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Deck the Halls December: Lady in the Lake (1946)

Chestnuts over an open fire, stringing popcorn for the tree covered in Shiny Brite ornaments and angel's hair, hot chocolate after an afternoon of ice skating: it's time for another classic movie Christmas. Cozy up with Rodney and Adam this week as we discuss Lady in the Lake.

ADAM WILLIAMS: Philip Marlowe goes to Kingsby Publications, home of all the favorites—Lurid Detective, Monster Stories, and True Horror Tales, to have his story, “If I Should Die Before I Live,” published. Of course, Marlowe quickly gets wrapped up in a missing person case presented to him by Kingsby’s editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). This is where the trouble begins…

Ad from Cincinnati's RKO Grand.

This is a unique movie, so much so that it necessitated an introduction by the director, Robert Montgomery. He explains the viewer’s involvement in this case saying, “You’ll see it just as I saw it. You’ll meet the people, you’ll find the clues… and maybe you’ll solve it quick, and maybe you won’t.” Outside of Montgomery’s little interjections, this movie is told in the first-person with the camera serving as Marlowe’s eyes. That means, when somebody slugs Marlowe, they’re aiming their fist squarely into the lens. Likewise, as the advertisements promise, “YOU’LL kiss the girl!” (As if that wasn’t clear enough, there’s Audrey Totter saying, “I’m going to make love to YOU!”) If only it were in 3-D.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: It’s an interesting technique, albeit one that doesn’t always pay off. While I watched, I never really felt like I was Marlowe, as much as I felt like Marlowe was off camera and I was listening to him go through the actions. I’m probably not explaining this well, but to me, it was almost like a partial radio drama. Totter is a revelation in this, alternately cooing and scowling as she chews the scenery in a way that maybe should be more corny than alluring, but it’s not corny at all. For me, she’s the real star of the film.

Audrey Totter Lady in the Lake
Audrey Totter's bipolar performance summed up in a single GIF.

AW: I joked about the advertising but Totter plays extremely well to the camera—especially in that intimate moment late in the film.

As electric as Totter is, the movie has the oddest, most detached feeling. It’s not the tautest story to begin with, and the cumbersome point of view technique acts as an ankle weight. Here’s an experiment: sip too much bourbon while marathoning Boston Blackie and Michael Shayne movies. I suspect once you fall asleep your brain synapses might treat you to a fantasy like the scene where Marlowe gets released from the clink. B-movie veteran (and Lucky Kamber of Secret Agent X-9!) Cy Kendall opens the cell leading us past Ralph Dunn, character actor who played hundreds of cops in hundreds of movies you half-remember, alongside Michael Shayne himself, the perpetually sarcastic Lloyd Nolan. Finally, scowling Wheaton Chambers returns your property—a measly $18. “You ain’t exactly dough-heavy, are ya?” Am I hearing voices or was that Nolan cracking wise again? Once you get acclimated to the slowed down action—it really does feel like walking in a swimming pool—you can appreciate the unique dream-like atmosphere the movie generates.

RB: Spotting uncredited character actors is one of my favorite activities when watching movies. Another one that is credited that’s worth a mention is Dick Simmons, a man whose career was incredibly varied. Imagine starring in the bottom of the barrel Republic serial Man with the Steel Whip, and also appearing (uncredited) as the man with Miss Torso in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and an uncredited role in A Star Is Born all in one year? Talk about covering your bases and keeping busy…

“I like your tan. That’s very Christmassy.” Dick Simmons plays the himbo.

AW: Robert Montgomery is decent enough Marlowe, at least when we catch glimpses of him. I agree with you about Audrey Totter. Jayne Meadows and Nolan also make strong impressions. In the character actor department, look out for Eddie Acuff as the coroner who’s a little over eager—that is until he discovers his “customer” is a man. That’s some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gallows humor! Lila Leeds as the receptionist who draws Marlowe’s/our attention like a magnet is also worth pointing out—although, come to think of it, she’s hard to miss. If you want to see more of Ms. Leeds, check out the 1948 Joe McDoakes short So You Want to be a Detective, a parody of Lady in the Lake right down to the point-of-view shots.

