Robert Montgomery’s film of LADY IN THE LAKE, from the Raymond Chandler novel, is so notoriously unsuccessful in its use of subjective camera as a narrative device (throughout the film, apart from the first shot — even the opening credits seem to be a POV shot) that there doesn’t seem to be anything new to say about it, unless we try to situate the problem elsewhere, invent or discover ways in which the approach ISN’T misguided and distracting, or just wallow in the weird effect the film produces. I’ll concentrate on the last option, with maybe brief stabs at the other two.
Montgomery would do a better job by far with RIDE THE PINK HORSE, his follow-up film, based on an excellent novel by Dorothy B. Hughes who also wrote the source book of Nick Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE. But LITL is so obviously dysfunctional it’s pretty surprising it was released at all, in this form. I guess Montgomery really had clout at MGM. It’s pretty obvious to me that the film could be at least partially rescued by the addition of shots of Montgomery as Philip Marlowe, cut in as reactions and for key lines, allowing better control of pace and reduction of some of the more egregious performances. Of course, this would mean jettisoning the unique stylistic raison d’etre, but studios rarely had any problem with messing up a director’s vision if they thought it made a more commercial version of the story.
Opening titles: surprisingly Christmassy! And the final title card lifting away to reveal a waiting handgun is a nice little joke.
Montgomery’s piece to camera: he stresses the need to watch all the characters carefully and look out for clues, so the movie is really treating this as a fair-play mystery story, a guessing game, and the choose-your-own-adventure visual style fits this, I guess (except we don’t get any choice). When Hawks made THE BIG SLEEP he kept the book’s form, in which Marlowe appears in every scene, acting as our eyes and ears in a far less literal way, since he correctly decided that the audience needed access to all the same information as the detective in order for the plot to work. But, unlike Montgomery, he obviously moved past this a little, since he would later declare that plot didn’t matter, and the movie ended up, after reshoots, with a notoriously confusing, labyrinthine narrative. This kind of rethink is exactly what Montgomery doesn’t seem inclined to consider, sticking to his one big false good idea.
First Person Pooter: Marlowe goes to meet a publisher. In this radical reinterpretation of the character, Montgomery plays Marlowe as a man who has a slow and ungainly manner of opening doors. Every door in the film causes him to pause in apparent befuddlement, seek out the door handle with a slow tilt of the head, and then reach in awkwardly from as far to the side as possible, as if his arm were not attached to his body but instead coming in from somewhere to the side of him. Elliott Gould’s revisionist approach in THE LONG GOODBYE has nothing on this.
Now we get the first dialogue, and the novelty value swiftly wears thin as we see what we’re up against. The sexy secretary seems to change mood rather rapidly — which might make sense if we had some visual cue from Montgomery. Monty the director being Monty the actor’s worst enemy, he keeps his mug offscreen and can’t resist a cheap joke by having the camera crick its neck following the sexy secretary as she leaves the room. LADY IN THE LAKE, filmed with the wonder of Ass-Cam, the new miracle process! (The sexsec is Lila Leeds, whose career was ruined when she was busted for smoking dope with Robert Mitchum.)
Here we meet Audrey Totter, who is acting for two. The mercurial mood-shifts are fully in effect, with sudden, startling shifts in demeanour — flirtacious, then furious, then back to flirty. Maybe this is what being autistic feels like. I can see that her face is doing all kinds of weird stuff, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything.
This Marlowe is a dick, and not just in private. I don’t recall him being this smug, self-important and narrow-minded in the books. Without getting to see him being cool, he somehow just feels seriously obnoxious. Maybe inhabiting his celluloid shoes is revealing to me how much I secretly hate myself. Maybe accepting him as this cool, morally-superior knight in shining trenchcoat is impossible if he’s just Linda-Blaired his neck off to watch a cute girl leave the room. I want to someone to slap Montgomery’s camera, or his face, or both.
First Person Totter: One great long scene with Totter, made draggier by the Marlowevision approach, is followed by yet another, and the use of the word “yet” as in “yet another” feels entirely justified even though this is really only scene two. After struggling through the door, Marlow receives another info-dump from the lady who is now his client.
