Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Lady In The Lake" (1947) Dir. Robert Montgomery



 What I remember:

Considering the fact that I read the book and saw the movie, I can’t recall anything of the plot. I guess that’s a bad sign.
Clearly I am a big fan of Film Noir and all it represents; stylish filmmaking, whodunit plots, snappy dialogue, good looking dames that may or may not be trouble. Raymond Chandler is my favorite author when it comes to source material for the genre. "Murder My Sweet" and "The Big Sleep" are favorites from the author. "The Long Goodbye" is probably the best novel by Chandler, and certainly the most original screen adaptation. Robert Altman's 70's era take is celebrated by critics and fans as being a masterpiece of the era. 

Yet nobody talks about this very original, and very strange adaptation of one of Chandler's least celebrated books featuring his main character, Phillip Marlowe. "Lady In The Lake" was actor Robert Montgomery's first solo directorial effort ( he took the helm of "They Were Expendable" when John Ford was injured).  For some reason, he decided to shoot the ENTIRE FILM in "Point-of-View" style. The film was actually advertised as "Starring you"! 

I remember being a bit annoyed at first by the film's gimmicky premise, but as it went on I enjoyed it more and more, finding it to be very effective in getting you to identify with Marlowe. I also liked the concept that an actor, when directing himself for the first time, would choose to only show himself in mirrors. It would be like a shredding rock star guitar player letting his bassist take all the solos. Or a trial lawyer letting the bailiff read his summation. Not a chance. 

After rewatching:

Adrienne: "I wonder how it would be to discuss this over a couple of ice cubes. Would you care to try?"  
Marlowe:  "Imagine you needing ice cubes."

PLOT SUMMARY

Private Detective Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) has submitted a written up version of a recent case to a lurid magazine company to make a little extra cash. They send him a letter asking him to come in to discuss the article, but they actually want to hire him to find the publisher’s missing wife. Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), the main editor hires Marlowe, unbeknownst to publisher Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Fromsett has designs on Kingsby and his money, hoping that Marlowe will find Mrs. Kingsby dead or in deep trouble. Instead, Marlowe finds Mrs. Kingsby’s boyfriend dead, and he fights not to be implicated. This causes a run in with the local constabulary. More complications ensue when Marlowe and Fromsett find themselves attracted to each other.


STORY/THEME

Yeah. You just read that too. This is really a confused plot. I thought The Big Sleep was hard to follow, but this one takes the cake. It really doesn’t help that you become so distracted by the point-of-view device that you miss a lot of what’s going on. Yet one thing I always liked about Chandler was that the whodunit part of his stories always took a backseat to the real reason you read— the superb and clever dialogue (and 1st person monologues), and the bad, bad people he loved to portray. 

As for the former, what’s better than “meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s neck.” The guy really had a gift. As for the latter, I know Chandler didn’t invent the femme fatale (that was Homer, right?), but he sure perfected it. Velma from “Farewell My Lovely” was a beautiful example. Then there were the dirty cops, like DeGarmot in this film, and the thugs, crooked gamblers and businessmen that populated his world. He makes merciless fun of the good guys, and this film is no exception. Police Captain Kane is portrayed as a tough, not too smart guy, who is a sentimental fluff with his family. Kingsby is also not too bright, despite his money and publishing “empire”. 

The women, though, are smart and tough, until Marlowe breaks them down with his sharp tongue and no bullshit attitude. He’s the guy you want to be, even if it means getting your head beaten in about every twenty minutes. 

The problem here is that you never do that thing that all of these films usually get you doing…the “Ok, it’s the boyfriend”. “No, it’s gotta be the ex-wife”. “Oh I see now, it’s the dirty cop!”. That just never really happens because you are spending so much time and energy studying the camera angles and listening for the snappy retorts. The whodunit fades so far into the background as to become a McGuffin. You don’t really care who killed these people, you just kind of hope that it isn’t the woman who Marlowe has a thing for. Or maybe you DO want it to be her, because you’re a dark fuck who wants everyone to be miserable. 

Yes, I am projecting.

FILMMAKING

Of course this is the real reason to watch this film. Only twice before had there been any extended use of “subjective camera”. First in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, but then only in the opening sequence. In the same year as “Lady In The Lake”, Delmer Daves used subjective camera in his classic “Dark Passage”, wherein Bogart is wrapped in bandages for the first hour, and you see plenty of shots from his perspective, often partially occluded by the bandages. 

