by Despina Veneti
The famous – at least among noir fans – alternate ending of LAURA (1944) has been a matter of confusion for many years. Although that matter was beautifully cleared for its biggest part in the September 1978 special PREMINGER issue of the French magazine L’AVANT-SCENE (in an article written by Jacques Lourcelles, based on the translation and meticulous study of LAURA’s script by my co-author of this blog, Olivier Eyquem), following articles, biographies, and even the audio commentary in the film’s DVD edition seem to be still under a state of confusion.
Having access to a copy of the original scenario and the chance to study it thoroughly, I will try to clear this matter with as many details as possible. To begin with, the main “culprit” for this entanglement was none other than Otto himself; in the book PREMINGER: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1977) (ghost-written by June Callwood), he states:
«I made the first rough cut of the picture and showed it to Zanuck in his projection room. […] It took very little skill that night to judge Zanuck’s mood. […] He got up and said to me, “Well, we missed the boat on this one. Be in my office tomorrow at eleven.’’ And he left the room.
The next day Zanuck handed me a handful of memos from his yes-men. As was to be expected, they were all negative. A couple of them suggested shelving the film and writing it off as a loss. But their ideas how to save it were even worse.
Zanuck had his own plan. He called in one of his secretaries and a writer who was under contract to Fox. Then he began to walk up and down with the obligatory cigar and polo mallet dictating an outline for a rewrite of the script. His theory was that the fault lay with the last fifteen minutes, which he wanted to replace. Half the film was told from Waldo Lydecker’s point of view, the other half from the detective’s. Now Zanuck wanted to add a third part narrated by Laura after her return which contradicted and negated everything that we saw before. […]
When I handed the new script to the actors, they too found it ridiculous. I told them we had to do it nonetheless. In two weeks we had finished the added scenes.
The evening Zanuck looked at the new version the projection room was practically empty. The yes-men had given up on the film. There were only the editor and I sitting next to Zanuck in the front row and in the back two people: Walter Winchell and a young lady. Whenever Walter Winchell came to Hollywood Zanuck put an office at his disposal. They were friends. Zanuck invited him to see the picture and then have supper with him. Unlike the yes-men, Winchell and his companion seemed to like the film. They laughed, particularly at Clifton Webb’s lines and his delivery. Zanuck seemed amazed. He turned around several times and looked at them.
When the screening was over Winchell walked up to Zanuck and said in his staccato manner: “Big time! Big time! Congratulations, Darryl. Except for the ending. I didn’t get it. Didn’t get it.”
Zanuck demonstrated his flexibility. He turned to me: “Would you like to put your old ending back?”
I said, “Yes.” And thanked Winchell»
What Preminger refers to as the “alternate”, “second ending” that Zanuck ordered him to shoot is actually one of the cut scenes that Olivier, co-author of this blog, listed as CUT 15 in his detailed post about the cut scenes of LAURA: https://premingernoir.co/2014/01/23/lauras-cut-scenes/
This was a scene where Laura tells Mark that Waldo’s account of their first meeting was a figment of his imagination, and that the two of them had actually met when he saw her at night court and paid her fine after she was wrongly picked up for vagrancy, having being evicted from her room, unable to find a job in New York.
That scene that negates Waldo’s narration about how he met Laura would indeed alter the film (and the two characters) significantly, discrediting every element of Waldo’s description of Laura to Mark – however it was NOT a subsequent alternate ending to Preminger’s pre-existing and already shot one, as he claimed in his autobiography; it was simply an additional scene that LED to another ending, the VERY ending in fact that was chosen for the film’s theatrical release.
Indeed, it was the FINAL ending of the film – as we all know it – that was actually ADDED to the initial script, ALTERING the one that Preminger had originally chosen, and not the other way around! To be specific, the famous alternate ending of LAURA was in fact the one that was initially included in the script, and was later abandoned for the one that we know. According to that FIRST ending, Laura finds the gun hidden in her clock, and realizing Waldo was the murderer, hides it in her storage room. She then goes over to Waldo’s apartment urging him to flee. Although he promises her to do so, he finally decides to go to her apartment instead, to kill her, in a state of apparent madness. Mark intervenes, saving Laura, and Waldo is arrested. You can read the exact transcript in the end of this article, as copied from the original script of LAURA, illustrated by rarely seen stills from that version.