One gets used to Ozu’s technique of having characters speak into the lens pretty quickly, I think. Partly because everyone underplays and instates a kind of low-key naturalism that suppresses any discomfort. The weirdness in this film is augmented and revivified every time a new mug comes into the shot. Now Marlowe glides over to see Dick Simmons, and after the usual trouble ringing the doorbell, manages a stilted interview. Maybe the reason none of this is enjoyable — I can’t even be bothered looking for clues or trying to guess what’s going on — is that while watching Bogart irritate everyone gives us huge vicarious pleasure, inhabiting the source of irritation is uncomfortable, an obnoxious sensation of being hated by a series of anxious hams.
Still, at nineteen minutes exactly, someone finally punches Marlowe (in the forehead!), and the camera sways about, going out of focus and sinking to its geared knees as a kind of ominous male voice choir thrums on the soundtrack. Just as with Chandler’s prose, Montgomery’s visuals perk up markedly whenever the narrator loses consciousness.
The Bay City Gaolers: we awaken in the hoosegow. The camera blows smoke at a cop. No idea when we got the chance to light the cigarette. I think we’ve possibly been awake since before the fade-up, which feels confusing. Now we meet Lloyd Nolan, a proper detective actor and the most welcome face imaginable at this stage. Now, for the first and last time in cinematic history, Marlowe will be taunted and bullied by a cop, and we will be on the cop’s side. Marlowe being braced by the authorities plays better than most scenes so far, since there’s more than one person for him to talk to, and the actors have someone real to bounce off of (each other). But when the scene fades to black with the cops staring angrily at Marlowe, I did wonder if he’d lost consciousness again.
Through the Looking-Glass and What Marlowe Found There: Marlowe wakes up as he approaches another door. Apparently gaining in confidence, he shoves it open without bothering with the handle. More bulging-eyed looks from Totter. Once, more, the camera nearly unscrews itself from the tripod following the sexy secretary around. Marlowe contemplates his black eye in the mirror. A shame there isn’t behind the scenes footage of the camera staring at a big window pretending to be a mirror, with Totter haring around next door to looking-glass-world to act in a duplicate set in which everything is mirror-reversed. Except not quite — there’s a transition hidden so perfectly it can’t be spotted, so that Marlowe can pan directly from the reflection to the real Totter by his side. Neatly done.
The Private I: Now Montgomery as storyteller returns, talking directly to the camera (himself?). This seems a more stilted and interior way of covering the next sequence than a simple shot of the guy driving to the countryside would have been. Plus, we then get another two-hander with the wretched Totter, in which Montgomerycam explains what he just did, which we didn’t get to see. This may all be due to the same budgetary limitations which stymied Welles’ use of subjective camera in the planned HEART OF DARKNESS. I’m just saying that the effect is unfortunate.
BTW, while it’s impossible to regret RKO’s tight-fistedness, since it gave us CITIZEN KANE, I can see Welles’ HOD working a lot better than Montgomery’s LITL. The Conrad novella (which also stars a Marlow, come to think of it) has a morbid, ominous, incantatory quality which would fit nicely with long tracking shots and the alienation we get from not being able to see the protagonist. Everything which seems unfortunate in the Montgomery could be imagined working eerily in the unrealised Welles. The remorseless, steady pace (like a boat on a river), the necessity of long takes, the weirdly distanced affect, all would belong perfectly within the range of techniques Welles would show himself to be a master of.
Laugh, and the Camera Laughs with You: Yet another scene with Totter. Marlowe laughs sardonically in this one, and it’s a disappointment that the lens doesn’t jiggle up and down when he does so. Totter better turn out to be the villain in this movie or else Marlowe’s treatment of her is really going to be unforgivable. he’s already insulted her at every turn and leered at her secretary, now he wakes her up at 4am, insults her some more, laughs sardonically and doesn’t even have the courtesy to jiggle his lens
Lakey Lady: now, the plot does some serious thickening. Chandler plots often display a problem for adaptation — too many characters we never meet, who turn up as corpses, possibly even offscreen corpses. Truffaut praised Hitchcock for avoiding stories that give rise to that unwelcome sensation of “Who are they talking about again?” David Mamet, in his typically surly fashion, goes further: “Any time two characters are talking about an absent third, the scene is a crock of shit.” (Mamet goes too far, but not by much.) The trouble with LITL as a job of adaptation (credited to Steve Fisher — Chandler wrote a 195-page draft, but it’s never been used), is that it’s nothing BUT these kind of scenes / crocks of shits. Here, the lady is never seen, and neither is the lake.
