Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Target #39: Lady in the Lake (1947, Robert Montgomery)

Directed by: Robert Montgomery
Written by: Raymond Chandler (novel), Steve Fisher (screenplay)

I'll get the obvious out of the way first. Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947) is most renowned for being one of the only mainstream films to unfold almost entirely from the first-person perspective of the main character, in this case Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The technique had been used before, albeit on a lesser scale, in the opening five minutes of Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). In 1947, shortly after the release of Montgomery's film, Delmer Daves would take an enormous risk by filming the first hour of Dark Passage (1947) without showing the face of Humphrey Bogart, though the star's status was such that he was eventually forced to emerge from the shadows (after which point, it must be said, the film becomes more conventional and marginally less interesting). Montgomery, in his last film at MGM, was also given the opportunity to direct, and he doesn't flinch from his chosen gimmick. Marlowe's face is seen only during several brief explanatory interludes, and whenever he happens to catch his reflection in the mirror.

Setting aside the gimmick – which MGM optimistically hailed as the greatest cinematic innovation since synchronised sound – Lady in the Lake doesn't quite measure up to other popular Chandler adaptations of the time. Robert Montgomery may have been a great actor – I honestly can't say, this being my first film with him – but his Philip Marlowe doesn't possess the toughness of Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), nor the cocky swagger of Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944). The awkwardness of the role is only accentuated by Marlowe's constantly being behind the camera, though even the occasional direct-to-camera interruptions seem to miss the mark. I don't expect that the supporting actors had much experience in speaking directly to a piece of equipment, and so their performances are capable without being particularly memorable. The chemistry between Montgomery and Audrey Totter, the potentially-villainous femme fatale, was mostly stale for this reason, as we're really only seeing one side of their conversation.

Perhaps the film's greatest weakness – and, once again, this all comes back to Montgomery's chosen gimmick – is that everything moves so slowly. One would expect those 1940s movie cameras to have been incredibly clunky, and so, in these pre-Steadicam days, Marlowe ambles from A to B with devastating sluggishness. The first-person technique, however, did work wonderfully in the sequence where Marlowe is being pursued in his car, and also when he must drag himself across the gravel to a public telephone. There are lots of prolonged silences where nothing happens, and, despite striving for realism, the film should have conceded more of a musical soundtrack to fill these voids. The one piece of music put into use, however, was an eerily effective choir song that reminded me of György Ligeti's "Requiem" from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Overall, Lady in the Lake is a fascinating film noir experiment that doesn't quite manage to pull it off. Even so, it's worth a look for its unique take on Philip Marlowe and several scenes of inarguable excellence.

Currently my #9 film of 1947:
1) Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) *
2) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
4) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
5) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
6) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *
7) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel) *
8) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
9) Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery) *
10) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)

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