That was initially to be the ending of LAURA – clearly an inferior one compared to the one finally chosen for the film. As it becomes obvious by reading the original script, that first ending – the real “ALTERNATE ENDING” – was revised for the last time on 16th June 1944, while the one that was actually USED for the film’s release – the one Preminger claimed to have been HIS initial ending, that he was supposedly ordered by Zanuck to change! – was actually added in the script A WHOLE MONTH LATER, on 15th July 1944, starting with the aforementioned CUT SCENE 15 (Laura’s narration that negates Waldo’s account of their first meeting).
With all the above being proven by the film’s script itself, one could assume that it was in fact Otto’s FIRST ending (the actual “alternate ending”) that Zanuck didn’t like, and that the ending that was finally used for the film was probably HIS idea, and not Preminger’s. Otto reluctantly filmed the new ending, including the scene with Laura’s narration – and it must have been THAT version that Winchell saw at the projection room at Fox, his objection probably having to do with the scene where Laura reveals that Waldo lives in a fictional world, and that he had met her under completely different circumstances. That short scene was actually the only cut made from that SECOND ending that Zanuck had ordered (possibly written by Jerome Cady), and it was probably Preminger’s choice, as well, to edit it out – in that sense, Winchell’s intervention might have in a sense partially restored what Otto wanted for the ending of the film. Chris Fujiwara reaches the same conclusion in his book THE WORLD AND ITS DOUBLE – THE LIFE AND WORK OF OTTO PREMINGER (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2008), quite possibly the only English-speaking book that actually distinguished between Otto’s version and what actually emerges from the original script itself, concerning the two endings of LAURA.
What follows is a transcript of the film’s first ending, the one that was abandoned for the finale we all know, illustrated by five rarely seen stills:
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
(smiling back at her)
She smiles nervously, closes the door. The instant it is closed her smile vanishes, her eyes grow wide with horror, and she covers her face with her hands as though trying to shut out the image of her fear. The ticking of the clock impinges on her consciousness; she lifts her head and turns to stare at it. Then abruptly she races to it, bends and yanks open the door in the clock’s base, and presses the spring of the false front inside. The secret door swings slowly outward, revealing a sawed-off shotgun in the recess. She sags against the clock for a moment, staring at the gun. Then with frantic speed, jerks the gun from its hiding place, closes the clock doors, and with sudden decision, races to snatch up her coat and purse from a chair just inside the living room door where she had flung them earlier.
She tries two or three ways of concealing the gun under the coat and finally satisfied, darts to the outer door, opens it, listens a minute and steps quietly out into the corridor. Her behavior seems to offer unmistakable evidence that she is the guilty one.
EXT. LAURA’S APARTMENT – HALLWAY – MED. WIDE SHOT
Laura stands just outside the partially open door, the dim light in the vestibule outlining her figure. She listens tensely: the house is quiet. She shuts the door behind her carefully and then on furtive feet, crosses to the stairs and down two or three steps. She halts, frozen in her tracks as the outer door on the street is heard opening o.s.
LONG SHOT – LAURA’S ANGLE – SHOOTING DOWN STAIRS
In the faint pool of light drifting in from outside, a man’s dark figure is seen entering the foyer. He slams the door noisily and then whistling softly, tunelessly, starts to ascend the stairs.
CLOSE SHOT – LAURA
Her eyes distend with fright as she listens, paralized, to the footsteps o.s. ascending the stairs. As they approach up the first flight, her terror gets the better of her. She turns and cuts back silently toward her apartment door.
MED. SHOT ON DOOR
Laura hurries to the door, fumbling frantically in her bag for her key. The footsteps, o.s. are approaching the level of the floor below by now. Like a trapped animal, Laura darts a look around for a hiding place. Her eyes light on the narrow flight of stairs, in the corner of the hallway, that lead to a storage attic. Swiftly, CAMERA MOVING with her, she scampers on tiptoe up the stairs, opens the door and starts to step inside. She freezes, her hand on the door knob, about to close it behind her, as she hears the door open on a floor below, and then slam it.
