Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lady in the Lake (1947)

To really enjoy the 1947 MGM film noir Lady in the Lake, it's crucial to accept the subjective camera angle Robert Montgomery uses, and fully give yourself to seeing things via this artificial first person lens. Allow some room for deviation, too, from the expected portrayal of Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe character. It's worth leaving such preconceptions behind as the film pulls off the rare trick of being nasty and cynical while still maintaining its studio gloss as first rate entertainment wrapped in a decidedly noir package, Christmas bow and all.

In his first directing gig (aside from some uncredited work on the set of They Were Expendable when John Ford was sidelined), Montgomery let the camera act as the audience's eyes. The advertising promised an interactive experience of solving the case alongside Montgomery, who also played Marlowe. It was perhaps questionable to use both this odd perspective and to adapt a Chandler story using a different sort of interpretation of Marlowe than what's on the page or the way he'd been played earlier by Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart. Nonetheless, there's little reason to be particularly beholden to the rigid limitations of what a character can be. Montgomery increased the sarcasm and distrust while muting most any of Marlowe's half-buried good qualities. But, importantly, his Marlowe exists only within the confines of the film Lady in the Lake. Those who prefer their Marlowe as a hard-bitten but ultimately still safe creature can watch Dick Powell and those who enjoy Bogart's smart, cynical and movie star glistening turn will always have The Big Sleep. This isn't a competition.

As director, Montgomery skews ironic from the start. Using a Christmas carol medley across the opening title cards, images of snowy evergreens and bells and reindeer tease a warm holiday story until the final reveal of a handgun. There's also a completely made-up actress listed in the credits, a nice touch probably unrealized until at least the second viewing of the picture. Director/actor then greets the viewer in an odd introduction that again plays with expectations since we're really being addressed by the character of Marlowe, and after the events about to be seen have already taken place. Similar scenes pop up a couple of times throughout the film to add bits of information which might have been said in a voiceover had that device been used. Despite this being a 1947 release, the interruptions now play sort of like a television program returning from a commercial break. They take us out of the first person perspective, if not quite the film as a whole, but it's difficult to quibble with Montgomery's use of these brief interludes. Each time he's seen is like a small refresh, a reminder that we're seeing things through the eyes of a movie star.

It's reasonable to wonder what MGM must have thought about Montgomery, ideally the main draw of the picture, not showing his face for the vast majority of the running time. A similar, perhaps even more daring trick considering the discrepancy in stardom was adopted for Humphrey Bogart in the Delmer Daves film Dark Passage, also from 1947, though the subjective angles are ditched about halfway through that picture. There's a mirror here and there plus those direct resets, but Montgomery remains committed to showing the action through Marlowe's eyes during the entirety of Lady in the Lake. When Marlowe gets slapped around, the camera jerks, and when Audrey Totter's character Adrienne Fromsett leans in to kiss him, we vicariously experience that too, at least visually. The main complaint some have with this effect seems to be that it's a "gimmick" unneeded by the narrative, but that reaction seems a bit hasty. If used with any frequency (and it really hasn't been outside of video games) the first person point of view angle would indeed become a chore to watch. In Lady in the Lake, though, it increases the suspense and paranoia and disorientation - all of which are hallmarks of film noir. The device also makes every scene an interrogation. The viewer looks directly at who's speaking while that actor is typically alone on camera. Something accusatory arises in most all of Marlowe's conversations.

Several of these feature Totter. Her performance is very much in the femme fatale mold, albeit straddling the line nicely as a love interest so that we can't be sure until the very end which side she's actually on. Marlowe first encounters her after submitting a detective story to a magazine which she more or less runs for publisher Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Having Marlowe wearily and, in Montgomery's shoes, bitterly resort to writing about his past cases rather than pursuing new ones gives the entire proceeding a self-reflexive, even post-modernist spin. So, again, Lady in the Lake seems to buck tradition in favor of a knowing, though no less serious wink. Montgomery's Marlowe comes across as trapped in a cycle of getting his feet dirty despite realizing the limitations of the profession. He can't help himself because these things keep falling in his lap, even, apparently, when he's looking into other options. The calamity this time, for what it's worth, involves Kingsby's wife in some capacity. Details emerge piece by piece, with Chandler's usual complexity.

Those who frequent the world of noir rarely do so for the plots. After all, there can only be so much interest in missing persons, dead bodies, and the wrongly accused. Sure we all enjoy those things but they simply aren't the exclusive draw. Lady in the Lake seems to get this idea while still offering up a rather twisty narrative that never becomes unnecessarily convoluted. Marlowe's client initially is Fromsett but transitions into being Kingsby. He gets beaten up over and over again, left for dead once by the cop (Lloyd Nolan) who's also his chief tormentor. One woman isn't who she first claims to be while another's mostly on the level but difficult to trust and a third is little more than a ghost. Montgomery has to juggle the story enough to keep interest without completely giving way to it. That's not an easy task and it's worth praising the film for successfully balancing the plot against the dual characterizations of Marlowe and Fromsett, all the while still letting the noir elements flourish in a cynical but nonetheless playful way.

