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By 1947, Raymond Chandler was big business. His hard-boiled pulp novels (many of them about the Don Quixote-like private eye Philip Marlowe) were wildly popular, as were their increasingly gritty film versions. Chandler himself took up residence in Hollywood, adapting his own books into screenplays (The Big SleepDouble Indemnity), and penning original screenplays (The Blue Dahlia). The character of Philip Marlowe had been essayed by Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart, as well as (if you're not too precise about the name "Philip Marlowe" actually being used) Lloyd Nolan and George Sanders. So, when Robert Montgomery proposed to MGM that he get to star in-and direct-a version of Lady in the Lake, contemporary audiences could be forgiven for expecting a little more of the same old same old: another dimly-lit and archly-worded journey into Raymond Chandler's peculiarly overcomplicated brand of noir.
But is Raymond Chandler's pulp fiction was becoming a genre unto itself, with its own calcified rules and conventions, Robert Montgomery was the proverbial square peg in the round hole. In 1947, Chandler was disillusioned and frustrated with Hollywood, and all but left town; Montgomery was just finding his calling, and looking to expand his horizons. One man's grumpy disillusionment is another man's trippy dream, so to speak.
Robert Montgomery had first come to Hollywood with the desire to be a screenwriter. "Yeah, I'm a top-billed movie star, but I really want is to write!" With his bland, somewhat doughy, good-looks and a vocal delivery that sounded like Cary Grant minus his distinctive accent, Montgomery racked up roles in over 50 films prior to 1945, settling happily into a rut as one of Hollywood's less-interesting performers. 1945, though, was when Fate struck a surprising blow: on the set of They Were Expendable, John Ford got sick. Montgomery filled in for him, secretly. He enjoyed the taste, and wanted more.
In the main, actors-turned-directors generally make movies that are actors' showcases, not ones that push the limits of the cinematic form. Montgomery the iconoclast chose that later path. For years, film theorists had puzzled over the role of the camera lens-did it have a narrative function, and if so, what? Does the audience identify more with the characters onscreen, or with the unseen perspective from which those characters are witnessed? The idea of using the camera's viewpoint as a character had kicked around Hollywood before, but to actually go and do it, in a prestigious studio vehicle, took a degree of daring no one had yet mustered. Full of daring bravura, Montgomery cast the camera as Philip Marlowe; he would provide little more than the voice.
MGM's publicity boasts "YOU and Robert Montgomery solve a murder mystery together!" It is doubtful anyone really thought about this technique as a sort of virtual reality project, with the viewer suckered into "being" the main character. The plot is too tangled to be deduced by any viewer-who is not watching the events "as" Philip Marlowe so much as staring passively through Marlowe's eyes. This is a crucial distinction, because the consequence of the subjective camera is a colder, more distancing film than one shot more conventionally.
Marlowe's attention, for that matter, wanders. He may stare at another character for what seems like an eternity... or he may leer at some passing woman instead. If he gets bonked on the head (which happens a lot) the screen goes black; if he's alone, several minutes may pass while he stares blankly at an empty corner of a room. We see what he sees: but he may not be looking at anything particularly interesting at the time.
For a wraparound framing sequence, Montgomery appears onscreen as Marlowe in his office, talking directly to the audience. It is awkward, to say the least-we in the audience are simply not accustomed to being addressed like that. Nor are professional actors accustomed to doing it-Lloyd Nolan in particular found the experience discomfiting. Even in today's post-Roger Rabbit green-screened CGI-ville, not all actors come equipped to properly emote to ciphers and phantoms.
The experiment placed huge and unprecedented demands on the cast. Marlowe is offscreen for almost the entire movie, save for when he admires himself in a mirror or narrates directly at us. We cannot see his reactions to anything. His body language is silenced, his facial expressions invisible. With Marlowe reduced to a voice-over, all the burden of performing onscreen shifts to the other actors, who have to carry the picture on behalf of its all-but-absent star. Audrey Totter is more than up to the challenge, and brings enough facial gymnastics for two. Her eyes roll, her nostrils flare, her lips pout, she glowers with a smoldering power so intense it's a miracle the celluloid didn't catch fire in the camera.
Good thing, too, since cinematographer Paul Vogel and his team had their hands full. Maintaining the premise that the camera sees what Marlowe sees severely limits the cinematic options, and reduces the art of editing to a game of cheats: cuts are hidden when possible, avoided altogether when not. If it takes a badly beaten man a few minutes to crawl on his hands and knees across a highway to a phonebooth, rest assured it will take the exact same number of minutes of screen time to watch this happen (and from his point of view, natch). While the result is more gimmicky than dramatic overall, it results in a handful of standout sequences, the best of which is a genuinely suspenseful and nerve-jangling car chase-and anytime someone manages to make a car chase seem fresh, it is a cause for celebration.
One wonders what producer George Haight thought of all this. He was not of a noir sensibility, and this was a marked deviation for him. Screenwriter Steve Fisher was a veteran of pulp thrillers, and punched up Chandler's story with a canny eye for what would make it a better movie. Although Montgomery's moon-eyed American-boy appearance seems at odds with the hard-bitten Marlowe character he portrays, at least the subjective camera keeps that minor quibble safely in the margins. From his words, Marlowe is a "dumb, brave, cheap" dick caught up in a stew of crooked cops and man-eating dames; drowned women and naked, bullet-riddled pretty men; false identities and self-referential mystery fiction; love triangles (or hexagons) and double-crosses that uncross themselves-all ending in a trail of rice. It is by no means a typical or representative film noir, but that is its enduring strength.
Warner Brothers' disc comes with a snappy and informative commentary by film noir historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, as well as an original theatrical trailer. It is packaged exclusively in the multidisc Film Noir Classics Collection Volume 3.
For more information about Lady in the Lake, visit Warner Video. To order Lady in the Lake (it is part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 2), go to TCM Shopping.
by David Kalat