CLOSE SHOT – LAURA
For an instant her eyes close and she looks as though she were about to faint with relief. The danger of her situation recalls her; she considers her next move for a moment, realizing that she doesn’t dare risk going out in the street with the gun, and knowing that she can’t replace it in the clock. She turns and stares into the dark storage room.
INT. STORAGE ROOM – WIDE SHOT
It is in almost complete darkness except for wan light sifting in through a distant window. The dark shapes of trunks and other impediments are indistinctly outlined in the gloom. Stealthily Laura approaches CAMERA, searching for something; she halts, bending over and feeling for something.
MED. SHOT – LAURA
Leaning against a couple of wardrobe trunks are a pair of skis and a golf bag. Laura fumbles; finds the bag, takes the gun out from under her coat and stuffs the weapon in among the golf clubs. Then she shoves the bag back into a corner and leans the skis against it; drawing a deep breath she makes her silent way back toward the door.
EXT. STORAGE ROOM DOOR AND STAIRS
Laura appears from the darkness inside the room pauses, listens, staring down into the stairwell below. The only sound is the distant toot of a taxi. She steps out on the stairs, closes the door behind her and then glides down to the head of the stairs outside her apartment, CAMERA PANNING with her. As she starts to descend the stairs to the street,
EXT. LAURA’S HOUSE – WIDE ANGLE – NIGHT – SHOOTING FROM ACROSS THE STREET
The front door opens and Laura steps out. She glances up and down the street, sees that the coast is apparently clear and then walks slowly down the stairs as though she were in no particular hurry, but her pace quickens slightly as she begins to walk away from the house. A figure emerges from shadows in f.g., McAvity; his eyes follow Laura and then he begins to walk along on his side of the street, going in the same direction as Laura, but keeping far enough behind in order to prevent her knowing she is being followed.
EXT. WALDO’S APARTMENT – AT CURB
A taxi pulls up to the curb and Laura gets out, pays the driver and hurries in the entrance to the apartment. Laura’s cab drives off. In a moment another cab drives up to the curb.
MED. SHOT – SECOND CAB – MCAVITY
He is staring out of the window toward the entrance, his expression thoughtful. Another plainclothesman comes up to him.
(nodding toward entrance)
Looked like she was in a hurry – huh, Mac?
(he pays the driver)
Yeah, came in about then minutes ago.
I’m going to phone McPherson.
He exits toward apartment entrance.
MED. WIDE SHOT – INT. APARTMENT HOUSE – HALLWAY NEAR WALDO’S DOOR
Laura almost runs up to the door. She rings the bell, glances fearfully over her shoulder to see if anyone is watching the apartment, rings the bell again with more urgency, then knocks on the door.
(from inside door)
(in a low urgent voice)
Laura. Open the door!
The door opens inward quickly; Waldo stands there, relief and triumph mingling in his expression.
INT. WALDO’S APARTMENT – MED. SHOT – LAURA AND WALDO
Laura comes in quickly and shuts door.
I knew you’d come. I knew you wouldn’t even wait until tomorrow to tell me you didn’t mean those cruel words.
(he holds out his arms)
Laura draws back so he can’t touch her.
You tried to kill me, Waldo.
You must be out of your mind!
I think I am. I ought to let them take your life in payment for Diane Redfern’s. But I can’t. I’ve got to give you this chance to get away. You must Waldo – right now! Mark may arrest you any moment.
WIDER ANGLE – WALDO
He moves into the room, away from her, a faint smile of amusement on his face.
(during this, with light sarcasm)
How interesting. He’s ransacked my apartment, examined and re-examined me and produced no proof. So he decides to manufacture evidence by sending you to urge me to attempt an escape.
He didn’t send me! He’d never forgive me if he knew what I’m doing!
There is a pause, Waldo moves back to her, his manner now one of grave sincerity.
CLOSE TWO SHOT
Look into my eyes – into my heart, Laura. What can you see there except your own shining, unsullied image?
Diane’s face – after you destroyed it!
WALDO (deeply hurt)
I never expected you, Laura, would one day try to convict me of murder on mere intuition.
LAURA (almost hysterically)
It isn’t intuition! I found the gun – Waldo!
He stares at her; she interprets his reaction as one of incredulity rather than shock in the face of truth.
