Lady in the Lake (1947)

I'm not sure how this one flew under our radar for as long as it did. Lady in the Lake is an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe mystery filmed almost entirely in first person from the perspective of Marlowe. Because of this, the movie is both directed and starring Robert Montgomery.

Lady in the Lake is fascinating as a concept, yet somehow excruciatingly boring in execution. The solution to the mystery is needlessly complicated and poorly portrayed. Characters central to the mystery never appear on film, and significant sequences of Marlowe's investigation are skipped over and instead described in conversation. Most notably, the titular lady is never actually shown, nor is the lake, which is arguably the most significant location in the mystery. It honestly feels as though they couldn't find or afford a location, so they rewrote the script at the last minute.

The plot is too convoluted to explain sequentially, so here's the idea. Marlowe is hired by Adrienne, an editor at a magazine, to find Crystal, the missing wife of her boss (who will later hire Marlowe to keep working the case after Adrienne fires him). Crystal, however, is already dead, though we don't discover this until the end, since another woman, Mildred, is impersonating her. And before that she was impersonating another woman because this isn't the first death Mildred's been involved with: prior to the start, she killed another woman and managed to convince a crooked detective to cover it up. The detective serves as the primary antagonist most of the movie, nearly killing Marlowe on a few occasions. Mildred was also presumably involved with Chris, who she murders early in the movie. Also, Adrienne may have been having an affair with Chris: it's not entirely clear.

By the end of the movie, the corrupt detective murders Mildred before being gunned down by other cops, then Marlowe and Adrienne, who have fallen in love, move to New York to live happily ever after, which is not how this or any other Philip Marlowe story should end.

The movie leans heavily on the first-person gimmick, to mixed results. This version of Marlowe is profoundly unlikeable, which works against what would otherwise be an asset of the style: the audience sympathizing with Marlowe and potentially experiencing the movie more viscerally than they otherwise would. The character is jarringly misogynistic, even for the era, and has a tendency of insulting everyone he encounters. Presumably, this is a strategy for putting people on edge and getting them to reveal more than they otherwise would, but it rarely has that effect. More often than not, it gets him thrown out of situations before any information is disclosed. On a few occasions, it nearly gets him killed.

The director also didn't seem to know how to use actors, who mostly act mechanically when facing a camera. There are scenes when Marlowe is facing two people, one of whom just stares blankly into the camera while he talks with the other.

Making matters worse, the entire experiment is undermined by a studio-mandated third-person introduction where Marlowe talks directly to the camera. They cut back to this a few more times, breaking what little immersion they've achieved.

That said, there are a few times it works. There's a car chase late in the movie where I was pulled in. Sure, the projection techniques are dated, but I still found it effective. Likewise, they used some creative tricks with mirrors to show Marlowe in a few scenes. The arrangement of the camera at an angle is immediately obvious, but it was still a neat use of perspective. I also thought some of the hidden cuts (while not all that hidden) were clever.

Seeing as how it's the point of this site, I should also talk about the movie's Christmas setting, which is somewhat perplexing. The book this is based on was set in the summer, while this very explicitly takes place at the holidays. The movie bends over backwards to remind you, ensuring there's a wreath on every door, a Christmas party occurs in the middle of the film, and the finale takes place on Christmas Eve into Christmas day.

I'm at something of a loss to explain why they selected this setting. They don't really play up any kind of contrast between the holidays and the horror of the situation. My best guess is they wanted the last act to resonate as a Christmas love story, which - again - was already a weird choice for the character.

The other possibility is they may have wanted to tie it in with wintery imagery at the lake. Of course, as I already mentioned, the lake doesn't actually appear in the movie. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if this was an artifact left over from earlier drafts where it would have made more sense.

I'm also curious if this might have influenced later detective and action movies set during the holidays. I know Shane Black has credited Three Days of the Condor for the timing, but I also know Chandler was a major influence on his work. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang alludes to Lady in the Lake directly, though he was likely nodding more to the novel than this adaptation. Still, it's hard to ignore the holiday connections there.

Ultimately, all that feels academic, because this lacks any real value as a holiday film. Hell, it doesn't really have much value as a film in general, outside of its novel use of perspective. It seems to be the first Hollywood movie shot this way, which I'm sure is of interest to film historians. But while it's neat someone experimented with first-person in the '40s, it's hard to watch this without concluding that experiment ended in failure. Montgomery wasn't a good enough storyteller to sell the conceit, the script is awful, and - on top of everything else - the movie's depiction and treatment of women aged extremely poorly, even compared to others of the era.

If you're really interested in this from a filmmaking standpoint, feel free to track it down. But as a noir... let me put it this way: the reason you're reading a review from me instead of Lindsay (i.e.: the one who's actually read the Marlowe books and has some background in the genre) is this put her to sleep. So don't expect it to be especially compelling to fans.