an expository and illuminating police interrogation.
Caspary seamlessly shifts from one narrator to the next, but that deftness is not what’s most impressive about the book. It’s that this structure becomes a tool used to provide far more insight into all the characters as we see them through the very different lenses of the three narrators than if Caspary had used one narrator, even an omniscient one. As Caspary hands off the storytelling baton to the next narrator, he or she feels no loyalty to the earlier storyteller. There’s something illuminating about Character A telling you what he thinks of Character B while trying to stay in the reader’s good graces since he knows you’ll soon hear B’s side of the story, only to have B take a turn at narrating and rat out A. Caspary skillfully keeps track of not only details (in a fairly fact-driven crime novel—a feat) but also of characters’ attitudes about those details. She revisits events only when she needs to draw a stark distinction in characters’ perceptions of them or to illuminate a character’s delusions and can best do so by reviewing the same event through a different narrator. When characters contradict each other, their motives for doing so reveal secrets about themselves they probably wish the reader didn’t know. They’re little sacrifies the narrator makes in order to get his or her side of the story told. The reader ends up getting at least two layers out of every moment, which makes the shifting, competing narrators a far better storytelling device than simple all-knowing exposition. Because the book focuses on just a week’s worth of events, the characters don’t have a lot of time to pivot while dealing with an enormous and perplexing crisis. This adds psychological layers as three people reporting—and solving—the same crime through their own self-serving narratives feel crowded in by their fellow storytellers, all the while themselves less practiced and polished in their narration for the shortage of time needed to get their stories straight. The format makes for a claustrophobic, taut week.
Caspary wastes no time getting to the gossipy telling of events. She begins on page 1 with Waldo’s snarky version of Laura’s history. Waldo paints himself in a positive light as a mentor who doted on a single girl in the big city, even as he calls himself “the most mercenary man in America”. Along the way, we get a nice portrait of 1930s New York. Waldo not only provides a charming picture of the lower-upper crust of the city, but he lays out for us where the land mines are in Laura’s life so that we can begin to guess which one she stepped on.
Leapfrogging two narrators (Mark McPherson and the interrogation scene) for a second, it is not until Laura’s eerie version of events that we begin to see how hard life has been for her forging a career in the 1930s while maintaining a romantic life. By the time Laura gets her turn to talk, we’ve heard from three men who have attempted to define her, something she’s not only aware of but that she resents. Whether it is an accurate depiction or wishful thinking on Caspary’s part, through Laura’s blunt narration about all of what she’s sick of, we get a frank, non-Code view of women’s rights, sexual freedoms, dating expectations, and attitudes about career versus marriage that is far broader than what classic films of the Code Era offered. While Waldo describes Laura as a hardworking blank canvas waiting for him to paint culture and access onto her life, we learn from Laura that, in some ways, every single day of her new, successful existence has been a struggle because she has helmed her own life, forged her own way, made her own decisions and discernments, and benefitted or paid prices along the way. Caspary, again, achieves two goals with one narration moment: We hear Laura’s version of events and we observe a general sexism that Laura had to wait in line behind three men to tell her own story.
No spoilers, especially as to how Caspary approaches the murder victim narrating events, but at least four men factor into Laura’s outlook on romance, a number that is carried over to the film but in a way that makes Laura less a participant in relationships with these men and more an observer of their purported admiration of her, a Code-washing, so to speak. In the book, Laura has been a mentee who’s been used, and a friend and a girlfriend who’s been royally dissed. It is this mistreatment that humanizes her, a quality the film never quite manages to get across, arguably because everywhere where the film brings Laura to the edge of what makes a character more relatable—infidelity, dishonesty, murder—it pulls only Laura back from the precipice and no one else, working hard to give the impression she’s above the fray, merely an observer in the unilateral actions of others. This technique—or tactic—somewhat backfires, as it only works to disengage Laura from the other characters and strip her of some of the humanity we want to see as we watch everyone else in the film drain her dry. Indeed, although Laura is dead, everyone regularly convenes in her apartment to hash out every possible grievance and throw accusations of murder at one another. Even in death, they relentlessly take from her and offer almost nothing in return, not even to her memory.
If there is a book exception to the above film dynamic, it is Detective Mark McPherson, who factors significantly into all five sections of the book, and who, with his ever-presence and his job as a cop, forms the moral compass and the barometer of the book. If you want to know what’s really going on, and what’s right, you look to Mark McPherson’s hard-boiled take on events. It is very hard to describe well, without also spoiling many of the moments that make Laura an enriching read, the deep, seemingly way ahead of its time, dumpster dive into the lives and psyches of everyone in Laura’s orbit McPherson makes when he’s batter up for narration, but we see it all here: normal things like gay existence, premarital sex, parties, love, familial ties, the art of going to work every day, and wealth, and twisted things like stalking, obsession, delusion, betrayal, murder, and not just whodunit, but the strange whydunit, almost none of which comes through in the film, either at all or, if so, in the same way as in the book, as good as the movie is.