Dramatic Reversal: But we do get Montgomery playing a scene with Totter and her stand-in, who has to mimic her movements exactly to look like a reflection. This stuff is fun enough, in a distracting way. Cocteau may have been taking notes. When he made ORPHEE, he couldn’t afford to get photographically reversed versions of the prints on Eurydice’s bedroom walls, but Montgomery has managed it here. The largesse of MGM.
The Not-So-Thin Man: Another scene, another doorway, another hammy woman. Jayne Meadows talks nineteen to the dozen and comes off like a maniac, but it’s Montgomery’s grating deadpan delivery that makes this feel still like a cut scene from a video game. After she’s gone, Marlowe climbs the stairs which, even with a “hidden” cut halfway to help him along, takes fucking ages. One expects to catch Montgomery’s reflection and discover he’s gained 300 lb. He’s making heavy weather of these stairs. Midway he starts whistling to pass the time. A little later, I started whistling too. A clock chimes. Yes, it is getting on a bit, come to think of it…
Marlowe reaches the top landing and slowly looks left and right. What we need is a pretty girl walking across frame to make the pan go faster. Finding a clue, he manages to squeeze both hands in front of his lens for the first time. His fat right hand and his thin left hand. The monogrammed hankie says AF, convincing me that the killer must be Allen Funt. The Candid Camera Case.
Bullet holes in a shower screen! The killer seems to have etched a crude rendition of a face with his bullets, as a kind of grim calling card! We’re looking for a man bearing a strong resemblance to an owl. Perhaps it’s Maurice Chevalier.
Late to the Party: Marlowe crashes a Christmas party at Totter’s publishing company and everyone stops their celebrations to stare at him. Maybe he HAS gained 300 lbs, or maybe it’s his mismatched hands that makes their eyes bulge. Then we go into the boss’s office for some tense dialogue played with Christmas carols as counterpoint, a nice idea. But these three-handed scenes with one corner of the triangle replaced by the camera are starting to remind me of the alarming TV play in FAHRENHEIT 451, the immersive, interactive extravaganza I call “What Do You Think, Linda?” With Robert Montgomery in the role of Linda.
The Totter romance, never a very convincing subplot (Marlowe makes her apoplectic and we don’t blame her) seems to definitively end, with Totter humorously veering out of shot to make way for Monty-cam’s vast bulk as he aims himself cautiously through another succession of doors. On the way out, he gets hired by a new client, Totter’s boss. Totter was angling to replace his wife. Now he wants his wife cleared of this murder and suggests framing Totter for it, which makes Marlowe mad. But he agrees to find the missing wife, whom we haven’t met. Gee, maybe she’s the lady in the lake.
Assisting the Police with their Iniquities: Marlowe meets the cops again at the house with the difficult stairs and the corpse in the shower and Montgomery, in a fit of madness, decides to play this scene with the vocal inflections of comedian Gilbert Gottfried. I guess he figures he’s the director, plus we can’t see him, so he can do as he likes. It’s Liberty Hall! A coroner arrives. Coroners are always fun in films noir. This one asks where the customer is, and is it a man or a woman, and expresses disappointment that it’s a man.
Marlowe now noises up Lloyd Nolan (he’s irritated everyone he’s met), who repeatedly slaps the camera,causing little jolting pans. I’d be happy if this kept up until the end credits. “Now I’m getting somewhere,” says Montgomery, and for once I agree. He’s getting whiplash. When he punches back, the cops put the bracelets on him — on his mismatched wrists. Since Marlowe’s arms always seem to belong to two different guys, I’m picturing a remake of THE 39 STEPS here, or THE DEFIANT ONES. Two men, handcuffed to himself.
The cops try to give the camera the third degree and Nolan, already having suffered the indignity of being punched by a movie camera, now gets kicked by one. The police chief takes a call from his little daughter who wants to recite ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas over the phone. And does so. While we watch, unable to even hear her. For a detective, Marlowe is remarkably incurious as he doesn’t even look idly around the room while this endless business is going on. After this, Marlowe annoys the police chief so much he releases him, a nifty trick. Fighting crime with the power of irksomeness.
