Detective and crime novelist Raymond Chandler, it was said, was not terribly thrilled with this film adaptation of his 1944 novel. His character, Philip Marlowe, an ex-cop turned detective turning budding novelist, was somewhat autobiographical, and he felt strongly that the “gimmicky” way the film was handled “did not serve the story very well.”
Adrienne F.: [early on in her negotiations with Marlowe] People who write usually don’t know the facts, and people who know the facts usually can’t write. Authenticity has very little to do with it. If the people who read our magazines knew the facts of life, they wouldn’t be reading our magazines.
Adrienne F.: [now pitching Marlowe’s story to her boss, Mr. Kingsby] And he is a very well known private detective. That’s what makes his stuff so authentic; so full of life and vigor and heart. So full of…what would you say it was full of, Mr. Marlowe?
Marlowe: Short sentences.
Lt. DeGarmot: [learns that Marlowe is writing detective fiction] What are you trying to do, elevate yourself?
Actor Robert Montgomery, an MGM studio player and star from 1929, had mostly played society roles, comedy, and leading men. During WWII he had served in the U.S. Navy, and one could see with his hard-boiled persona playing a PT boat commander in John Ford’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945), that the combat experience had changed him, given him a harder edge to his personality. [Similar things happened to James Stewart, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, and Glenn Ford after the war.] Montgomery was a full Commander in the USNR. His portrayal of Marlowe, in LADY IN THE LAKE (1947), was criticized for its “unevenness”, but he must have learned something from the experience. Later the next year he went on to direct himself much more successfully in the fine film noir feature, RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947).
Montgomery appeared in 64 films from 1929-1960. He was in PRIVATE LIVES (1931), BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932), RIPTIDE (1934), played a deranged killer in NIGHT MUST FALL (1937), enjoyed a lot of success with MR. & MRS. SMITH (1941), with Carole Lombard [Becoming quite the action film in 2007 with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie], THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945), RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), JUNE BRIDE (1948). He hosted his own television series, ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS (1950-1957). Daughter Elizabeth Montgomery got her start in the business on her father’s series.
For many years Montgomery was considered one of the most well dressed actors in Hollywood. He would not wear a wallet in his back pocket because “it would ruin the drape of the suit.” He was the President of SAG from 1935-38. He was a friendly witness in 1947, at the HUAC hearings, and he named names. Even for a big star like himself, this did not boost his career. By 1950 he found himself downsizing to a career on the new medium: television. He was re-elected President of SAG from 1946-47. In 1949, when Laurence Olivier was absent from the Academy Award Ceremony, Montgomery acted the Best Actor for him, for Olivier’s role in HAMLET. Montgomery won a Tony in 1955 for directing his version of THE DESPERATE HOURS on Broadway. Even though in some ways he was a pioneer on television, joining Jane Wyman and Loretta Young and others with their own dramatic series, he got around in 1968 to writing a book, OPEN LETTER FROM A TV VIEWER, in which he blasted the television industry for its monopolistic schemes and violent programming. I wonder how he would respond to the near nudity and cuss words found almost every night presently on the tube?
Robert Montgomery once said, “If you are lucky enough to have success, by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public –but never believe it.”
His portrayal of Marlowe was not half bad, it just seemed strained, pushed, and not centered. It does not stand up to the others who have played the Chandler alter-ego, actors like Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, even James Garner. Purists feel that George Sanders did a good job too in a made-over B plot film from MURDER, MY SWEET novel.
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci on IMDb wrote, “Robert Montgomery’s sardonic snap mostly works for the cynical Marlowe, though he sometimes forgets to tone it down during tender dialogue, making him sound simply cranky.”
MGM was not a studio well known for making film noir projects. One notable exception had been THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946). One of the problems was purely stylistic. MGM was known for “well lit” films, where their stars all looked handsome and glamorous. Film Noir, by definition had to have darker blacks and whiter whites, creepy characters inhabiting ten shades of shadow. Noir thrillers were more the purview of studios like Warner Brothers, Columbia, Universal, and RKO/Pathe. Montgomery convinced MGM to let him direct his first film and Chandler’s LADY IN THE LAKE was his choice. It was very nervy, and innovative to make the creative decision that the camera lens would become first person, would see what Marlowe saw; most of the time.
MGM was put into a mild shock when Montgomery presented them with this film, so they had no choice but to push for a big marketing campaign. In the trailer for the film we heard the narrator exclaim, “MGM presents a Revolutionary motion picture; the most amazing since talkies began!” They tried to sell the public on the uniqueness, stating that, “this picture is the first “interactive” movie experience.” They went on in the ads to state, “YOU and ROBERT MONTGOMERY solve a murder mystery together! YOU get socked in the jaw by a murder suspect. YOU accept an invitation to a blonde’s apartment!”
This technique had only been used sparingly prior to this film, like a few minutes as Dick Powell is swimming back to consciousness in Edward Dmytryk’s MURDER, MY SWEET (1944). A few months after LADY IN THE LAKE was released, director Delmer Daves used the technique for the first few scenes in DARK PASSAGE (1947), before the Bogart character has his plastic surgery. Presently audience have been inundated with news reporters, reality show participants, documentarians, and stand-up comics –all playing directly to the “eye” of the camera. Of course, good “film actors” like John Wayne and Alan Ladd understood a “look” masking inner monologue, and they were able to relate to the camera as their audience –but the strange notion that the lens represented a character in the drama for “most” of the film had never been done before.
In January 1947, the NEW YORK TIMES film reviewer wrote, “In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery [they were a lot more polite in those days of yore] has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching for a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as if it might come right out of the screen—the novelty begins to wear thin.”
I was thrown for a loop during the opening credits; those precious hand-painted set “cards”, all Christmas-sey and cutesy were just Montgomery having fun with us. When the last Hallmark Hollywood placard is picked up, and we see the small pistol in close up, we kind of understand how much we have just had our leg pulled.
So with LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) we are confronted with a film where 95% of the time we do not “see” our protagonist, Marlowe, except in mirrors and store fronts. Yet Montgomery made an odd choice and put his character in “front” of the camera in the prologue, middle explication scene, and epilogue –using the camera in the very conventional manner of letting the lens have the audience’s point of view. He talks tough, challenges us to “pay close attention” to the mystery to be solved, tells us that we will “see” events “just as I saw them”, and the gimmick is launched. I feel that the premise, the process could have, or would have worked better if Montgomery would have had the courage of his creativity, and perhaps opened the film with voice over, letting the camera lens see a bathroom sink and shaving gear, and only then we would meet and see Marlowe for the first time in the mirror while shaving. He could have been consistent with this technique throughout the film if he had storyboarded it to be such. It might have been less jarring for us viewers, and might have allowed us a chance to adjust the process, the idea, and get more quickly into the mystery and the plot. The “theatrical” convention of a character suddenly turning to and addressing the audience in an aside is as old as the Greek narrator or chorus.
The camera equipment of the 40’s was large enough that Montgomery was able to squat under the lens of the behemoth 35mm “eye” and deliver Marlowe’s dialogue. Actors had to struggle not to look down at him while responding with their dialogue. Too often in the film we watched many of the cast side-stepping and shuffling to align themselves with the omniscient lens. It appeared that in addition they faced overlong “takes” without cuts, which most of them were unaccustomed to. All the camera sweeps and moves were smooth as they were anchored to cranes and dollies. Sometimes it might have been interesting to shift the POV more quickly, even adopting the “jumpy shot” as the “eye” moved from visual task to other targets. His ultra-smooth zooms onto a door knob, waiting an eternity before the character’s hand opened the prop door, were often overused; that and doorbells, and reading signs, and staring at paintings and prints, or at one point ogling a curvy receptionist as she returned the flirty gaze making her sexy way out of the room. For many decades now, since the advent of the steadi-cam, a POV can shift in, around, and through the most bizarre of obstacles, tracking from room to room, floor to floor, pillar to post, effortlessly, like shots in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2004), and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992). In that regard, Robert Montgomery was a pioneer and truly an innovator.
The plot was far from innovative, and some form of it could be found in countless detective yarns in Hollywood, most of them in the “B” films starring Boston Blackie, the Saint, Charlie Chan, or Simon Templer. In LADY IN THE LAKE we had Philip Marlowe being summoned to Kingsby Publications to meet with an A. Fromsett. This was pure Hollywood noir fare from the 1940’s. A. Fromsett turns out to be “Adrienne” Fromsett, who has been reviewing Marlowe’s manuscript for a new detective story. She grilled him about his honesty, and work ethic. He saw through her scam, and demanded to know what she really wanted. She “hired” Marlowe to find her bosse’s wife, Mr. Kingsby. She produced a telegram from Mrs. Kingsby, sent from Mexico stating that she wanted a divorce and that she intended to marry a man named Chris Lavery. The boss makes an appearance at the office, Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), and we see at once that Adrienne has him on a short leash, that she is a smart cookie who has fur coats, diamonds, and new cars on her mind. Kingsby, however has seen Chris Lavery in the neighboring Bay City recently. Marlowe takes the job, and trots off to confront Lavery.
Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), just a gigolo, claims innocence, saying that he had not seen Mrs. Chrystal Kingsby for several months. When Marlowe pressed the issue, Lavery sucker-punched him, knocking out the detective, who woke up in jail. It is there, in the Bay City Jail that he met Lt. DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan) and Capt. Kane (Tom Tully). They claimed that he was found drunk and passed out in his car. This puts into motion a series of events that involve double-crossings, several murders, crooked cops, infidelities, bad marriages, grief-stricken parents, impersonations and a body in Little Fawn Lake. The episode at the lake, integral to the plot, is handled clumsily, letting Marlowe explain thinks to the camera; this happening because the camera as first person would not work outside, or in that environment pretending to be outside. When characters are shot, there is a lot of grimacing, but no sign of blood. Sex is present, but only “suggested”. Processed shots and studio shots are abundant. Most of the characters smoke and all the men wear hats.
The script writer for LADY IN THE LAKE was Steve Fisher, who worked hard to adapt the Raymond Chandler novel, and still write within the parameters of Montgomery’s vision. Fisher was a busy Hollywood script writer for 50 years, starting in 1939, and he was no stranger to film noir stories. He wrote I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941), DESTINATION TOKYO (1943), JOHNNY ANGEL (1945), DEAD RECKONING (1947), ROADBLOCK (1951), CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953), THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953), and he stayed busy writing dozens of shows for television, including COMBAT. Between 1966-68 he wrote a series of odd “B” westerns that starred all of the remaining old time actors. One of my favorites for its absurdity was ARIZONA BUSHWHACKERS (1968), with Howard Keel, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Roy Rogers Jr. (his only film).
The cast all reacted differently to their daunting task, to this new methodology. Audrey Totter (Adrienne Fromsett), veteran of many other film noir roles, seemed to take half of the film to get over her jitters and constant mugging. Her eye brow arching was distracting, clumsy, and would have put wrestler the Rock to shame. Lloyd Nolan (Lt. DeGaimot), quite a good film actor normally, had some discomfort adjusting to the lens POV. When he was punched in the jaw by Marlowe, as a disembodied fist shot into the frame, as Nolan fell backwards, we could see the tape marks on the floor where he was to land. Tom Tully (Capt. Kane) was much more successful in appearing natural in his scenes. He even calmed Nolan down when they appeared together. Dick Simmons (Chris Lavery), better know in the 50’s as Sgt. Preston, managed a workable scene, including punching the lens in the lip. Jayne Meadows (Mildred Haveland and others) was also fairly successful at this new technique, primarily because she seemed un-intimidated by it, and was able to maintain a more “natural” posture, and shift her gaze as the dialogue suggested. Ms. Totter just spent way too much time staring wide-eyed into the lens, frozen to the floor like a raccoon in truck headlights.
Audrey Totter was a veteran of 86 films from 1945-1987. She ended up working a lot more on television that even Robert Montgomery did. In the 40’s and 50’s she was considered the “Bad Girl” in a lot of Noir features, like MAIN STREET AFTER DARK (1941), THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), and of course, LADY IN THE LAKE (1947). She was slated to be the femme fatale in THE KILLERS (1946), but her work on LADY held her up, and Ava Gardner snagged the plum role. She was in ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949), THE SET-UP (1949), with Robert Ryan, THE BLUE VEIL (1951). By the mid-50’s she began to work more on television than in feature films, and TV became her second career. Ironically, she came out of retirement to replace Jayne Meadows on MEDICAL CENTER (1969), working four seasons with Chad Everett. Today, at 89 years old, she is living in the Nursing Home wing of the Motion Picture and Television hospital in Woodland Hills, CA.
Adrienne: Do you fall in love with all your clients?
Marlowe: Only the ones in skirts.
Adrienne: We get hundreds of submissions every week.
Marlowe: Why don’t you print a few?
Adrienne: [to Marlowe] Perhaps you need to go home and play with your fingerprint collection.
Adrienne: [to Marlowe] I want to be your girl, that’s what I want for Christmas.
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci on IMDb wrote, “Audrey Totter eventually tones down her mugging and becomes genuinely affecting as her Adrienne lets down her hair and her guard and begins falling for Marlowe. You may love or hate this lady—but if you enjoy mysteries and you’re intrigued by offbeat movie-making techniques, give her a try.”
I have to agree with this assessment. Totter was just plain awful in the first third of the film, mugging, shuffling, arching her eyebrow—and the two times the camera came in to her face in close up to first fake a kiss, and then later to plant one on her, this became the cinema of the absurd. But after Chris Lavery punched out Marlowe, and he visited Adrienne’s apartment at 2:00am, and Totter answered the door with her hair down, in that sexy nightgown and robe, she began to find a comfort zone with the camera and the character. Many have commented on her choice of brassieres –showing us perhaps the pointiest boobs in film history; but it was just another affectation of that era, along with the padded shoulders in her dresses and blazers. Frankly I never fully bought into her sudden flip-flop from gold digger to girlfriend, but it might have worked better if the film had been more conventional, and we were more privy to some dynamics between her and Marlowe, where we could see the chemistry at work. Something was missing here, like those murders in Greek plays that all happen off stage.
Lila Leeds who played the sexy blond receptionist only appeared in ten films from 1946-1949. LADY IN THE LAKE was the only film that she was identified in the credits. Her other nine roles were “uncredited”. Her claim to fame came on August 31, 1948, when she was arrested with Robert Mitchum for possession of marijuana.
For Actress Jayne Meadows, LADY IN THE LAKE was her second role in what would become a 50 year career. She had been a star on Broadway in 1941, which led to her Hollywood contract, and elevated her performances above many around her. She appeared in 72 films from 1946, movies like SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947), DAVID AND BATHSHEBA (1954). In 1951 she appeared on ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS. In 1954 she became Mrs. Steve Allen, and she did work on all of this TV shows; like THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW (1958) and THE STEVE ALLEN COMEDY HOUR (1967). She is, of course, sister to actress Audrey Meadows of HONEYMOONERS fame.
In WIKIPEDIA we discover, “The gimmick was criticized by many reviewers of the day, including the film critic at The New York Times. Although Montgomery received some positive comments for the inventiveness of his direction, and the contrivances he employed to enable his face to appear on-camera, by catching himself in reflections. Regarded as something of a curiosity and an oddity in its day, the film has retained that reputation, although some modern critics, while maintaining that the storyline itself is routine, assess the film overall as more worthwhile than did the contemporary critics.”
If a viewer suspends their belief and gives this subjective camera technique half a chance, often it is serviceable. I felt that overall though, it pulled too much unnecessary focus of the events and the plot pieces that should have held our interest more; after all the film was supposed to be a crime/mystery thriller. Montgomery’s Marlowe is a weak sister characterization when held up to others. Regardless, LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) will always hold a special place in cinema history, unique unto itself. It is certainly worth a look both for curiosity and furthering one’s film education.
Glenn Buttkus 2008