Lady in the Lake

Director: Robert Montgomery

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Robert Montgomery directs as well as stars in Lady in the Lake (1947), & even came up with the "idea" for the point-of-view camera. So it's a safe bet it was a film he had great hopes for. In attempting to be "innovative," however, it spoiled itself with mere gimmickiness, a gimmick that seems to have so befuddled the actors that no one turns in an entirely praiseworthy performance.

Lady in the LakeGumshoe Philip Marlowe (Montgomery) provides the camera-eye-view of the mystery. We see only what Marlowe sees, & that means we almost never see Marlowe except when he's in a room with a mirror.

Since everyone he talks to looks right into Marlow's eyes, all of the dialogue occurs with the actors standing in front of a camera doing their lines very flatly.

These actors seriously needed someone to play off of & pretending the camera lens was Marlowe did not inspire any of them.

Nor does the camera move in any manner like a human being, so when it pivots it's not the least suggestive of Marlowe turning his head, & when it rolls like an automaton through a set, there's no sense of Marlowe walking.

Audrey Totter is the not-so-fatal femme fatale Adrienne Fromsett, editor of a pulp magazines reminiscent of Weird Tales & Dime Detective, for which Marlowe hoped to sell some short stories based on his cases. Totter's make-up design is harsh & makes her look buggy-eyed & old, & her character's nuances aren't very nuanced -- she swings between self-important vanity & easily insulted insecurity. One gets the impression her acting could've been fine without the camera's POV shtick in the way.

Jayne Meadows is given a particularly strange role & is actually permitted to act off other players in some scenes, rather than always just looking at the camera. She is more a pitiful lunatic than a true femme fatale. For the story to work requires her character to be maximumly seductive & corrupting of men, but she's too obviously desperate & insane so it's pretty hard to believe even the horniest most ignorant dude would be anything but creeped out by her.

Montgomery himself is mostly just a disembodied voice & doubtful that those are even his hands that reach out from underneath the camera from time to time. He speaks almost exclusively in Chandleresque wise-cracks but without a full character context, & with his merely declarative delivery, they come off more like dumb-cracks.

The story never seems particularly consequential as Marlowe attempts to locate missing Chrystal who doesn't actually exist. A short-tempered unlikeable police detective (Lloyd Nolan) is a one-note character, the seemingly worst person in the story turning out to be, surprise surprise, the worst person in the story. His talents seem wasted, but he might've made a better disembodied voice if he'd been playing Marlowe.

The gimmicks to sustain POV become intrusive & pervasive. If Marlowe is slugged & falls unconscious, the camera has to shake & go down into blackness. If Marlowe is smoking, smoke has to be blown in front of the camera. If Marlowe is crawling away from a car wreck, all we see are hands scrabbling on the ground. A little of this goes a long way; if the p.o.v. thing had been done only when Marlowe was slugged or crawling it might've been kind of cute. But the great welter of p.o.v. gags all seem concocted by committee.

Some have assessed Lady in the Lake as a noble but failed experiment which would take the genius of Alfred Hitchcock to get right & with sensible restraint in Rear Window (1954). I regard it as having been a bad idea from the start, as there's a reason the characters in films & plays don't line up on the edge of the stage & recite their lines staring directly at the audience.

When the first day's rushes came in during shooting, Montgomery & everyone involved should've said, "Oh good lord this is too stupid for words" & started over before it was too late. But they'd sold themselves on the gimmick & stubbornly blinded themselves to the fact that it wasn't working.

But, as an unchristmasy Christmas movie, it might be a passable antidote for all the syrup dripping around during the holidays.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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