Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lady in the Lake - 1947

“Lady in the Lake” (1947) uses playful images of Christmas in that clever brand of sarcasm used by only the best private eyes.  And Robert Montgomery.
This is our second installment of A Very Gumshoe Christmas, and we take up where “Alias Boston Blackie” on Monday left off…from B-movie to classic noir.  The loner detective grows up, and grows cynical.  Christmas throws us off the trail from the start, but never Philip Marlowe.
There will be no plot spoilers, just a few impressions of an unusual and daring film. 
“Lady in the Lake” is famous foremost for its unique first-person camera view, and for discussions back and forth by fans for decades on how effective it is or isn’t.  Obviously, the camera has some limitations—for one, it does not accurately imitate the peripheral vision of the human eye.  Some scenes may seem slow or unintentionally comical to the modern viewer as the actors play directly to the camera.  But this wild experimentation is exactly what deserves our respect in an industry where “copycat” is the usual art form and risks are rare. 

Robert Montgomery, who we last saw here in “Night Must Fall”(1937) makes his official directorial debut with this movie, and also stars.  However, as he is playing the lead, detective Philip Marlowe, we see all the action from his viewpoint, but only see him a few times in the course of the film when he happens to look in a mirror. 


On another occasion, his shadow on a wall as he is talking with Audrey Totter is his stand-in.
This may make the film frustrating for Robert Montgomery fans who want to see him (the film was not a box office hit in part for this reason), but true fans of Mr. Montgomery should appreciate his ingenuity in crafting this film.


Audrey Totter, who we last saw here in “Tension” (1949), plays a complex role of a magazine editor who hires Montgomery to find the missing wife of her publisher boss, played by Leon Ames.  Miss Totter should have gotten some kind of prize for playing probably 99 percent of her work in this movie directly to the camera.  That is a workout, and she is a lot of fun to watch; at turns scowling, flirting, pleading, and seducing.  (Today is Miss Totter's 94th or 95th birthday - not sure of the year of birth.  According to IMDb website she is residing at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in California.  A very happy birthday to a terrific and fondly remembered actress.)


Lloyd Nolan is excellent as a tough cop.  He’s great in whatever he does, and I actually would have loved to have seen him take the lead and play Marlowe in this movie.  His down-and-dirty growl of a voice.
Tom Tully is the world-weary police chief.  Jayne Meadows is a standout as a mercurial, almost manic, woman who knows a lot more than she lets on. 
Dick Simmons is a smooth and deceptively friendly gigolo.  You can tell he's a gigolo by the striped jersey.
There are some lines tossed around that would make for a great movie no matter how it was filmed.  Audrey Totter, whose magazines are of the sensationalist pulp variety, complains to an underling that a new magazine cover design needs more gore. "Not enough gore."
Montgomery, recovering from being slugged by the Southern “gentleman” Dick Simmons remarks, “At least he had the decency to hit me above the Mason-Dixon line.”
And Lloyd Nolan’s remark, “How does it feel dying in the middle of someone else’s dirty love affair?”  I love that line.
Despite the restriction of actors playing directly to the camera, there are flashes of remarkable electricity to their performances, moments akin to a stage actor’s reactions.  Some of their responses and facial actions look almost improvisational. 
Because we are the camera’s eye, we see everything Montgomery sees.  Some of this gimmick is playful and funny, as when Montgomery’s leering glance follows Totter’s curvaceous secretary around the room, and with a sharp, somewhat jealous interjection by Totter, our attention is swiftly brought back to the mollified Miss Totter behind her desk.
Sometimes the gimmick is quite eerie, as when we discover bullet holes in a glass shower door, we approach and open the door, and our gaze rests upon bullet-gouged porcelain tiles in the shower stall, falling down upon the naked corpse crumpled on the floor.
Or when Montgomery, injured after a car wreck, crawls (and so do we), hand over hand, across a road to a phone booth that seems a mile away.
We are stared at.  We are flirted with.  We are punched in the face. We kiss Audrey Totter.  She serves us a highball. We notice a hundred different clues, and sometimes, as when Montgomery lifts a phone receiver to his mouth and talks, we look at nothing, like at the corner of a table, just as we would absently look at nothing while we are concentrating on a voice in our ear.
All this would be enough to make a fun and very different movie, but set during Christmastime, the director uses images of Christmas in a very cavalier and smart aleck way. 
We begin with the opening credits, which are title cards designed to look like Christmas cards.  Images of Wise Men, and holly, Santa, poinsettia, all the iconic graphics and over them, a medley of Christmas carols in uplifting choral arrangements that may make us think we are about to watch a heartwarming tale of love and repentance.  In a way, maybe, but it’s a crooked road to repentance.
As the credits finish and the Christmas carols end, the last title card reveals a handgun.  We were had.  Trust nobody.
We start three days before Christmas.  Robert Montgomery takes on a missing person job, that soon turns into a murder investigation.  All along the journey, though he is a man without family and evidently has no Christmas plans, the yuletide follows close on his heels, a shadow of irony.
We knock on doors and are faced with Christmas wreaths.  He remarks to the gigolo Simmons, “I like your tan.  It’s very Christmassy.”
We intrude upon an office Christmas party, where a reserved and gentlemanly Leon Ames hands out gifts to his employees. 


In a scene with Audrey Totter, Montgomery confronts her with conflicting evidence.  He demands she own up to secrets, and when he has found a gun that was used to murder, he hands it to her gift-wrapped as a gruesome present.  She plays the scene framed close to a desktop Christmas tree.  Christmas stays in the tense scene like a mocking clown.


