Robert Montgomery, who both directed this movie and played the lead, decided to take a radically different approach to Chandler's novel of the same name; a novel first published in 1943, but which itself was based on several earlier short stories, including one also entitled 'Lady In The Lake'. MGM got Chandler to write a screenplay for it, but Steve Fisher (author of 'I Wake Up Screaming') also wrote one, possibly at Montgomery's request, which is what ended up being used. One of the ways the screenplay strays from the original is in turning several smaller characters into much more important ones.
You'll see it just as I saw it. You'll meet the people, you'll find the clues... And maybe you'll solve it quick, and maybe you won't.As with another Chandler novel/adaptation, 'The Big Sleep,' the plot is full of turns and twists and no one is who they appear to be. Phillip Marlowe (yes, with 2 l's) is trying to get some extra money by submitting a story to a pulp magazine. He's invited to the publisher's office to discuss terms, meeting with Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). There, she persuades him to look into the disappearance of her boss's wife, Chrystal Kingsby. Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), the boss, is amidst divorce proceedings and needs his wife present to sign documents. Marlowe accepts and before he knows it he's in over his head in a big way. The twisting plot where people and things are not what they seem, and a new clue means nothing is not important. Like all good noirs with labyrinthian plots, think 'The Big Sleep,' it's all about slipping into the right mood and feeling the atmosphere, the psychological make-up of the characters and what drives them, discovering their real motives, hearing the crackling dialog. 'Lady In The Lake' has it all, in spades.
The movie plays out in one long flashback, told from the perspective of Marlowe. In the most literal way, the entire movie, save for a few short scenes where Marlowe addresses the viewer directly to summarize details, is seen through his eyes. Marlowe himself is never seen except reflected in mirrors. This wasn't the first movie to use the subjective camera point of view but it most likely is the first major studio movie to use it as such. Not even 'Dark Passage,' another noir released a year before, and famous for using this technique, used it to this extent. As Marlowe/Robert Montgomery explains at the start of the movie, this gives the viewer a chance to see the case through his eyes, to see if they can crack the case and pick up on the same clues that Marlowe had to go on. An interesting idea, but it failed to connect with audiences at the time. It is also one of several things that are commonly seen as negative about this movie in noir circles.
Using this technique also meant that the actors who did appear in front of the camera needed to be comfortable looking directly into the lens. This was no problem for Audrey Totter ('Tension', 'The Set-Up') whose Adrienne Fromsett is the real star player of the movie, who drives the plot forward. Totter seems completely at ease with this unusual way of acting and gives an amazing performance. With her expressive face and big eyes, she makes use of it all to great effect. The way she flirts with and talks to the camera is incredible. She's a natural and her take on this role is one of the reasons she's one of my favorite ladies of noir. The other main female character, played by Jayne Meadows ('Song Of The Thin Man', 'Undercurrent'), also gives a strong performance. She starts out as Mrs.Fallbrook, Lavery's supposed landlady, but as the movie progresses she turns out to be somebody else, complete with different personalities and manners of speaking. Both Totter's and Meadows' characters are minor and relatively irrelevant in the original novel, but are given a much more important role in this adaptation. To some this deviation from the original, is a source of criticism.
We have a nasty little motto around here: "Every man has his price."Robert Montgomery plays Marlowe as cynically and verbally abusive as can be. It also doesn't help that you hardly ever see him, leaving little ambiguity about his words. This is a Marlowe that isn't likable, he's mean, never a nice thing to say, and seems to generally dislike people and life. Add that to the list of gripes about this movie too. Of all the actors in this movie, Lloyd Nolan ('The Street With No Name', 'The House On 92nd Street') seemed the least comfortable addressing the camera directly; he is fidgety at times and looks away from the lens too often. But all in all, they both do an admirable job, considering they had to unlearn some common acting lessons such as no looking straight into the camera.
There's a few other ways in which this movie stands out: it uses a lot of long takes, even if there are quite a few cheat-cuts to make it seem like it's an even longer continuous take. Because the movie has very little action, it is full of dialogues. There are many scenes in which an actor is essentially doing a monologue facing the lens with Montgomery/Marlowe responding off-camera. There's also no real soundtrack, apart from a choir providing occasional, rather eery, background music in theme with the Christmas season the movie takes place in. It's certainly a different viewing experience.
There are several scenes where the first person view really works in ways that would be much harder to accomplish if filmed the traditional way. The scene where Marlowe finds Lavery's dead body in the shower cabin is incredibly creepy and quite graphic considering the era, with the choir music adding to the suspense and tension. Later on, when Marlowe's car is pushed off the road and he is stumbling out, he crawls on hands and knees to a phone booth, badly hurt and barely conscious, with the camera going in and out of focus. This crawling alone takes over a minute and all that is shown during this time are his hands as he slowly moves. It's a very effective way of showing his condition without showing Marlowe himself.
- Stop getting involved in other people's murders. Why be a private detective at all?Aesthetically, the movie does not have the noir look but everything else about it: the story, the characters, the twists and turns, the ambiguity, the psychology and morality, it's all noir. While it may not work for some, the first person view can really draw you in, giving it a different kind of noir aesthetic that relies a lot more on combining what you see with the atmosphere of the scene rather than on chiaroscuro lighting.
- Why eat? You only get hungry again.
There are other unusual touches to the movie, including a Christmas-y credit roll making it seem as if you were watching something like 'It's A Wonderful Life', until it ends with the image of a gun. It also includes a credit for Crystal Kingsby, who is supposedly played by Ellay Mort. Except she never appears in the movie, it's a phony credit, Ellay Mort when spoken out loud means 'she is dead' in French. There are even scenes where the viewer/Marlowe is on the phone and, as one tends to do whilst on the phone, looking at nothing in particular. And so, during the entire conversation you're staring at a piece of furniture! Also watch out for some funny phone calls.
As you may have gathered, there is a decently long list of gripes that are commonly brought up about this movie. As you may also have gathered, I don't agree with any of them. I love it! What others see as working against it, I see the other way around. Robert Montgomery clearly went out on a limb with this movie, and I applaud him for it. The only other noir that he directed and starred in, 'Ride The Pink Horse', is also rather atypical. The man simply didn't want to walk the beaten path, and that is never a bad thing. 'Lady In The Lake' is a movie I can watch over and over again. It's a one-of-a-kind noir experience. Most hate it, some love it, like I do.
Besides, what's not to love about a movie where you're the person being kissed by Audrey Totter?!