A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

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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