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Schrödinger’s Laura

I had a stray thought recently about Otto Preminger’s classic 1944 noir Laura (1944), based on Vera Caspary’s 1943 novel of the same name. The film’s first half revolves around the murder of the title character, although of course it’s more complicated than that. And I’d like to argue that it’s slightly more complicated than even that, owing to a quality that’s perhaps inherent in plot itself.

(This contains spoilers—although, as we shall see, they may not spoil much of anything…)

The plot in miniature: Dana Andrews plays Mark McPherson, an NYC police detective. He’s investigating the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), an advertising executive whose mutilated corpse has been found. (A red flag should have just gone up.) McPherson first pays a visit to Laura’s Svengali, the haughty newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Lydecker explains, while sitting in his bathtub, how he took Laura under his wing and made her career. As Roger Ebert describes it:

[…] McPherson enters the bathroom, glances at Lydecker, seems faintly amused. Then Lydecker swings the typewriter shelf away, so that it shields his nudity from the camera but not from the detective. Waldo stands up, off screen, and a reaction shot shows McPherson glancing down as Lydecker asks him to pass a bathrobe. Every time I see the movie, I wonder what Preminger is trying to accomplish with this scene. There is no suggestion that Lydecker is attracted to McPherson, and yet it seems odd to greet a police detective in the nude.

Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews

From there, the film gets only stranger.

Through McPherson, we meet a trio of other (more modestly closed) suspects:

  • Laura’s fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price);
  • her aunt (Judith Anderson);
  • and her housekeeper (Dorothy Adams).

Each has her or his motive. None seems particularly compelling.

As he investigates, McPherson becomes increasingly obsessed with Laura, eventually falling in love with her. The dead woman holds court over the proceedings by means of her massive portrait, prominently displayed in her apartment’s living room. (The novel’s action takes place entirely in that room.)

Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews

(David Lynch later borrowed this conceit in Twin Peaks: his dead Laura smiles sweetly and steadily out at us from her framed senior photo.)

Then comes the wrinkle. McPherson falls asleep under Laura’s portrait (another flag should have just gone up—and, indeed, the original screenplay intended for the film’s remainder to be a dream. Take that, Inception!). (1944 was a good year for noirs that featured portrait-induced dreams: cf. Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window.)

But then: McPherson’s awakened when someone entering the apartment. It’s Laura! She’s alive! The corpse was in fact the remains of one Diane Redfern, with whom Shelby was having an affair; they were using the apartment for their trysts while Laura was traveling.

So who killed “Laura”? Everyone, I would argue, but also no one.

This is where I’d write “the plot thickens”—except that in the case of Laura, it doesn’t thicken, not at all. Rather, it comes to a complete halt. Because, at this point, the movie doesn’t seem to have any idea who killed Diane Redfern, or why. All four of our original suspects are simultaneously equally plausible and implausible. If we stopped watching the film right here, and went out to dinner, and tried to puzzle out the solution on our own, we’d have to conclude that its mystery is unsolvable. We simply have no clues to go on.

From this point on, Laura‘s plot—just like in the 1985 concept film Clue, which featured three different endings—is entirely arbitrary. Indeed it’s possible, even after having seen the film, to not remember who the murderer is:

[Ebert:] I’ve seen Otto Preminger’s ”Laura” three or four times, but the identity of the murderer doesn’t spring quickly to mind. That’s not because the guilty person is forgettable but because the identity is so arbitrary: It is not necessary that the murderer be the murderer. Three or four other characters would have done as well […]

This is why I think, to try making a broader point, so many people put so little stock in reading a book (or watching a movie) for it’s plot. I’m quite a fan of plot myself—it’s useful for generating suspense, and can serve as a superb mnemonic device—but despite that, I recognize that the plots of many narrative artworks are mostly arbitrary. One great way to see this is to read the plot summary of a movie or TV show you haven’t watched, or a book you haven’t read; either the plot follows conventional, familiar patterns of organization, or it seems a jumbled mess of names and actions:

In flashbacks, a younger Locke meets a mysterious woman (Swoosie Kurtz) in the discount superstore in which he works. After an initial meeting, Locke later notices this same woman watching him in the store’s parking lot. He chases after her to confront her and she explains that she is his birth mother, Emily Locke. Locke asks about his father and Emily claims that Locke doesn’t have a father because he was immaculately conceived. Undeterred, Locke hires a private investigator who finds Locke’s father, Anthony Cooper (Kevin Tighe). When Locke visits his father’s affluent home he is welcomed with open arms. Locke forms a strong relationship with his father, who now frequently takes him hunting. One day Locke arrives at the home early and discovers his father receiving dialysis. Eventually Locke offers one of his kidneys to save his father. After the surgery, Locke wakes up in the hospital to find that his father has discharged himself home for private care and abandoned him. Emily arrives to explain that when Anthony realized he needed a kidney, he tracked down their son and paid her to make contact with him, presumably for the sole purpose of getting the transplant. Devastated, Locke pulls himself out of the hospital bed and drives to his father’s home, but is regretfully turned away by the gate guard, with whom he has become friendly. As he drives away, Locke breaks down over the betrayal. (Wikipedia summary of the flashback plot from “Deus Ex Machina,” episode 1.19 of Lost, aired 30 March 2005).

