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Lady in the Lake
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by Jay Seaver

"Marlowe's POV has tragically little Chandler."
3 stars

This is a review that one would like to start with "'Lady in the Lake' is best known for its gimmick, but..." before listing all of the other great things that make it worthy of note. And while star Robert Montgomery's first film as a director is capable and creative enough, it lacks the personality that makes Raymond Chandler's mysteries so entertaining, and a unique first-person perspective isn't a great trade.

Philip Marlowe (Montgomery) begins the tale by addressing the audience directly, mentioning the murder case that's been in the news, before detail his involvement. He's called to the office of a magazine that publishes detective stories to be told he's sold one, although editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) also would like to retain him as a detective to track down the wife of her boss, Dearce Kingsby (Leon Ames), whom she has clear designs on. The trail leads to the suburbs and gigolo Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), as well as to the Kingsbys' vacation house, where the caretaker's wife has recently drowned. When Marlowe comes looking for Lavery and instead finds a gun-toting landlady (Jayne Meadows) - well, that's where the mystery gets complicated.

Raymond Chandler's Marlowe stories were written in the first person, so it's not an unreasonable idea to try and shoot a movie adapting one that way, especially as advances in technology were making the cameras more mobile than they had been before that point. That Montgomery plays the main character - whether as a voice or a face in the mirror - and directs isn't necessary but seems right, and on a strictly technical level, he and cinematographer Paul C. Vogel handle this smoothly enough, giving us a steadier perspective and maybe moving a bit slower than would be strictly realistic but not creating the motion-sickness issues often associated with the contemporary use of the technique in horror movies. A fair number of the shots are clearly playing with the technique, but it's enjoyable to watch the filmmakers experiment and things like watching Marlowe's gaze track the receptionist played by Lila Leeds are amusing.

As much as film critics and scholars will occasionally talk this up for exploring the subjective nature of these crime films, it's not really that sophisticated, and uses this subjectivity more to create a fair-play mystery than to explore character. The trouble is, a Raymond Chandler story is generally not a puzzle to be unraveled (that's what Agatha Christie is for); it's a look at then-contemporary Los Angeles with a distinctive voice, with a murder to keep things moving. Montgomery's Lady in the Lake lets the audience see every clue and hear every conversation, but where you can watch The Big Sleep and spot great chunks of dialogue lifted directly from the book, this movie feels generic. It quite clearly runs into budget issues as well - for all the effort made at having the audience see the action through Marlowe's eyes, any time the action might actually call for him to go to the lake of the title will cut back to Montgomery addressing the camera, relating what happened, before until such a point as he returns to one of MGM's standing apartment sets.

Montgomery's performance as Marlowe leaves something to be desired for fans of the character, but if screenwriter Steve Fisher is going to write him as just a tough guy who occasionally reveals some disgust with his job, then Montgomery proves able enough. Audrey Totter is stuck going back and forth quite a bit too - the script sets Ms. Fromsett up as being a shark but frequently has her panic as a result of poor planning - but the moments when she comes across as businesslike both in running the magazine and clearing a path to her boss do shine a bit. Jayne Meadows pops up late but steals the scenes she's in because she, at least, seems to know that this dame needs to make an impression as strong as her potential importance in the mystery, not just her screen time.

"Lady in the Lake" is a noble experiment in making the way the story is told as important as the story itself, which is a large part of what Chandler was doing by filling his detective stories with delicious, chewy prose. In this case, it too often strips personality away rather than adding it in, and a decent mystery fused with an interesting gimmick doesn't add up to much more than an average film.

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originally posted: 10/23/15 11:19:48
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3/11/19 Anne at times interesting 3 stars
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Directed by
  Robert Montgomery

Written by
  Steve Fisher

  Robert Montgomery
  Audrey Totter
  Lloyd Nolan
  Tom Tully
  Leon Ames
  Jayne Meadows

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