Falling Between Two Tables: Slipping into the press room, the camera makes a phone call, so we get to look at the corners of two tables and a discarded hat for over thirty seconds. The craziest moment in the film, and my favourite. In the next scene he’s called back, and this time we get to look at Audrey Totter waiting for him to finish the call, which is more conventionally sensible, though Marlowe for some reason holds the mouthpiece in front of his eye. Then she leaves and we get another great shot of the mouthpiece and a door, which maybe Marlowe is figuring out how to open. These odd moments, when the film seems to have been abandoned by all its inhabitants and makers, are the only genius things in it. Montgomery is on the verge of a whole new kind of cinema, only actors keep wandering into shot and spoiling it.
Not At Home: The phone call sends Marlowe to a fresh interview at a fresh house, where he has to manage to ring the doorbell (Damn these sluggish, mismatched hands of mine!) But those strange shots of tables and doors have had a lasting effect. Now, Montgomery’s camera, drunk with power, is feeling liberated in a way the Germans never dreamed of. Supposedly talking to a seated woman, the camera decides to give equal weight to an empty chair and a corner. Exciting stuff. I think Montgomery wants us to feel the absence of the missing girl. But the missing girl could only either be in the chair or in front of the corner, if she was present, not both at once. I’m picturing a brace of missing girls instead. Maybe that’s the point.
Cargate: Some elaborate, effortful, but interesting business as Marlowe gets into his car, easing himself behind the wheel with all the nimbleness of a 35mm camera, as ominous music invades the soundtrack — it sounds like Ligeti, which is amazing. (It’s by David Snell and/or Maurice Goldman.) There follows the most avant-garde car chase on 1947, maybe of ever, a wacky stargate that almost justifies this whole film, climaxing with a smash-up, and Lloyd Nolan pouring whisky on the lens.
Talk is Cheap, Whisky Costs Money: Montgomery now takes over the narration again, telling us direct to our faces what happened next, but only for a moment. Marlowe escapes being arrested for drunk driving by punching a passing drunk unconscious and letting him take the rap instead. The eerie chanting music now accompanies Marlowe crawling around injured in front of a sign reading ZIPPO LUBRICATION, giving little pained gasps. The film is really picking up. The droning continues as the image keeps swimming out of focus and giving little dips to black as Marlowe crawls in the dirt towards a phone booth. That’s entertainment! This is the real stuff, as Werner Herzog argues in JULIAN DONKEY BOY. And just think, at the end of all this Lynchian abstraction, another subjective camera phone call! I’m in heaven.
Noscarface: Rescued, Marlowe regards his ravaged features in a hand mirror — in fact, he has barely a wee skelf on him, as we say in Scotland. Subjective camera kiss from Totter — that never works, Plus, she’s such an ennervating performer in this. This recovery sequence develops into a strange Christmas day idyll, with Marlowe gazing at Totter through puffs of smoke he exhales, more choral music (gentler now) and Scrooge on the wireless. I don’t recall if the novel was this festive, maybe it was. Peculiar writing: Totter turns off the radio when the play ends, and says “And then when I was sixteen I had to go to work.” We’re forced to imagine she was telling her life story, paused to allow a play to be broadcast, then picked the story up where she left off, almost in mid-phrase. Unlikely.
Then the plot picks up again. Montgomery tries something risky when Totter has Marlowe repeat a phrase, and she moves her lips in time with the words. With no on-screen Marlowe, it kind of looks like she’s dubbed with his voice. But they just barely get away with it, partly because Totter’s perf has calmed down a bit.
Hairface: Marlowe finally meets the woman he was hired to find, and has a lengthy conversation with the back of her head. Not sure why Montgomery didn’t use reflections in the shop window, but again, I like the oddness. We start to suspect that there is nothing to this woman but a mass of hair, like Cousin It. Maybe that’s the solution — It did it. Finally we get the face, the big reveal, and Jayne Meadows holding a gun on us like the last shot of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. Marlowe recaps the plot, hoping to get her to monologue until the cavalry arrives. In fact, Marlowe disarms her himself, with a queer bit of speeded-up action. Meadows doesn’t seem like she ought to need accelerated motion, she acts in a kind of time-lapse, rattling off her lines as if they’re being typed in her head.
Then Nolan arrives and punches Marlowe to the floor, where he spends the next ten minutes. I wish Montgomery had the nerve to film the climax of his film sideways, the way it would look to a man lying down. I guess Marlowe must be on his back, propping himself up on his elbows. But it’s less visually interesting.
Rescue! Hurried happy ending! Montgomery talking to the camera again, then Totter comes in and we get to see them looking directly at each other for the first time in the film. We have about five seconds to judge if they have any chemistry together and then —