RB: Yeah, I guess Montgomery is okay in this. Fortunately, he has a voice for the role, not dissimilar to Gerald Mohr’s voice on the Marlowe radio series, which works just as well considering that we hardly ever actually see his face.

Lila Leeds distracts Marlowe.

Lila Leeds is definitely something to see, in one of, if not THE most notable role of her short career. She got busted with Robert Mitchum for drug possession, and while his career bounced back notably, hers did not. This was her first credited role, and she didn’t have too many more, as she was sadly plagued with an addiction to heroin that likely had a lot to do with her inability to find work. I’m not sure if she was a great actress, but at one time she was slated to star in Kiss the Blood off My Hands, and I would’ve liked to have seen her in a larger role.

AW: David Snell’s a cappella score for the film is exceptional. Somehow fitting the holiday setting, this eerie and distant soundtrack is like a Christmas carol performed by ghosts. The nighttime car chase and its aftermath are a beautiful marriage of sight and sound. As Marlowe crawls from the wreck into a phone booth the film is so far outside the realm of Hollywood filmmaking. The visuals are dark and decidedly ordinary—the camera fixates on the dial of the pay phone for nearly two minutes. Snell’s score creeps back in as the mouthpiece swings back and forth before Marlowe blacks out. It’s one of the film’s most unsettling moments because it’s so experimental.

RB: These are the moments when the “first person” technique explored here works the best. There’s not a whole lot that goes on in this movie besides standing around and talking, and that’s not a knock on the film, just the way it is. What little action there is, takes on a surreal tone, adding to the (as you have mentioned) languid dreamlike state of the whole affair.

Lloyd Nolan Lady in the Lake Chandler
Lloyd Nolan deals with the critics of Lady in the Lake.

AW: Not everybody was impressed with the movie. Mae Tinee of The Chicago Daily Tribune complained about the first-person technique: “The method is novel and interesting, but to me it seems to slow the pace of the action.” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times carefully considered how best to make a “subjective film” and concluded that with Lady in the Lake, “Mr. Montgomery has chosen the wrong story for a subjective job.” His main grievance is that there is an excessive amount of dialogue. Marlowe’s incessant talk “…takes on a sort of third-personality; it comes from another observer who is apparently standing right alongside of you.” In his review of Dark Passage—released several months later—Donald Kirkley of The Sun wrote that the film’s use of first person was “…more effective than it was in Lady in the Lake because there is here a sound reason for the procedure, and it is not kept up too long.” Even non-contemporaneous reviews have been mixed. Pauline Kael panned the film and called its technique simply “a nuisance.”

On the flipside, my favorite critic, the anonymous Cinema Correspondent of the The Irish Times made the case for the movie rather personal: “Anybody who fails to be excited by Lady in the Lake probably is a severe burden to his friends and relatives.” So, take that!

A rare glimpse of Robert Montgomery as Marlowe.

RB: The small towns generally didn’t do any better with this than any other mystery, which kind of makes you wonder if it was all worth it. Seems like if you had an audience that were okay with mysteries, they were fine with this movie, but if they refused the concept of anything that wasn’t an hour long western, they weren’t going to come around to this one either.

AW: This was my second time viewing the movie. The first watch many years ago left me bored and I felt the movie’s gimmick was naïve, like some harebrained film student reinventing the wheel. Robert Montgomery’s directorial debut was the work of an overconfident rookie, and his next film Ride the Pink Horse was when he came into his own…or so I thought. I still think the gimmick fails overall but the approach has the side effect of allowing more than the usual space for the actors to perform, for the audience to soak up the atmosphere, and for allowing long gazes in directions not usually found in Hollywood films. This time around, I fell under its spell. The slow pacing, the odd perspectives, and each and every hardboiled line all impress. Four stars, even if it doesn’t really deliver that Totter kiss.

RB: Just like reading a Chandler novel, I loved every minute of this movie, and couldn’t tell you anymore than the very basics about what it was about. While the ‘gimmick’ never really catches on, and it’s difficult to even see the point in it, this is a particularly great movie. This was my first viewing, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it, after reading so many mixed things about it. While not a revelation, this is a four-star way to spend an hour and forty minutes. Highly recommended.

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