In fact, if you’ve only seen the film, it turns out, through no fault of your own, you don’t know the half of it. The book starts out as “Clifton Webb light” as the film does (Webb plays Waldo to snarky, snotastic perfection and delivers an airy voiceover as he describes his mentor relationship with Laura), but Caspary was freer than Preminger to explore the darker side of the lives of socialites that might lead to murder. Through a wealthy aunt, an irreverent housekeeper, a friend, and a butler, we’re treated to an intriguing supporting cast that drives the story in the book more than in the film. Caspary’s version of “the people surrounding the victim” mimics that messy part of real life that the Code couldn’t control in terms of fringe relationships, dodgy co-workers, sneaky boyfriends, jealous older female relatives, wannabe husbands, the nosy, nosy tabloid-reading public, and dirty old men. Not only does Caspary let us glimpse the underbelly of how a woman with four men in her life could end up dead, but the sensibilities of the players in Laura’s world are far less vanilla than the Code would want you to think was possible. You realize, when reading the book, that people have pretty much always been the same. “People back then” were like people now.
When watching the film, you get a different take, and it’s a shame the Code interfered, as it did, with Caspary’s supporting cast of characters (two of whom are played by Dame Judith Anderson and Vincent Price—an embarrasing waste of an embarrassment of riches). These folks are woefully missed in the film, in terms of the layers they should be bringing from the book but aren’t. Most strikingly different is Bessie, Laura’s housekeeper, who is a delicious level of mouthy in the book that the Code wouldn’t allow, presumably because it demonstrated a woman in one station or class (a servant’s) speaking uncomfortable truths to power, to men, to authority. Book Bessie reveals an acuity about life, about people, about bullshit that the Code would rather you not see. Film Bessie is played by Dorothy Adams, who made a career playing kind at-home mothers and housekeepers. Before Adams opens her mouth, by virtue of her casting, Film Bessie is diluted. It makes for some awkward moments when Film Bessie tries to talk tough with Detective McPherson. It sounds ridiculous, contrived, fake, especially if you know (but even if you don’t know) that Book Bessie talks like film Barbara Stanwyck. After she’s killed somebody. To put it another way, watching Film Bessie is akin to seeing June Cleaver “speak jive” in a “Leave It to Beaver” episode. Reading Book Bessie is on par with observing Barbara Billingsley slay speaking jive in a perfectly hilarious scene in Airplane (1980; at 0:58).
Suffice it to say that Book Supporting Cast is Asian, gay, divorced, duplicitous, ambitious, self-sufficient, witty, slutty (women and men), and murderous. The film goes out of its way to obliterate that diversity. Film Supporting Cast is present and prickly but also proper and homogeneous. It gives the false impression that the complex humans that populated Laura’s life “didn’t really exist” in real life, or, in the alternative, that even if they did, we don’t need them for the film. “We don’t need to expose the public to this diverse range of people,” says the Code. It’s both, “They don’t matter,” and they don’t matter.
Meanwhile, Book Laura could fairly kick your ass. She may internally diatribe about how hard it was, about how much she hated being forced to do it, but also about how willing she would be to kick it again if you made her. Film Laura observes asses being kicked and thrives in the radiance emitted from those who kicked ass. She works hard but she mostly just runs with strong types, and a little of that imputes over to her. She needs Waldo to introduce her to her best business contacts. (He brags that, “I began securing other endorsements for her,” and Film Laura is never given an opportunity to dispute that claim.) No spoilers, but Film Laura considers standing by a disloyal man and relies on another to protect her and resolve what’s messy in her life. In essence, she keeps her place as a woman in Code World. She is that canvas waiting for Waldo to paint substance onto her life. Book Laura comes painted in. She’s shy and young in the beginning, but she’s only there because of guts she brought to the game. She is far more in charge and actually waxes furious about the pushy men in her life when she’s driving the narration train. She’s out-loud aware of their intrusion, and her sensibilities about why it bothers her are those of a feminist.
Caspary used the freedom the First Amendment gave her to structure Laura in a way that led to surprising reveals about darker psychological themes. It’s a fast, deep read that sheds some light on what the 1930s were possibly like. Indeed, the book’s very existence and Caspary’s having written it in the first place already debunk positions taken by the Code. By the end of the book, one thinks, “This would make a great movie.” And it did. But it could have been a more edifying, more broadening, richer journey if the Code hadn’t forced Hollywood to leave out so much truth.
Advantage, book. ♠EL