You might have known I’d have found it there sooner or later! Or Mark would. No – don’t worry. I put it away.
In the attic – in my golf bag – it’s safe for tonight at least.
He suddenly covers his eyes with his hands; she tugs at his arm as though trying to shake some sense into him.
But you aren’t, Waldo! You’ve got to go now – or –
He looks up, helpless, defeated, his arms hanging limply at his side.
I don’t remember getting the gun… I don’t remember coming back here. I slept very peacefully… the awakening was utter horror… It couldn’t have been I – but it was.
(pulls herself together; matter-of-factly)
You must go at once.
Yes… I know… I’ve already made arrangements.
(pathetically, almost like a small boy)
I’d better not tell you where I’m going, had I?
(ignoring his question)
Will you promise to leave now – as soon as I’ve gone?
Laura, tears in her eyes, looks at him a long moment, then runs to the door.
Waldo takes a step or two toward her.
(turning the door)
She exits, closing door.
CLOSE SHOT – WALDO
Dazed, defeated, he moves toward his bedroom, CAMERA PULLS BACK AHEAD. As he passes a mirror he halts, glances at himself and then almost absently runs his hand across his eyes. He moves on toward bedroom.
MED. CLOSE SHOT – CHAIR NEAR BEDROOM DOOR
His hat and stick lie on the chair. Waldo’s approaching footsteps and the measured ticking of the clock are heard. His legs enter scene, moving toward bedroom. He slows to a halt; in an instant his hand slowly reaches down, picks up the hat, then the stick. He suddenly bangs the stick on the uncarpeted portion of the floor beside the chair, a gesture that is violent, decisive.
WIDE SHOT – SHOOTING ON WALDO’S BACK
Stick in hand, wearing his hat, Waldo moves away from CAMERA toward the outer door.
EXT. WALDO’S APARTMENT – SIDEWALK – MED. SHOT
McAvity and Plainclothesman are lounging in the shadow near entrance. As McAvity bends to light a cigarette the other nudges him.
McAvity looks quickly toward entrance.
WIDE SHOT – ENTRANCE AND STREET
Laura runs out to the curb signaling for a taxi. As one swoops up and stops, Mark jumps out, almost colliding with Laura, who hasn’t seen it was occupied.
He grabs her arm roughly.
Walking in your sleep? Huh?
He yanks Laura onto sidewalk.
Talk fast, and don’t tell anymore bedtime stories!
(wincing under his grip)
I ought to sock you!
(he releases her)
Why did you come here?
I insulted Waldo. He was my best friend and I wanted to apologize. I had to, Mark.
MARK (stony faced)
Now let’s have the straight goods.
I told you –
WIDE ANGLE – SHOOTING TOWARD APARTMENT FOYER – LAURA AND MARK IN F.G.
He’s not your friend! He’s your worst enemy, and we’re both sure of it now! But it’s right in line with your generosity to help him escape.
During this, Waldo comes out of the elevator in b.g. and into foyer, looks off, spots the two, turns swiftly and darts down the basement stairs, as a couple of people from the street enter the foyer.
CLOSE TWO-SHOT – LAURA AND MARK
Yeah? You think it’s ridiculous he might take another crack at the job he muffed? What’s the matter with you anyway – are you crazy?
EXT. REAR SIDEWALK – MED. SHOT – SHOOTING DOWN BASEMENT STEPS
The dim outlines of a furnace, or perhaps an engine room of the apartment are seen at the foot of the stairs in b.g. Waldo darts up the stairs, keeping back in the shadow. He glances quickly up and down the street before emerging. CAMERA BEGINS TO PULL BACK. A knot of pedestrians go by the stairs; Waldo falls into step with them; CAMERA PULLS BACK TO WIDER ANGLE: more pedestrians cross through scene. Waldo disappears up the street.
EXT. SIDEWALK NEAR FRON ENTRANCE – MED. CLOSE SHOT – LAURA AND MARK
It’s the first time I’d ever spoken that way to Waldo.
(with nervous lightness)
I knew I couldn’t sleep until I told him I was sorry.
Your smile’s on crooked.
(still nervous lightness)
Maybe you’re looking at it from the wrong angle.
Come on – you’re going home.
