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For a suspense writer whose observations of mid-20th-century Los Angeles
proved so gimlet-eyed that he has been enshrined as the city's unofficial
bard, Raymond Chandler had a bumpy fling with Hollywood. The first of his
five major novels to be filmed during the classic period of film noir,
Farewell, My Lovely was first turned into an installment in the Falcon
series of programmers, then into Edward Dmytryk's 1944 Murder, My Sweet (a
success, but too short; to do justice to Chandler's atmospherics and milieu
demands longer time spans than the movies allot them).
From 1946, probably the most adroit blending of style and content taken from his works was Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep. But its popularity, then and now, owes as much to the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and to the frisky, irreverent tone Hawks brought to the movie as to Chandler, whose outlook was one of dispassionate observation tinged with disgust.
The following year, The Brasher Doubloon, from the book The High Window, can be deemed a failure. That leaves the odd case of The Lady in the Lake, also from 47, which Robert Montgomery, starring as Philip Marlowe, ill-advisedly decided to direct himself. The movie labors under two huge handicaps: one of technique, the other of tone.
Cited often (and often by those who may not have actually seen the movie) for its subjective use of the-camera-as-character, The Lady in The Lake flounders on an idea that may have sounded good when initially floated but had to have looked bad once the first rushes came in.
Except for an explanatory prologue (the necessity for which should have raised red flags) or in scenes where he's caught in a window or mirror, Montgomery's Marlowe remains unseen. We, through the camera lens, are the detective. Conceivably, this gimmick might have worked at a later date, when swift, lithe Steadicams were part of Hollywood's technical arsenal. But in1947, the camera lumbers along as though it were being shoved through wet sand. As a result the pace slows to deadening, as though a senescent Marlowe were tracking down clues from the rail of an aluminum walker.
In consequence, time that might profitably been expended on filling in missing pieces of the puzzle gets wasted on Marlowe's getting from point A to point B. Vital and evocative parts of Chandler's novel take place in the summer resort areas of Puma Point and Little Fawn Lake; that snail of a camera, however, was not up to a hike in the great outdoors, so the movie preserves none of them.
And in tossing away chunks of the novels to accommodate budgets and shooting schedules, movie versions (like this one) mistake Chandler's strengths, which did not lay in plot. (The scriptwriters on The Big Sleep, including William Faulkner, couldn't figure out who killed one of the characters, so they asked Chandler, who didn't know either.)
His strengths were in weaving intricate webs of duplicity and deceit shot through with corruption and dread. That was heavy fare for Hollywood even during the noir cycle. So stories tended to be simplified and atmosphere lightened: the freighted response gave way to the wisecrack, suggestive tension between two characters turned into a meet-cute, the brooding loner became a red-blooded American joe.
So, in The Lady in The Lake, the icy and questionable Adrienne Fromsett of the book (Audrey Totter) is now a sassy minx to Marlowe's snappy man-about-town, and so on. The plot deals with Marlowe's attempts to find a missing woman (an off-screen character whom the Christmas-card credits, in a droll fit of Francophone humor, call Ellay Mort).
Is a verdict possible? Some viewers find the movie's conceits and distortions amateurish and self-congratulating, while others overlook them to find a vintage mystery from postwar vaults. The Lady in The Lake remains a flawed experiment that over the years has developed its own distinctive if not quite distinguished period bouquet.
Out of the many Marlowe novel adaptations, this must be one of the closest to the spirit of the original. Unfortunately Chandler himself does not seem to have had the opportunity to contribute to the screenplay - although there are plenty of Chandleresque wisecracks. The film, unlike most of the other adaptions reflects the original author's full dislike of the cops (although the tough police chief having to answer a telephone call from his daughter during an interrogation is an unusual appeal for the viewer's understanding), and mistrust bordering on pathological hatred of women (I suspect that the ending is an uncharacteristic 'cop out' to assuage the producer's or popular taste). Director/star Robert Montgomery shows great self-restraint by appearing only briefly in the action. When he does show himself, mainly in mirror-reflections, the star appears (as in that other great latter day film noir, China Town) battered and bruised and not at all flattering. The plot is suitably twisted and confusing - just like the novels. And the concept of timing the whole dark affair against the backdrop of the Christmas holidays only emphasises the bleakness of the subject matter. Incidentally the idea of continuing the opening titles' jolly Christmas carol chorus in darker, more disturbing tones throughout the soundtrack is fascinating and I think unique. Audrey Totter (whatever happened to her?) makes a very sexy femme fatale. And as she plays most of her lines to camera we are seduced just as protagonist Marlowe. On top of that, her gowns are absolutely magnificent examples of forties chic. Lloyd Nolan deserves special mention as a superb heavy. What a wonderful example of Hollywood film noir.
