Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories are all done in first-person narrative, so it must have seemed logical to director/star Robert Montgomery to shoot THE LADY IN THE LAKE in the subjective point-of-view. Aside from a few brief narration scenes, we see everything through the eyes of Marlowe. The actors play straight to the camera, doubling for the private eye. Does it work? Well….I guess that all depends on YOUR point of view!
“My name is Marlowe”, the film begins, as we see him sitting at his office desk. He relates the tale of how he submitted a short story to a pulp magazine, and received a reply from an editor named “A. Fromsett”. The movie is told in flashback, and now the POV changes to that of Marlowe’s for the bulk of the story. We meet A. Fromsett, who’s a gorgeous woman named Adrienne. She likes his story, but has an ulterior motive: Adrienne wants to hire Marlowe to find her publisher’s missing wife Crystal, a “liar, a cheat, and a thief” who’s run off to Mexico for a quickie divorce. Marlowe doesn’t trust Adrienne or her motives, but the perennial down-on-his-luck gumshoe takes the case.
The effect of Adrienne speaking directly to the camera is off-putting at first and lends an artificial quality to the film as a whole. I could clearly see the actors acting, playing to the camera, and as a result I wasn’t as engrossed in the story as I was in MURDER MY SWEET. The novelty of the first-person POV wore off quicker than a Monday morning hangover. It distracts from the story, rather than pulling me in as intended. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy all those “found-footage” films of recent vintage.
Robert Montgomery’s first directorial effort is an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. Montgomery himself is another reason I didn’t like LADY IN THE LAKE as much as I thought I would. Even though we mostly just hear his voice, I didn’t find him sufficiently “hard-boiled” enough to be convincing as Marlowe. I would’ve preferred cast member Lloyd Nolan in the role, and had Montgomery switch off to play Nolan’s Lt. Degarmot. Nolan had plenty of gumshoe experience, playing Bret Halliday’s pulp detective Michael Shayne in seven films (including TIME TO KILL, an adaptation of Chandler’s The Brasher Dubloon). He also stood out in films like BATAAN, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, A HATFUL OF RAIN, PEYTON PLACE, THE GIRL HUNTERS (with author Mickey Spillane playing his own hard-boiled P.I., Mike Hammer), ICE STATION ZEBRA, and AIRPORT. Nolan also portrayed cranky Dr. Chegley on the groundbreaking late 60’s sitcom JULIA, starring Diahann Carroll.
Audrey Totter (Adrienne), a noir queen featured in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE UNSUSPECTED, and THE SET-UP, later joined the cast of TV’s MEDICAL CENTER as head Nurse Wilcox. Other Familiar Faces in THE LADY IN THE LAKE include Tom Tully, Jayne Meadows (better known as Mrs. Steve Allen), Leon Ames, Morris Ankrum , and Richard Simmons. No, not the 80’s fitness guru, this Richard Simmons later gained fame in the 1950’s series SGT. PRESTON OF THE YUKON. Also appearing briefly as Adrienne’s shapely secretary (who Marlowe can’t keep his eyes off of) is Lila Leeds, noted as Robert Mitchum’s accomplice in that famous 1947 pot bust (just follow this link).
THE LADY IN THE LAKE is to me a failed experiment in the film noir genre. I think I would have liked it better if director Montgomery had shot it in the usual objective POV, and stepped back to allow Lloyd Nolan to play Marlowe. Then again, that’s just MY point of view. I’m sure there are fans of this film out there who have their own. What do all you Cracked Rear Viewers think?