A Christmas-y Film Review: “Lady in the Lake” (1947)

First published: 12/25/2012

This is a film review from Patrice Bowman, who writes the newly revamped WEEKEND blog column: “The 21st Century through a Monochrome Lens: Re-examining Older Films.”

Cinephiles place movies on that high pedestal we call Art. But some films utilize less highfalutin gimmicks to wrangle in more audience members. Some tricks have been absolute busts, such as the gustatory Odorama (that just sounds disgusting). Others, such as 3-D, have experienced longevity. Robert Montgomery’s directorial debut, “Lady in the Lake” (1947), uses the first-person camera to “make” you the private detective who solves a Christmastime mystery. As intriguing as it is to transform the camera from an observer to a participant, the technique is a deceptive kind of Christmas wrapping: once ripped away, it reveals a pallid film noir.

Private detective Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) submits a crime story to Kingsby Publications in the hopes of some fast cash. Much to his chagrin, however, the publishing executive Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) contacts him so that he can find Chrystal, the missing wife of her boss Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). The mystery becomes murkier as Marlowe tangles himself with some suspicious characters: Chrystal’s lover, Chris Lavery (Richard Simmons); Lavery’s frantic landlady, Mrs. Fallbrook (Jayne Meadows); and the brooding Lieutenant DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan).

And it wouldn’t be a mystery without murder. Merry Christmas, Philip!

This movie should work because it does have many of the qualities of a bona fide film noir: the hard-edged private detective, duplicitous dames, a convoluted story and suggestive dialogue. The last element drives most of the conversations between Adrienne and Philip. After presenting the case to Philip, she asks him: “You think I’m pretty cold-blooded about this, don’t you?” “I’da used a shorter word,” Marlowe shoots back. Ouch. How did the censors of the Motion Picture Production Code miss that? With banter like this, Montgomery and Totter stand a head above the supporting cast. But the duo still never entirely dominates my attention.

With Montgomery off-screen most of the time, he is left at a distance from the sometimes interesting, often insipid proceedings. This distance translates into a weird self-awareness. Once in a while, the film even breaks from the narrative to allow Montgomery to talk to the camera — and with little regard for what should be our exciting journey, he tells us what will happen before the camera does and even references the title of the movie within the movie as a story from a pulp magazine. Look at him trying to be meta!

On the other hand, Totter stretches her acting abilities by trying to be both a romantic and a possible femme fatale. It’s too bad that her pouting, sneering and eyebrow-wiggling are actually laughable sometimes.

The cast is functional, but where’s that noirish atmosphere? Where’s that fatalism, chiaroscuro lighting and straight-up nastiness we see in classics like “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) and “Double Indemnity” (1944)? Did the Christmas cheer squeeze it out?

Now, the subjective camera used here isn’t a total failure. There are a few sequences within the film that contribute to the film noir sense of paranoia. For example, as Marlowe searches for Lavery in his apartment, a ghostly chorus on the soundtrack injects some much-needed suspense into the already tense scene. Here, the film realizes the potential of the first-person perspective and the long take. But then it returns to talky, unimpressive scenes.

I won’t blame Montgomery (well, not all the way), though — the form he uses is inadequate. I doubt it can ever sustain a whole film and become more than a contrived device. Gimmicks transcend their label when they become indispensable to cinema. Our viewing experiences would be radically different without color, continuity editing and sound. The subjective camera looks cool, but it shrinks our viewing experience instead of expanding it. The first-person perspective can work, but only in small doses and in films that have strong execution. “Lady in the Lake” has neither.