I had this realization when I sat down one year and read the first 400 issues of the comic X-Men: things changed, characters came and went, relationships were formed and were broken, and after a while nothing mattered much any more; reading the whole thing became numbly exhausting. (Indeed, it may be true that the longer a narrative is, the more arbitrary its plot necessarily becomes.)

But back to my original idea: watching Laura this time, I was put in mind of Schrödinger’s cat, which can be considered both alive and dead at the same time—there’s no way to empirically know until you open the box and look (because then you’ve forced a decision). In the case of Laura, McPherson sets his trap, and it’s arguable that the setting of this trap is the opening of the box that arbitrarily selects one of the suspects as the murderer. Until Lydecker shows up and looks in the grandfather clock for the gun, he both was and wasn’t the murderer; the murderer was everyone and no one.

Which may be true anytime that anyone murders a Laura:

When production began on the pilot, “Northwest Passage”, series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had decided that the murderer would be revealed as Leland Palmer, Laura’s father. During the filming of a scene in the pilot taking place in Laura’s room, Frank Silva, a set dresser, accidentally trapped himself in the room by inadvertently moving a dresser in front of the door. When told of the incident, Lynch had an image of Silva stuck in the room and thought it could fit into the series. After filming him crouched at the foot of Laura’s bed, looking through the bars of the footboard, as if he were “trapped” behind them, Lynch filmed the scene a second time, without Silva. After reviewing the footage, Lynch liked Silva’s presence so much that he decided to make him part of the series.

Later that day, a scene was being filmed in which Palmer’s mother experiences a vision which terrifies her; at the time, the script did not indicate what Mrs Palmer had seen to frighten her. Lynch was pleased with how the scene turned out, but a crew member informed him that it would have to be re-shot, because a mirror in the scene had inadvertently picked up someone’s reflection. When Lynch asked who it was, the crew member replied that it had been Silva. Lynch considered this a “happy accident,” and decided at that point that the unnamed character to be played by Silva would be revealed as Palmer’s true killer.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

9 thoughts on “Schrödinger’s Laura

  1. I did it. And yet, how singularly innocent I look this afternoon. Have you ever seen such candid punctuation?

  2. By the by, Ebert completely v’gered the opened scene: Waldo does not swing the typewriter away, revealing his nudity to McPherson. All of that happens while Waldo is still in the tub–the swinging of the typewriter tray, etc. No nudity is ever hidden to us but revealed to McPherson–Waldo is sitting in the water, and the water is up to about navel level, if not above. Only when Waldo realizes that McPherson is a semi-famous policeman who Waldo had previously written about (“the one with the leg full of lead”) does he take McPherson seriously enough to get out of the bath. He stands up, asking McPherson to hand him his robe; the camera is on Dana Andrews as we hear the splash of Waldo emerging. *That* is when McPherson “looks down”–and he smirks, actually somewhat good naturedly (if anything McPherson ever does could be called such).

    I’ve always wondered if this was in some way Preminger’s tip of the hat to Zanuck, who–so the story goes–didn’t want to hire Clifton Webb for the part of Waldo because CW was gay: masculine Dana Andrews is the one who peeks.

    And, actually, while I love your reading of the movie, I do think the opening, ROGER ACKROYDish opening narration by Waldo rather gives the game away. I agree that all the suspects are equally “guilty,” but to forget whodunnit when the very first lines of the movie are practically a confession is tough work for me, fan of narrative indeterminacy that I am.

    1. Our private lingo is entering Big Other. Maybe I should put up a post explaining the concept of v’gering, soliciting other examples?

      I’ve seen Ebert do that kind of thing before, to the point where I sometimes wonder if he isn’t simply making it more concise for the print edition.

      You’re right of course about the narration; I always tend to forget about it. Still, it could be a red herring…

      1. Yes, I was going to suggest a post on v’gering. Or that’s my story.

        Almost makes one nostalgic for the days when film critics had to rely on memory or the occasional revival (or a 16mm rental, when available) to write their pieces. Such interesting movies they made in misremembering.

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