Leon Ames takes him aside and want to hire him, too.  He nervously picks at the tinsel on the branch of a Christmas tree that juts out from the side of the frame.  Christmas is pushy, demands attention and will not be left out.
When we are arrested and interrogated by Tom Tully, Mr. Tully is interrupted by a phone call from home.  It is his little daughter, who wants Daddy to come home and help her put up her stocking.  With quick, wary glances to us, he indulgently listens to his daughter’s prattle, even helping her through her recitation of “T’was the Night Before Christmas.”  It is offbeat, funny, and very surreal.
I like the scene where, trying to escape Lloyd Nolan hovering in the police station hall, we duck into the press room and find a “journalist” lying on the table, speaking “pillow talk” into the phone to his lady friend, a Racing Form by his head. 
After a beating, a car wreck, and a belly full of people lying to him, Montgomery is saved by Audrey Totter, who responds to his emergency call and brings him, unconscious, to her apartment.   She gives him a Christmas present: a robe she had bought for another man.  Like earlier false clues that went nowhere, even the gift to him is not a gift to him.  Marlowe’s world is made up of lies.
On Christmas Day, they listen to “A Christmas Carol” on the radio, which was an annual event back in the day, though it doesn’t sound like Lionel Barrymore, and we blow streams of cigarette smoke as we regard Audrey Totter lying contentedly on the living room couch, her eyes drinking us in, across from where we are sitting. 

When the program ends, she snaps off the radio and resumes, as if picking up in mid-sentence, the tale of her hardscrabble life.  Only Scrooge could have interrupted her.  She asks Montgomery what he did last Christmas Eve.  He spent it in a bar.  She spent it in a nightclub.  This Christmas is an improvement, or should be if they weren't so depressed.  Christmas offers redemption, but you have to trust it.  These two lonely people have some serious trust issues.
I was a bit surprised at the can of pork and beans on the kitchen counter.  I would have thought Audrey Totter was decidedly not a pork and beans person.
Montgomery has one task left, and, spying his quarry window-shopping at a Christmas-decorated window, we have a final, very dramatic scene leading to the conclusion of the case.  The movie, like detective Philip Marlowe, is flawed, but has guts.  Teasing us with Christmas images in an otherwise grim movie is an irresistibly smartass thing to do.



Vienna said...

Thanks for great review and pictures. I've seen LADY IN THE LAKE quite a few times as I am a big fan of Audrey Totter. And good for Robert Montgomery to try this camera technique. It didn't always work, but when it did, it was very different . It must have been strange for the actors who never normally look at the camera!
Good supporting cast too.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Vienna, and thanks for stopping by. I would love to know more about the filming of this movie, if the actors were uncomfortable with acting to the camera, or if they enjoyed the challenge.

Caftan Woman said...

"Imagine you needing ice."

Best line ever! Before I die, I want the opportunity to use it on someone. Somehow, it just doesn't feel like Christmas unless poor old Marlowe is beat up and put upon.

I join you in wishing the best to the lovely Miss Totter.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Oh my gosh, yes! Another great line. I want to be there when you use it on someone.

Kathy said...

A great take on Lady in the Lake! Most enjoyable. 'Tis helping me get into the Christmas spirit. Thanks!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Kathy, and welcome to the blog.

barrylane said...

An annoying, self conscious picture. It was certainly different, but different is not always a good thing. Often, the opposite.

ClassicBecky said...

I liked this movie and did find it creative, but I have to admit I did feel a little irritated just waiting to see what gimmick would be used next to show Montgomery. He had a lot of guts to to do something so unusual. I don't understand why people disliked it so much, though. It's good!

I really like the Christmas ties in these movies. Good idea and good job! Merry Christmas!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Becky. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Yvette said...

I love this movie, Jacqueline. Another in our selection of 'quirky' Christmas fare. I say 'our' because I love the whole idea too (and posted my own picks) of non-traditional Christmas viewing. :)

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when we're introduced to Dick Simmons, the gigolo who obviously purchased his clothing at 'Gigolos R Us' Ha!!

All in a gimmnicky movie with flaws, as you say, but in many ways a damn smart one. Creative too. Though Audrey Totter's 'pop' eyes all too oftem make me smile inappropriately.

Another great review, m'dear.

And by the way, A Very Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Yvette said...

Meant to add: I LOVE Lloyd Nolan in this.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"...purchased his clothing at 'Gigolos R Us'" Love this.

Thanks so much, Yvette. I agree about Lloyd Nolan, love him, too, in this.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, when I first saw LADY IN THE LAKE a few years ago, I thought it was hilarious for all the wrong reasons at first, but over time it grew on me, and since then, it's become beloved loopy favorite here at Team Bartilucci HQ! But I must say your take on LADY IN THE LAKE, has so much more going on, with so much more to think about, like one of my favorite scenes, Marlowe crawling painfully after the car wreck that almost does him in. BRAVA to you on your post, with all the food for thought in this unique version of Raymond Chandler's tale of murder and unique camerawork!

P.S.: If you're interested, just for the fun of it, here's a link to my considerably goofier view of LADY....! Enjoy, my friend, and Merry Christmas to you and yours from all of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ! :-)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you very much, Dorian, and thanks for your link to your post on this movie. I remember enjoying it, and will enjoy reading it again. It's such an offbeat movie that it's always sure to generate a wide variety of opinions. Goofy is good.

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