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NYT Review of LitL

Published: January 24, 1947


Having seen “Lady in the Lake” yesterday at the Capitol, this corner now can confirm what the advertisements have been saying all along. The picture is definitely different and affords one a fresh and interesting perspective on a murder mystery. YOU do get into the story and see things pretty much the way the protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, does, but YOU don’t have to suffer the bruises he does. Of course, YOU don’t get a chance to put your arms around Audrey Totter either. After all, the movie makers, for all their ingenuity, can go just so far in the quest for realism.

As the star and director, Robert Montgomery permits the camera to do most of his “acting,” the result being that his image is only observed when it can naturally be reflected through a mirror. And, since the story is a first person affair, the camera on occasion observes the detective seated at a desk relating his tortuous and exciting adventures in locating the missing Mrs. Chrystal Kingsby.

In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen the novelty begins to wear thin. Still, Mr. Montgomery has hit upon a manner for using the camera which most likely will lead to more arresting pictorial effects in the future.

Since Raymond Chandler provided the story and Steve Fisher wrote the screen play, one can rest assured that the plot isn’t lacking in complications, romantic and otherwise. Marlowe, naturally, has a weakness for a pretty client and runs into plenty of trouble with the police and assorted strangers the deeper his investigation goes. Clues sprout and evaporate, or end up as blind leads, until the spectator is nicely but firmly confused. This bewilderment doesn’t extend so much to the identity of the lady found in the lake as it does to how Marlowe will go about solving the mystery.

Mr. Montgomery has the least acting to do, but his scenes are played with ease and conviction. His Phillip Marlowe is somewhat more cynical and sneering—a characterization which is developed more by the tone of his voice than anything else—than the previous conceptions of the detective we got from Dick Powell in “Murder, My Sweet” and Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” You can take your choice of the three and still be happy. Audrey Totter, who is blonde and fetching, gets her first really important role in this picture and handles herself most credibly. Lloyd Nolan, Jayne Meadows and Leon Ames do very well by supporting roles, which permit them to develop sizable characterizations.
LADY IN THE LAKE, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; screen play by Steve Fisher; directed by Robert Montgomery; produced by George Haight for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Philip Marlowe . . . . . Robert Montgomery
Adrienne Fromsett . . . . . Audrey Totter
Lieutenant DeGarmot . . . . . Lloyd Nolan
Captain Kane . . . . . Tom Tully
Derace Kingsby . . . . . Leon Ames
Mildred Havelend . . . . . Jayne Meadows
Chris Lavery . . . . . Dick Simmons
Eugene Grayson . . . . . Morris Ankrum
Receptionist . . . . . Lila Leeds
Artist . . . . . William Roberts
Mrs. Grayson . . . . . Kathleen Lockhart
Chrystal Kingsby . . . . . Ellay Mort

In heated conversation wth the guys from Heroes, David Thorburn indicated that the entertainment industry failed for twenty years to tell stories effectively in that medium, and not until the middle/late 60s did they get it halfway right.  I worship at Professor Thorburn’s temple, but the statue devoted to Kojak just puts me uptight.

Montgomery tried to project the subjective experience of reading a compelling novel (that was cobbled together from earlier short stories) onto The Big Screen in an age when movie cameras were as tiny and agile as Robbie the Robot.  Montgomery also smooshed a lot of the bitter, irrascible, curmudgeonly Raymond Chandler into his largely-unpleasant, unheroic portrayal of Phillip Marlow.  And prevented the (medium-BigDraw) star of the movie, himself, from appearing (more than momentarily) onscreen.  In retrospect, the film describes  a lot like a recipe for disaster.

It was a very bold, upstream, mainstream industrial experiment that failed for several reasons; none of them definitive.  If (for the past 20, 40, 60 years) filmmakers had worked assiduously at sidestepping Montgomery’s errors in filming ontogenic/subjective camera studies, maybe the challenges facing transmedia storytellers would be significantly different.  Maybe not.

Whether and how this movie or novel relates to the titular reference embedded in Arthurian legend remains to be seen, but I confess a certain affection for the notion that Marlowe’s powers of observation liken him to Merlin, his obsolete idealism puts me in mind of Arthur, and the contradiction of an intermittently sleazy boyscout kind of smells like Lancelot.  There’s also an attractive allusion in The Lady In/Of the Lake to the continuing, unresolved determination whether the sword or the pen is the more mighty Promethean instrument.  I tend to lean toward the camera, but each tool is essentially a technical implement wielded by creative imagination in various media, so they’re fundamentally one (and the same) means to the end of profoundly effective communication.

24 Apr 09 - Posted by | Uncategorized | ,


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  4. The important point I failed to state clearly here is that in print the voice of Marlowe expresses brilliantly everything his XRAY electron micro-telescope faculties perceive. Some of these perceptions are revealed in dialogue and some are veiled in thought, but the reader benefits from all of the scathing sarcasm, the acerbic wit, and the concise evaluative properties of a godlike author playing to his cynical strengths. In the novel, Marlowe’s first meeting with Chris Lavery illustrates this point perfectly in that the movie strives to replicate VISUALLY the scene the reader visualizes, but Marlowe’s wonderfully unkind perceptions of a joke in a striped shirt is a feast for the reader’s inner ear (and gossip’s imagination) that Montgomery had no chance in hell to begin to emulate in celluloid.
    Montgomery’s inner and outer voices were not up to the challenge, and the hype-mobile that promoted this movie to a public that was watching the break-up of vertically integrated monopolistic power of studios to make and distribute films … sorry… too many important things want due process in this paragraph. The studio attempted to promote this movie in a novel way. It’s hype tried to persuade the potential viewer that YOU will actually BE the witty and dynamic Philip Marlowe for a couple of hours and camera magic will make that wish come true, allowing YOU to work YOUR way through a mystery case like Dick Powell or Bogie.
    Clearly, Hype = nonsense.
    And in 1947 anti-trust legislation turned powerful movie studios into less-powerful movie studios that did not own movie-house-distribution-networks. That was new and scared the studios into trying novel, experimental crap to snag audiences that had heard about something cooler than radio, something called television (that most people wouldn’t take home for a decade, although appliance stores kept a few running in their front windows, when there was programmed content to show.)
    So Hitchcock’s Rope got made in 1947 as did The Lady in the Lake and Dark Passage. And leave us not forgive rabid anti-communist legislators and media whores who were hunting for witches in Bermuda shorts throughout the blacklist era that marked the fishtailing accidents America is prone to when desperate socialist solutions that evolved in the Depression were “corrected” by patriotic overkill efforts to return to traditional American ways of failing at temperance, prohibition, isolationism, internationalism, modernism, capitalism, and so on and on.
    Lots of stuff was going on back then that doesn’t look like much from here, but if you take a look at the movie you’ll see a valiant little piece of shit that tried pretty hard to make a buck and maybe even art but failed despite the shining attempt at innovation that looks to several generations of film school graduates like a piece of shit not to emulate despite technical improvements that make many things Robert Montgomery and Delmer Daves simply could not do entirely possible today.

    Comment by Scott Ellington | 12 Apr 23 | Reply

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