Today, I'm reviewing Lady in the Lake, starring Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter, which is one of the most unusual films noir ever made.
This review is part of the 1947 blogathon hosted by The Dark Pages and Speakeasy.
1947 was a great year for film noir. There was Jacques Tourneur's masterpiece Out of the Past, the bizarre horror/noir mashup Nightmare Alley, and Orson Welles hall of mirrors thriller The Lady from Shanghai. Director and star Robert Montgomery made two interesting noirs in 1947. Ride the Pink Horse is a great film located in the American Southwest, while the picture I'm looking at today is Lady in the Lake, which is remarkable for its use of the subjective camera technique, meaning the audience sees the action through the eyes of the main character.
Lady in the Lake, based on Raymond Chandler's 1943 novel, follows private detective Phillip Marlowe (unlike the Chandler novels, Montgomery spells Phillip with two "'ll' s") as he investigates the disappearance of the wife of a powerful publisher (Leon Ames) during the Christmas season. The plot of Lady in the Lake is fairly standard; in fact, Chandler was so disappointed by the adaptation of his novel that he asked that his name be removed from the credits. Instead, Lady in the Lake draws the audience's interest through Montgomery's directing style.
|A French poster for Lady in the Lake (1947).|
|Detective Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is shown in a mirror interviewing Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) in Lady in the Lake (1947).|
Montgomery and cinematographer Paul Vogel used quite a few innovative techniques to make the film. John Arnold, head of MGM's camera department, made a mobile dolly so the camera could move more freely, and Arnold also designed a shoulder brace so the cameraman could realistically participate in a fistfight while still filming, according to the American Film Institute notes.
|A vintage lobby card for Lady in the Lake (1947).|
Despite these innovations, the subjective camera technique doesn't really work in Lady in the Lake. While it is extremely effective in some scenes, especially a sequence where Marlowe is involved in a car accident, Montgomery's choice to use it throughout the entire film is a mistake. Montgomery basically uses the camera as a substitute for the human eye -- when Marlowe turns his head the camera turns also -- which makes for some shaky camera movements that are usually associated with low-budget horror movies. Also, cinema is an art form that is based on the human face, and when the main character is a disembodied voice, that's a problem. Dark Passage, another 1947 noir directed by Delmer Daves and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is a better film that uses the subjective camera technique for a few scenes, although it's probably still the weakest of the four Bogart/Bacall movies.
|A Spanish poster for Lady in the Lake (1947).|
Lady in the Lake also presented a unique challenge for the actors. The entire movie breaks the fourth wall, so Montgomery usually sat in a basket under the camera while filming -- he wanted the actors to have a real person to interact with -- and he had to extensively rehearse with the cast. "Actors are trained not to look at the camera," he said in an interview with writer John Tuska. "I had to overcome all that training." Montgomery's techniques had mixed results. There are quite a few great performances in Lady in the Lake, especially from Ames as a nervous publisher and Lloyd Nolan as a crooked cop, but the standout is Jayne Meadows, who brilliantly impersonates three separate femmes fatale. On the other hand, Audrey Totter, who plays Marlowe's client/love interest, spends so much time arching her eyebrows and flaring her nostrils that she almost comes off like a Disney villain.
Lady in the Lake was a hit in 1947, mostly thanks to MGM's unrivaled publicity department, which churned out advertising copy that exploited the subjective camera technique. The movie's famous poster blared, "YOU and Robert Montgomery solve a murder mystery together," while other ads featured great lines like, "YOU accept an invitation to the blonde's apartment," or "YOU get socked in the jaw." Today, Lady in the Lake is regarded as something of an oddity, and a failed experiment in the subjective camera technique. There are a lot of minuses -- jerky camera movements, the main character is a disembodied voice -- but I found that there was also a lot to like, especially Meadows' performance and Montgomery's innovative compositions in some shots.
Lady in the Lake is available on DVD and video on demand.