Drawing on his life of crimefighting to write a short story, Raymond Chandler's tough but noble P.I. Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, pulling double duty as actor and director) submits his work to Kingsby Publications, home of such pulp fiction mags as LURID DETECTIVE and MURDER MASTERPIECES. Before he can say "byline," editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) has Marlowe up to his neck in murder, missing dames, and crooked cops -- and you can see things Marlowe's way, literally! Before all those slasher movies came along during the last couple of decades, LADY IN THE LAKE used the subjective camera treatment -- hell, the camera was practically a character in the flick! Throughout most of LADY..., we see everything exactly as Marlowe sees it; the only times we see Marlowe/Montgomery's face is when he looks in a mirror, as well as in a brief prologue, an entrè-acte segment, and an epilogue. In the trailer (featured on the spiffy new DVD version of LADY..., along with an enjoyable and informative commentary track by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini), MGM's publicity department did its best to push the film as the first interactive movie experience: "MGM presents a Revolutionary motion picture; the most amazing since Talkies began! YOU and ROBERT MONTGOMERY solve a murder mystery together! YOU accept an invitation to a blonde's apartment! YOU get socked in the jaw by a murder suspect!" YOU occasionally start snickering in spite of yourself when the subjective camera gimmick teeters dangerously close to parodying itself, like when Totter moves in for a smooch with Our Hero The Camera. Some of Totter's facial expressions in the first half of the film as she spars verbally with Montgomery are pretty funny, too, though I'm not sure all of them were meant to be (she uses the arched eyebrow technique done so much more effectively later by Eunice Gayson of DR. NO and FROM Russia WITH LOVE, Leonard Nimoy, CQ's Angela Lindvall, The Rock, et al... :-). Having said that, the subjective camera technique works more often than not; in particular, I thought the fight scenes and a harrowing sequence where an injured Marlowe crawls out of his wrecked car worked beautifully. It helps that Steve Fisher provided a good solid screenplay for Raymond Chandler's novel, though Chandler purists were annoyed that the novel's pivotal Little Fawn Lake sequence was relegated to a speech in the recap scene in the middle (apparently they tried to film that scene on location, but the subjective camera treatment proved harder to do in the great outdoors, so they gave up). The performances are quite good overall, including Lloyd Nolan as a dirty cop and an intense dramatic turn by young Jayne Meadows. Montgomery's sardonic snap mostly works well for cynical Marlowe, though he sometimes forgets to tone it down during tender dialogue, making him sound simply cranky. Totter eventually tones down her mugging and becomes genuinely affecting as her Adrienne lets down her guard and begins falling for Marlowe. You may love or hate this LADY..., but if you enjoy mysteries and you're intrigued by offbeat movie-making techniques, give her a try!
The POV of Lady the In The Lake experiment hides the fact that Robert Montgomery wasn't up to the task of being Philip Marlowe. Oh he had the tough talk down pat, but as someone said earlier he was better in Ride The Pink Horse. In this movie he doesn't feel like Marlowe, a Marlowe who can take and give a hard punch. The first confrontation he takes a punch that results in a black eye but it leaves him unconscious! Dick Powell- the surprise Philip Marlowe of all time-and Humphery Bogart-one of the best Marlowes of all time-would've required a shot from Moose Malloy or a sap to the head by some strong arm thugs to go down from one blow like that. Perhaps it was her reaction to a camera instead of an actor that made Audrey Totter seem chilled in their "scenes" together rather than Claire Trevor's cold hearted user and Lauren Bacall's cool cynic in the earlier Marlowe incantations. And MGM was never at that time at least a studio known for hardboiled,gritty crime dramas. The Christmas carols though were a nice touch and Lloyd Nolan who should have played the lead was good as usual in his role as the crooked cop. Nolan had played a PI in some Michael Shayne Bs before the noir cycle began so he knew the mannerisms and Philip Marlowe a tarnished knight with principles would've been a perfect fit. All in all Lady In The Lake is noteworthy for it's groundbreaking experiment, the appeasement of a fading leading man's ego (not the last time either)and some vision into the world of Chandler's alter ego. George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe? Blasphemy! James Garner- a 60s laidback version suitable but also a precursor to Jim Rockford who had his Chandler moments. Roert Mitchum was Philip Marlowe both in looks and world weariness a perfect match only Bogart equals him. Mr. Montgomery would ride a pink carousel horse to better success.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Montgomery substitutes a gimmick for quality film-making. He and Fisher and have absolutely no ear for Chandler-esquire writing. Actors hit marks and then don't move from them through the rest of scenes, and lines are delivered as if read from cue cards. The film is essentially confined to interior scenes shot in sets that look like sets -- the pivotal scene of the book, in which the lady is found in the lake, is replaced with mere narrative. In the one scene in which he appears -- at a mirror -- Montgomery doesn't capture the demeanor of Marlowe, "who himself is not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid" but is nonetheless wearied beyond his years by going down "mean streets". And that scene at the mirror proves that Montgomery hadn't even the competence to master his gimmick, as it is plainly shot at an angle to hide the camera, so that the camera does not see Marlowe's reflection as he would have seen it.