As I said earlier, this was the first time the gimmick was used through the entire film. There are a few exceptions. A couple of times, and especially in the prologue, he addresses the audience directly, breaking the 4th wall. Also at the end he is seen in a two shot for the big payoff kiss. Apparently this was a huge issue between Montgomery and MGM. The studio had had a lot of negative reactions to previews of the film from fans of Montgomery complaining that he was nowhere to be seen in the movie. MGM forced him to do the final scene from the normal camera position, and it was a deal breaker for the actor, who quit his contract with MGM that had been in effect for almost 20 years. He never made another film with them.

Some of the subjective sequences work really well. I was especially fond of the moments after a car accident, where you really don’t know how messed up he is, until you realize that he is crawling across the road to get to a phone booth to call for help. The camera keeps going in and out of focus so that you know he has suffered a brain injury. When he slowly drags himself to his feet, you can see how cut up his hand is and how painful each move is. Earlier in the film he starts asking pointed questions to Fromsett while the camera moves from one side of her to the other;  it’s a very cool way to show that he is pacing back and forth. 

For each of these good moments, there is an equal and opposite stinker. Often he approaches doors with incredible sluggishness, until you realize that Montgomery is giving the audience a chance to read the name on the door. When he addresses the camera it is square on and without any style or device whatsoever. Compared to the rest of the film it’s almost like watching a security camera. 

The entire film with the exception of the car chase, accident and the ensuing scene I just described, is shot indoors in small rooms. Very little lighting tricks are used; something you really miss if you are a fan of Noir. Most of the shots and angles are medium distance, 4-8 feet. The exceptions being a kiss on the lips or at the end of a fist. HA! Take that, Marlowe! (OK, I stole that line from Firesign Theater….but it still works for me!).

The music is extremely strange. David Snell and Maurice Goldman combined to give an almost entirely a cappella chorale type score. The bizarre really kicks in during the car chase scene, where normally we are used to screeching violins or symphonic crashes and swells, instead we get what sounds like choir practice in a Satanic church. You’re probably thinking that it worked great in “The Omen", right? But of course in a film with all those religious implications a choir fits perfectly. For a Noir car chase at night? Not so good.

PERFORMANCES

How can we judge the star’s turn in “Lady In The Lake”? He’s almost never on camera. When he is, it’s in those really flat breaking the wall scenes or in someone’s mirror. He delivers his tough guy lines well enough, but they don’t seem to have the bite as they did coming from Bogey or even Dick Powell, who did such a fine job in “Murder My Sweet”. I don’t want to lump Elliot Gould in here, or even Bob Mitchum. Both were directed to do things very differently than our prototypical Marlowe. 
Here might be the problem….Montgomery is a little too Hollywood handsome to be this character. Maybe it’s better that he’s off camera. He’s too kempt. Even after the brutal accident or black eye that he is given, he still looks perfectly coiffed. 

However, the real problem with the acting is Audrey Totter, as Adrienne. Totter made a living as a bad girl, so much so that it ruined her chances as a big time leading lady. I’ve seen her be wonderful before, particularly in “The Set Up” and in a smaller part in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. She really seems all mixed up in “Lady in the Lake”. I think the gimmick threw her off her game. Acting to a camera must be a lot harder than to another person.  There’s just too much deliberate movement and facial machinations from her that seem very unnatural. 



Bad cop Lt. DeGarmot as played by Lloyd Nolan (yep, that nice Doctor Chegley from TV’s “Julia”) seems to have no problem with the subjective camera. He is natural, and tough and comfortable as can be. Jayne Meadows plays the woman everyone’s looking for, and at first she is speaking way too fast and it feels like she is just terrible. Later you realize that was a put on by the character posing as someone else, so all is forgiven. Still, she won’t make anyone forget about Myrna Loy.

Who’s Myrna Loy? Leave this room right now, and go fuck your selfie.

ON SECOND LOOK

Well you can’t blame a guy for trying, can you? I mean he gets lots of pats on the back for the creative factor, but I have too say Montgomery did not pull this off. He ends up with something that is pretty much a curiosity for the film buff, but nothing of real value. Maybe he needed to get his feet wet just making a traditional film by himself first, then he could have jumped into this much more challenging project. For what it’s worth, this was never done again. In mainstream films only “Memento” comes to mind as something so stylistically audacious. That’s a lot to take on for an actor transitioning to director. Also, let’s not forget that he was also IN the film. 

Kind of.

On First Look: ✭✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭


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