For all of the causticity shown by Marlowe, his scenes with Fromsett gradually reveal the desire to be vulnerable and start anew, with her, in a loving relationship. Again, maybe this isn't the Marlowe we're accustomed to elsewhere but Montgomery plays him as weary and stubborn and not terribly bright yet always, almost painfully, guarded. His actions indicate that he wants to believe Fromsett's not involved with any of the unsavory parts of this case but he can't give himself to her until everything's been settled. Their many encounters really strengthen the film as we see the gears of romance turn much slower and more deliberately than is the norm in Hollywood. The sequence where Marlowe seems to come around involves a very domestic situation, at Fromsett's apartment. She's given him an uncharacteristically flashy robe as a Christmas gift, but Marlowe finds a card in the pocket addressed to Kingsby, indicating the robe was bought for her boss. But before Marlowe even has a chance to mention the card, Fromsett casually admits the whole thing and tells him she left it there on purpose, that she wants a fresh start where they're honest with each other.

Part of the frustration with Montgomery's performance is that he's unable to react to most anything. We obviously can't see his face, but even Marlowe's voice and dialogue rarely allows for any change in mood. This isn't necessarily a deficiency in Montgomery's acting. It just makes the viewer approach things from a different angle, one where the lead character neglects his usual duties as a guide of the film's emotion. Totter's performance, then, has to subtly shift along the way to greet the hardened Marlowe. Where Montgomery can rely on Marlowe's actions to fill in the blanks of his behavioral arc, Totter must, with the added difficulty of looking at the camera while acting, express the growing trust Fromsett feels for such a closed man without it seeming too ridiculous. That Totter pulls this off so well as to make the entire film emotionally hinge more on the dynamic between these two rather than the central mystery is a real triumph of noir acting. There's a complexity that exists within this romance that might not be immediately recognizable, but it ends up as one of the most adult and fully developed pairings in all of film noir.

And, still, Lady in the Lake remains mostly unloved by devotees of Chandler and Marlowe and film noir. That's probably to be expected considering the liberties Montgomery takes with both the story and the portrayal of its protagonist, but it simply shouldn't be an accepted truth that Lady in the Lake is minor anything. The film is noteworthy in its adherence to noir stylistic and narrative conventions without ever really emphasizing any sense of danger or overwhelming darkness. It's an oddity full of misconceptions, assured enough to gently torture the viewer through an elaborate mystery filmed in the first person for absolutely no reason yet still so accommodating as to periodically provide entry level updates on the plot and offer up the promise of a happy ending.Those looking for a strict noir fix are better off watching Montgomery's next effort Ride the Pink Horse (which isn't easy to find), as it's far more prototypical and probably the superior film overall. Lady in the Lake, though, seems to get dismissed too quickly and partly because of the things that make it special.

Written by clydefro.
Editor's note: Make sure you check out his excellent film blog.


  1. Nice analysis, Steve, especially on the Montgomery/Marlowe/1st person presentation. I also agree that "Ride The Pink Horse" is more typical film noir--no private eyes, etc.--and it is definitely hard to find. I think I saw it a few years ago on TCM, but that's about it.

  2. Good, objective article. This is a fine antidote to an atrocious article in the Huffington Post about the Worst Christmas Movie Ever, Lady in the Lake being that film. The article has been dropped on its site, probably due to space restrictions. The offending article had the utterly joyful tone of cutting up a "worst" film, much in the way that Medved did with the Golden Turkey Awards, the book that elevated Plan Nine to its position of worst film ever. In both cases, there is no real criticism, only a sense that the author's favourite writer is...himself. Your article shows no such faux venom, but is critical of this flawed but interesting film.

  3. "weary and stubborn and not terribly bright..."
    LOL, that's just how the Marlowe character is in this film. I watched it after seeing it on this website and the review is a perfect description/analysis.
    It was definitely not your typical noir but I enjoyed it a lot. I felt very attached to the two lead characters by the end.

  4. Well, I didn't expect a traditional noir after reading this post, but now that I've seen it, I have to say it just didn't grab me. The NYTimes critic's excerpt on the Wikipedia site captures it:

    "In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen the novelty begins to wear thin."

    I found the flick kind of boring, although I did enjoy staring at Totter's face and wondering just how rotten, or good, she was.


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