With Christmas fast approaching I thought I’d turn my attention to something which, if not exactly festive in content, is at least set around the holiday season. The hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler has been well represented on film down through the years, and after the commercial success of Murder My Sweet and The Big Sleep it was the turn of Lady in the Lake (1947). Unfortunately, this ended up being something of a gimmick picture as a result of the decision to shoot it entirely from a first person point of view, where the camera becomes the eyes of the protagonist. While it was an interesting experiment it does tend to become quite taxing after a time and it’s actually one of the biggest weaknesses of this film.
The first shot of the movie has Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) sitting in his office addressing the audience directly and explaining that, what with the private eye business being so tough and unrewarding, he’s decided to throw it all in and write crime stories instead. After establishing this slightly odd premise he proceeds to tell us, in flashback and from the aforementioned first person perspective, the details of the story. An appointment to see a publishing executive, Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), turns out to be something entirely different. Miss Fromsett only set up the meeting as a blind, an excuse to see Marlowe with the aim of hiring him to track down her employer’s runaway wife. Despite his initial reluctance to become involved in what he suspects is a fool’s errand, Marlowe finds himself drawn into the mystery surrounding the missing lady and the numerous shady characters that flit in and out of the tale. In the process, he falls foul of a local detective, DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan), who’s every bit as tough and insolent as our hero. DeGarmot takes an almost instant dislike to Marlowe and even goes out of his way to have him framed on a drunk driving charge. In fact, that forms one of the best and most effective sequences in the movie – the point of view filming and haunting choral score working perfectly as Marlowe’s car is first pursued and then ruthlessly forced off the road. Then, as Marlowe slowly and painfully drags his battered body across the deserted road in an attempt to reach a phone box, the benefits of this unusual technique are most apparent. Going into the plot in more detail at this stage would be futile (and anyone familiar with Chandler’s work will know just how twisty, complex and downright confusing it can become) – suffice to say that by the end all the loose ends are pretty much tied up, and we get a happy ending that feels contrived and generally unsatisfactory.
As I said at the beginning, the filming method employed by star/director Robert Montgomery is one that loses its charm fast. It’s the kind of thing that works great in small doses, but not when it’s drawn out for the full duration of a movie. The same technique was used by Delmer Daves at the start of Dark Passage, but he wisely knew when to let it go and revert to more traditional cinematography. The simple truth is it doesn’t feel natural, and it ultimately has the effect of drawing you out of the picture – and that surely wasn’t the director’s aim. That’s one of the problems. The other is the performance of Montgomery in the lead role. Chandler envisioned Marlowe as a knight errant, a bruised and imperfect figure to guide us through a corrupt, violent noirish landscape. Most of the other interpretations of the character have given us a Marlowe who’s tough, honourable and smart enough to get away with the casual insolence he displays. Montgomery’s version, however, comes across as mean, callous and a little too dumb. Audrey Totter was always at home in noir parts and she doesn’t disappoint here – although her Adrienne Fromsett does veer from the grasping, mercenary vamp to the loyal girl friday type in a disconcertingly short space of time. For me though, the best performance comes from Lloyd Nolan, a criminally underrated actor. He never got to play the lead in A pictures but always lent solid and often memorable support. I think it would be fair to say that his presence in a movie always raised the quality and added a touch of realism.
Lady in the Lake is only available on DVD as part of Warner’s Film Noir Classics Volume 3. The transfer is reasonable but it’s dirty and there are damage marks, cue blips and the like that speak of no restoration being done. As for extras, we get the trailer and a commentary from authors Alain Silver and James Ursini. All in all, Lady in the Lake has to rate as one of the weaker outings for Phillip Marlowe. While it does have its moments it is a definite step down from both The Big Sleep and Murder My Sweet, so expectations need to be adjusted accordingly. The first time I saw this I found the filming style to be a major distraction, and frankly a pain. However, on subsequent viewings I would say it’s probably just mildly irritating now – but still annoying enough to hurt the film.