He grabs her arm, leads her toward cab, CAMERA PANNING.
And you’re going to stay there if I have to lock you in and tie you down. I want you alive, understand?
Mark puts her into cab, shuts the door.
(masking her dismay)
Aren’t you coming with me?
(stalling for time; appealingly)
I wish you would… I might change my mind about going home…
No you won’t.
(calling over his shoulder)
Laura’s smile fades as McAvity enters scene.
The lady wants company. Hop in.
McAvity gets in; Mark slams the door.
(during this, to driver)
Five-seventeen East Sixty-first Street.
He turns abruptly and exits toward entrance; as the cab drives away Laura’s anxious eyes follow Mark.
EXT. STREET, SIDEWALK – WIDE SHOT – SHOOTING TOWARD LAURA’S HOUSE FROM CORNER
The street is deserted except for a milk truck that rattles by. Waldo enters scene in f.g. and glances around. With almost catlike rapidity, he covers the distance to the house, keeping back in the shadows. He scurries up the steps and disappears through the door.
INT. CORRIDOR – WALDO’S APARTMENT – SHOOTING ON DOOR
Mark enters scene, rings bell; he waits a moment, rings again. He listens at the door; suspicion flashes across his face; he whips out a pass key, unlocks the door and enters. The lights are on – everything just as Waldo left it.
Only the measured ticking of the clock is heard. Mark strides into the room, glancing rapidly around, then on into the bedroom; he then hurries back into the living room to phone.
MEDIUM SHOT – MARK AT PHONE
He dials a number.
MARK (into phone)
Gimme Davis… Hello, Davis? McPherson. Nab Lydecker. Cover the ports – stations – the works! Flash the cars to pick him up if they spot him. Marty may be tailing him, but I’m taking no chances. And put an extra man on with Mac at her house. Get going!
He hangs up. His expression darkens with anger and exasperation as he moves toward the outer room, CAMERA TRACKING AHEAD. As he comes alongside the clock he pauses, checking the time with his wristwatch. He takes a few steps toward the open outer door, halts: his eyes revert to the clock. He takes out his notebook, flips the pages, studies one item, as he moves back to the clock. Replacing his notebook he opens the door of the clock base and stoops to rap on the curved inner door. The resulting sound is inconclusive as to whether or not there is a further recess. Unsatisfied, Mark runs his hand over the false front, but fails to discover the hidden spring. He shrugs, straightens, starts to push the door closed with the toe of his shoe, then on a sudden impulse, kicks at the hidden door and the porcelain shatters. The gleam of triumph in his eyes fades quickly when he sees the recess is empty. Then a thought flashes into his mind and takes shape – he remembers the twin of this clock, in Laura’s apartment, which Waldo tried to reclaim. Mark snaps his fingers, grinning sardonically; he strides, with speed and purpose, toward the apartment door. As it slams behind him
INT. HALL OUTSIDE LAURA’S APARTMENT – MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT – WALDO AT DOOR – NIGHT
Waldo is standing there irresolutely, an obvious struggle going on within him. He lifts a finger to the buzzer, drops it; with sudden resolution he starts to press it but his hand is arrested by the sound of the street door opening below.
I’ll see you to your door.
Waldo crosses silently to the stair railing; looks down.
(offscene, more clearly)
That’s very kind of you, but really it isn’t necessary –
My duty – and my pleasure.
Their footsteps are heard ascending the staircase. Waldo’s head pivots from side to side, speculating frantically on a hiding place.
Waldo darts into a dark corner where he is only partially concealed. The approaching footsteps offscene grow louder.
They sure save on the light bills in your place, Miss Hunt. But don’t worry, if anyone’s hiding in these dark corners he’ll have to reckon with me.
I’m sure he will.
Waldo steps out of the shadow again, demented with fear; his eyes light on the narrow staircase leading to the storage room. Half crouching he streaks on silent feet, climbs the stairs and disappears behind the door of the attic.
INT. STORAGE ROOM AT DOOR – MED. CLOSE SHOT – WALDO
Panting with relief, he leans against the door, listening; then moves forward into the dark room.
