Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake is my third favorite Philip Marlowe novel. The book’s plot is pleasantly complicated even for Chandler, but one of the main reasons I love it is that it takes Marlowe out of L.A. and into the mountains – the last place you’d find a hard-boiled private dick. Chandler’s own screenplay for a Lady in the Lake adaptation was never used. Instead, Robert Montgomery directed and starred in a version written by Steve Fischer, who penned a ton of westerns as well as Bogart’s Dead Reckoning. Chandler himself hated the adaptation, but I really like it. It’s tough and pulpy with a subtle romantic thread running throughout. For once, it’s nice to see Marlowe fall in love (even if Chandler’s creation preferred drinking alone).
Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake is probably best remembered for its use of first person camera style. Aside from some segments that bookend the film and a brief intermission, the whole thing is shot from the viewpoint of Marlowe. Posters for the film even advertised the stars as “YOU and Robert Montgomery,” which I get a kick out of. The novelty of it quickly wears off, but I really dug it because it made every conversation he has feel like an interrogation. Every person he confronts looks right into the camera, eyeballing the audience as we glare back at them. It helps to heighten the suspense and anxiety, since we can only see what Marlowe does – there’s no other perspective. So, when he’s sapped from behind, none of us can see it coming.
The film’s opening credits are laid out over a series of Christmas post cards of traditional holiday images like reindeer and snow-covered trees. The final postcard is pulled away revealing a gun. There’s something wonderfully offensive about this, and I love it.
Montgomery and Fisher took a lotta liberties with Chandler’s novel. Rather than be contacted for a job like usual, Marlowe’s lured into a missing person’s case by Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), a publishing agent specializing in the pulps. He’s thinking about getting out of the private eye business to take up writing. She’s interested in a story of his and ropes him in with the promise of publication. She eventually admits that she wants to hire him to locate Chrystal Kingsby, the wife of her boss, publishing mogul Derace Kingsby. After some witty back and forth (and light sexism), Marlowe takes the gig.
After this first scene I wasn’t really feeling Montgomery as Marlowe. He had the snappy comebacks and smarmy lines, but a lot of Marlowe’s coolness comes from his mannerisms – the way he lights a cigarette or sits in a chair. The first person viewpoint doesn’t allow us to see his expression, reactions, etc., so we’re only getting a half Marlowe. He delivers lines in a stiff, monotone manner most of the time too, which just doesn’t sound cool.
I guess that’s the only aspect of the POV that I didn’t like: not being able to see Marlowe’s expressions. But other than that I like the approach for the reasons I mentioned above, like how it always feel like he’s interrogating someone and they look right at ya. It’s tough to lose interest in a film when Audrey Totter is staring into your eyes. Her character isn’t in the novel, but film’s always needed a romantic interest back then, and Marlowe didn’t really have one in this particular novel so they invented her. Totter just passed away on December 12, at the impressive age of 96.
She undergoes an interesting arc in the film and displays a solid range of emotions from cocky publisher to vulnerable, desperate woman. Since Marlowe remains pretty stiff throughout, Totter is the acting highlight of the film. She doesn’t exactly fit into the femme fatale mold – she’s manipulative, sure, but her character walks a fine line between Marlowe’s harbinger of doom and love interest.
My favorite POV scene was when he goes to the house of Chris Laverly, who was allegedly Chrystal’s lover that she ran off with. Marlowe enters the house, and for one long take searches the house, stumbling upon a corpse in the process. This scene uses the POV most effectively because it’s the one scene where it actually feels like “YOU and Robert Montgomery” are working on the case together.
The romance that blossoms between Marlowe and Fromsett gradually takes precedence over the mystery of Chrystal Kingsby. Over the course of the film, you start to realize that both characters are looking to start fresh with a new relationship. Marlowe wants to quit the private eye business for a more stable life (something Chandler’s Marlowe might’ve mused over his chessboard, but would never truly consider) and Fromsett wants a life devoid of secrets and full of honest love. Despite her initial ploy, Marlowe keeps giving Fromsett a chance. What’s great about it too is that in most of the film’s of this era, when people fell in love, they would do so immediately and simply collapse in each others’ arms. It’s nice to see a romance in a 40s film actually blossom over its run time rather than explode instantaneously.
The mystery itself, like most of Chandler’s labyrinthine stories, is wicked convoluted at times, but in an entertaining manner. It starts out with a missing person case, then a couple bodies pile up, a crooked cop starts causing trouble, and Marlowe finds himself knee deep in corruption. It’s deliciously pulpy and fast-paced. The only lag time is when Marlowe is detained at a police station and the captain is on the phone with his family. The call lasts a couple minutes and is painfully pointless.
The most Christmas-y scene involves Marlowe busting in on the publishing company’s Christmas party. There’s a super awkward moment in which a boy brings mistletoe up to Fromsett and pleads for a kiss on the cheek.
Overall Lady in the Lake is a solid film ripe with noir themes and sensibilities. The romantic aspect takes over after a time, which is fine. I kinda liked seeing Marlowe fall for someone and show his sappy side. While it’s barely resembles the source material or Chandler’s iconic private eye, there’s enough fun and cynicism to make it stand on its own.