If you want a great, serious Philip Marlowe mystery, go check out "The Big
Sleep." If you're in a lighter mood, however, this one is well worth
watching. The POV is cute and leads to some decent effects, but it's also
tremendously goofy sometimes. The dialogue really sells it though. The
lessons I learned from this movie were 1) Only men can handle guns. 2)
Having four thumbs is bad. 3) Never, ever tell anyone the time. 4) If you
try hard enough, you can drink whiskey through your eyes. I'm sure there are
hundreds more gnomic sayings, easily applicable to daily life, scattered
Seriously, though, it was a lot of fun to watch, mostly because of the problems with it, and I'd highly recommend it.
Striking camera work letting the viewer see through the eyes of hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe(Robert Montgomery). This is an intriguing Raymond Chandler tale that has the "private dick" solving a murder while seeking a missing socialite. Montgomery directs himself and is primarily only seen in a scene looking in a mirror. Novelty of the camera work is clever and makes YOU part of the movie. Its pretty cool finding the clues. Very apt cast featuring Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan, Leon Ames and Jane Meadows. Fun to watch.
The first-person perspective could be viewed as a brave experiment or a
case-study of why nobody EVER makes movies this way. Three points:
1) In a movie, we like to see the main character reacting.
2) Actors look self-conscious when endlessly talking to a camera.
3) The lack of edits makes many scenes tedious.
Still, you can admire how hard all this was to stage and shoot, in a age when cameras weighed a ton, made too much noise and nobody owned a Steadicam. Reminds me of the kind of crazy gimmicks Hitchcock sometimes tried but Hitch would have never let the train go this far off the tracks.
When I first became very enthused about film noir, and began collecting
about every tape I could find that was labeled such, this was included.
Unfortunately, just because it had the words "film noir" printed on the
VHS box didn't guarantee it was a good film. This is a prime example.
Lady Of The Lake, as you all know, was filmed differently, the camera being the "eyes" of Philip Marlow. We see exactly what he sees, meaning we never see him unless he's looking into a mirror. That may sound kind of cool, but it isn't. It wears think after a fairly short and then gets downright annoying.
Robert Montgomery and Audrey Tottter, the two stars of the movie, wear thin pretty quickly, too. There isn't much to recommend. I give them '4 stars out of 10' for trying something radically different.....but none for the results.
This movie could only interest a film historian. The camera shows the
point of view of the lead character, Marlowe. This is a technical
failure: deadened pans and zooms, no physical contact with other
characters, no outdoor scenes.
With clever self-reference, writer Raymond Chandler has Marlowe try his hand at pulp detective fiction -- based on his own experience, of course. The publisher's executive assistant, A. Fromsett (overplayed by Audrey Totter), expresses interest in the manuscript, to draw Marlowe into looking for the publisher's missing wife. Soon we are up to our camera lens in blonde bombshells, drawling thugs, crooked cops, and dead bodies.
This could be an intriguing story. Unfortunately, Robert Montgomery, playing the lead (appearing in mirrors and editorial commentary), also directs. He has a tin ear for dialogue, a glass eye for scenery, and a peg leg for pacing.
Those looking for an entertaining Marlowe crime drama should try "Farewell my Lovely", "The Big Sleep", or "The Long Goodbye".
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