MED. SHOT – LAURA’S TRUNKS
The golf bag and skis lean against the trunk just as she arranged them earlier. After a moment, Waldo enters scene and stumbles against one of the skis. He freezes in his tracks, glancing back over his shoulder, waiting to see if anyone has heard the slight noise the ski made.
INT. HALLWAY OUTSIDE LAURA’S APARTMENT – MED. WIDE SHOT
The circle of McAvity’s flashlight plays around the wall as they enter scene at head of stairs and cross to the door. As Laura takes out her key and unlocks the door, pushing it inward, McAvity snaps off his flashlight.
Now you stay put this time, lady.
LAURA (with a wan smile)
Thanks again… Goodnight.
She nods and closes the door. McAvity snaps on his flashlight again, playing it along the walls, into dark corners, and exits scene down the stairs.
INT. STORAGE ROOM – MED. CLOSE SHOT – WALDO AT TRUNK
He is still rigid, listening. The indistinct sound of McAvity’s footsteps dies away. Considering his next move, still alert and tense, Waldo’s head slowly turns toward the skis. He eyes light on the golf bag behind them, propped against one of the trunks. He takes a step toward it, stretches out his hand and feels for the gun. His eyes light with something akin to relief when he feels it, still safely undiscovered. Then a subtle change takes place in his expression – it becomes sly, speculative, touched with growing madness as he slowly withdraws the gun from its hiding place. He holds it in his arms a moment as though it were a living thing, fascinated, rubbing its stock. As his head raises, he stares through the darkness toward the door, a mad smile of joy on his face. He starts toward the door, all caution forgotten, his measured footsteps echoing on the wooden floor; CAMERA TRUCKS AHEAD.
INT. HALLWAY OUTSIDE LAURA’S APARTMENT – WIDE SHOT
Carrying the gun, Waldo opens the storage room door, and without bothering to close it comes down the steps and crosses to Laura’s door. Without hesitation, without glancing around, he presses the buzzer firmly.
CLOSE SHOT – WALDO
He steps back from the door a few paces, the gun held across his body, not yet aimed, his whole, insane attention centered on the door.
MED. SHOT – WALDO – SHOOTING ON DOOR
There is the SOUND of Laura’s running footsteps offscene, muffled by the heavy carpet and the door; then the door is flung open inward, revealing Laura in the dim light of the vestibule. The bright lights in the living room have been turned off.
(a joyful question, as she flings the door open)
Waldo takes a step forward.
LAURA (a gasp)
Her eyes take in the gun, then fly back to his face, utterly terrified, unable to utter a sound.
The best part of myself! That’s what you are! Do you think I’m going to leave it to the vulgar pawing of a second rate detective who thinks you’re a dame?
Slowly he starts to raise the gun into position.
(a low strangled cry)
No – don’t –
Where could I go without feeling his feet trampling me down, his coarse hands strangling me, if I went away and left you behind?
LAURA (a scream)
She glances about wildly, but fear and indecision keep her rooted to the spot.
Laura starts toward him, her arms outstretched as if to ward off the danger.
Goodbye, my love!
The gun is in position. Laura screams and covers her face with her hands. Suddenly Waldo becomes aware of rapid footsteps on the stairs behind him and whirls, as Mark dashes into scene. But before Waldo can turn full around to face his adversary, Mark is upon him, struggling to pinion his arms. Laura screams again as the two men battle desperately for a moment; the gun goes off, shattering the face of the clock. Mark twists the gun from Waldo’s hand, it falls to the floor as McAvity and Fred rush in. the detectives overpower Waldo, place the cuffs on him. He is breathing hard, but the madness has gone out of his face.
MARK (to McAvity and Fred)
Get him out of here.
(in his normal, sarcastic voice)
You’re an ungrateful fellow, McPherson.
I just provided you with the opportunity to save her life. That should cement what promises to be a disgustingly earthy relationship.
McAvity puts his hand on Waldo’s shoulder, to lead him out; Waldo shrugs it off, turns to Laura who is staring at him, numb, paralyzed. Mark’s arm is around her shoulders.
CAMERA PANS slowly away toward clock.
WALDO’S VOICE (continuing)
Thank you for everything, my dear…
You’re all I’ll be thinking of –- till
Time stands still – for me. Goodbye, Laura.
On this last, CAMERA holds on the shattered face of the clock.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –