A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery, 1947)

I am not a camera. If you ever want to see what movies could be like if no one had discovered montage, crosscutting, expressive camera angles, and other techniques that make them so involving, just watch Robert Montgomery's debut* as a director, Lady in the Lake. The gimmick (and it's little more than that) of this film based on a novel by Raymond Chandler is that the audience sees everything that happens through the eyes of Philip Marlowe, thereby becoming the detective. Montgomery plays Marlowe, but except for occasional reflections in mirrors, he's on screen only in set-up segments that clue the audience into the gimmick. Naturally, the film has to cheat, as when there's a cut when Marlowe travels between one location and another, but the major problem is that what the camera mostly sees is people standing there talking to it, a point of view that soon gets tiresome. Some of the cast rise to the demand of the long takes and extended dialogue without the usual shot/reverse shot cuts. Tom Tully, for example, makes his police captain threatening and then undercuts the threat when Marlowe witnesses him on the telephone with his young daughter, promising to come home early on Christmas Eve and play "Santy Claus." (The choice to set the film at Christmas -- it isn't in the book -- is perhaps meant to create a kind of ironic dissonance. If so, it doesn't work.) Jayne Meadows is fun as the apparently scatterbrained landlady who later turns out to be a somewhat more menacing figure. But the female lead, Audrey Totter, as the Chandlerian femme fatale, is an inexpressive actress, resorting to a lot of eye-popping to express emotion. She looks like her face has been shot full of Botox, years before it was invented. Montgomery, who is heard more than he's seen, is miscast as Marlowe, his patrician handsomeness much at odds with the hard-boiled Marlowe made familiar to us by Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and others. There are some good moments, such as an effective sequence in which the camera is behind the wheel in the car Marlowe is driving, but too often the gimmick makes us pay attention to itself rather than to the story being told.

*Official debut, that is. Montgomery had done some uncredited work behind the camera for John Ford on They Were Expendable (1945).

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