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Written by Timothy Sexton
Young and beautiful, independent and ambitious and, depending on whose flashback is being told and the circumstances of that flashback, naïve and worldly. Laura Hunt is one of the most difficult characters in movie history to accurately describe since so much of what the audience knows about her is filtered through the subjectivity of the character recalling her. Even the seemingly objective fact that Laura is a murder victim ultimately gets subverted. The whole point of the film is that nobody really knows for sure exactly who Laura Hunt really is. Nobody knows who is anybody else really is.
The narration of Laura is provided by the character of Waldo Lydecker. On the surface, Waldo appears to be vain, self-centered, cynical and utterly dismissive of those he considers below his level of taste, refinement and intellectual superiority. All those character traits make Waldo ideally suited for his job: providing guidance to population of New York City through his newspaper column. Maybe the column would be useful to those outside New York, but Waldo is the type who would consider anybody living outside New York to be utterly inconsequential.Waldo initially dismisses Laura, but quickly changes his mind and seeks her out to become his protégé, confidant, companion as his connections put her on the fast track to success in the advertising world. Ultimately, his goal is for Laura to become his lover. Needless to say, Laura’s rejection of the much older Waldo to take on this last role makes him a prime suspect in her murder.
Maybe it’s because Laura works in the advertising industry or maybe it’s just one of those personality traits that is overlooked due to the personality of the teller of the flashback, but she seems to be irresistibly drawn to rather effete men who do not seem particularly capable of actually loving her. Waldo Lydecker certainly never admits to simply being in love with her and, indeed, all external appearances indicate that Waldo is likely homosexual. Nevertheless, he commits himself to destroying every relationship Laura develops with a man. Except for Shelby Carpenter, another rather fey soul who makes great claims to Southern gentility and old money, but appears mostly to be a womanizing loafer after Laura for position in society.
Both Waldo and Shelby appear to be attracted to the image of Laura Hunt they have constructed rather than the real human being beneath. In a much different sort of way, so is Mark McPherson, the detective assigned to investigate Laura’s murder. The image McPherson draws upon is a combination of the subjective tales told by her admirers and the enormous oil portrait of her that dominates her apartment. In the film’s shocking twist midway through, McPherson comes into conflict with his feelings toward the image he has crafted of Laura after she unexpected turns up in that apartment one night very much alive. What began as almost pedestrian murder mystery instantly transforms into a tale of obsession and the emotional struggle of how to deal with the chasm between reality and fantasy that situates Laura right alongside Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Ann Treadwell is Laura’s spinster aunt who moves among the wealthy circles of the New York society’s elite. Even Auntie Annie becomes a potential suspect in the murder of her niece, however, since Laura’s introduction to Shelby comes as one of her aunt’s society parties and Shelby happens to be there because he has initially targeted Ann as the wealthy dame upon which to exercise his oily but effective brand of charm. Blood is thick, but finding a handsome man to “keep” as one’s “patron” is even thicker for the aging Miss Treadwell.
Laura Hunt is enigmatic because for most of the movie we only know here based on what others say of her and the most objective image we get is courtesy of the oil painting that becomes a point of obsession for McPherson. Diane Redfern is perhaps even more enigmatic than even Laura. Diane is one of the beautiful models working for the advertising firm which employs Laura. It is through that connection that Shelby meets Diane and they become secretly involved. Waldo uses his discovery of this secret as yet another means of breaking up any man who becomes between him and Laura, but doesn’t appear to be successful until Laura reveals by phone—on the day of her murder—that was going to be having lunch with Diane. Diane Redfern’s presence over the events of the film is nearly the equal of that of Laura, but the only time the audience ever gets a glimpse of is a brief glimpse of her in a photograph.
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