Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake
TCM viewing

You turn on the television and see the movie Lady in the Lake will start in ten minutes. You're intrigued; you've heard of the movie before, but you've never seen it. You know the gimmick: it's a film shot subjectively, from the point of view of the main character. You're impressed that an Old Hollywood film could be this experimental. One could almost say it borders on being an art film - or what passed for an art film in 1947. You decide to watch.

The Christmas carols in the opening credits surprise you. You had no idea this film was set during Christmas. You wonder how much the holiday will factor in the story, if at all. You're reminded of the post you wrote about holiday movies that have little to do with the holiday, and you suspect that this is probably another one in that vein. You think with a smile that Paddy would approve.

You see the name Raymond Chandler in the credits and you remember that this is a crime story, probably a film noir. You think that a Chandler adaptation is a hell of a film to play guinea pig for such a radical experiment. You're reminded of the movie Dark Passage, another noir film (from the same year!) with a peculiar gimmick: you don't see Humphrey Bogart's face for the first half of the film. You wonder whether the filmmakers of both movies were aware of what each other was doing.

And then you see the director's name: Robert Montgomery. You know the name. You've seen him in one or two other movies, such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Never thought that much of him, to be honest. Only recently did you learn that he was the father of Elizabeth Montgomery, from BewitchedYou don't really believe Montgomery will be as good as Bogart, but you like that an actor decided to direct and star in a film like this. You hope it'll be good.

Robert Montgomery plays Philip Marlowe, Chandler's private eye character from such stories and films as The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet and The Long Goodbye. You see Montgomery as Marlowe in an introduction that addresses the audience directly, explaining that he's gonna tell the story of the case of the lady in the lake and he challenges the audience to follow along to see if they can figure out who the killer is. From there, the film shifts to Marlowe's subjective POV. In effect, the viewer becomes Marlowe.

The camera acts as your eyes and ears and arms and legs. The actors look directly at the camera and speak to it as if it were a real person, but intellectually, you believe Montgomery must be a physical presence on the set somehow, and as you watch further, you realize he is. You see hands, from the bottom portion of the screen approximately where you'd expect your own hands to be, ringing doorbells and accepting objects from other actors. You wonder where exactly Montgomery is relative to the camera: to the left or to the right, above or below it?

Occasionally, you see Montgomery reflected in mirrors, to remind the audience that yes, he really is there on the set and not just doing voice-overs or something. Montgomery isn't acting as his own DP, even though he's an actor in his own film. The camera doesn't move the way you expect a human to move. It doesn't have that "found footage" look, as seen in more contemporary films such as The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. Still, you believe Lady could be a forerunner of movies like these.

Marlowe gets punched, slapped, and kissed in the film, and the actors who do the punching, slapping and kissing do it directly at the camera, complete with the appropriate camera movements to help sell the illusion, and sound effects where necessary. The scene where Marlowe gets punched comes as a shock to you when it happens. You didn't expect it and you react as if you yourself are getting punched. You imagine this was probably the reaction Montgomery was hoping for. You wonder if there's a "making of" video somewhere on the net, but you fear there isn't. There was no home video market to make it for back then.

You try to follow the story, but you're too caught up in the how-did-he-do-that aspect, and in any event, the plot is as labyrinthine as The Big Sleep: something about the wife of a magazine publisher having gone missing and being implicated in a murder. You find the requisite femme fatale character shrill and over-dramatic and you don't believe for a minute that Marlowe would fall for her. You think Montgomery as Marlowe is okay, but something about his voice - which is all you have to go on - strikes you as a put-on, as if he's talking the way he imagines a tough guy should sound like. Although his looks are a non-factor here, Montgomery makes you think of a game show host; like your neighbor with whom you go bowling on Saturday nights, not a film noir-type private eye, like Bogart or Robert Mitchum.

The subjective POV also reminds you of the acting classes you took when you were younger. By staying focused on the other actors as Montgomery speaks and not cutting away as you'd normally expect, it reminds you of the scenes you'd act out and how you were told to always keep your attention focused on your partner, no matter what. You imagine yourself as Montgomery, rehearsing a scene with the other actors, looking deep into their faces for the ''pinch'' - a physical or verbal reaction to your words - that will give you the ''ouch'' - a truthful response. It makes you miss acting for a moment.

Overall, you find Lady to be a clever experiment, but not much else - but it does give you a great idea on how to write about it...!


  1. Why thank you. I always wanted an excuse to write in the second person!

  2. Very nice.

    "Lady in the Lake" has become something a Christmas tradition for me. My sentimental heart is taking on an odd jaded aspect as I age.

  3. I'm sure it's only a temporary condition.


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