Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Stubs – Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake (1947) Starring: Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan Directed by Robert Montgomery. Produced by George Haight. Screenplay by Steve Fisher. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.  Run Time: 105 minutes. U.S.  Black and White Film Noir, Mystery, Crime, Christmas

Last year, we celebrated a Bruce Willis Christmas, watching and reviewing three films he starred in that used the holiday season as a backdrop for their violence and terrorism, Die Hard, Die Hard 2 and RED. This was really nothing new and this year we’re going to continue our survey of such films from the 1930’s and 40’s which handled the holiday in much the same way: Lady in the Lake, The Man Who Came to Dinner, My Favorite Wife, and Things to Come. We’re calling it drive-by Christmas.

While I like It’s A Wonderful Life as much as, or more than, the next guy, I also like to see a variety of films at this time of year, from classics like The Bishop’s Wife to ones that sort of don't take the holiday too seriously, instead use it for atmosphere rather than the driving point of the film. Lady in the Lake has that quality in common with Die Hard and Die Hard 2, in that the holiday is all around the film, but it is not really a major part of the storyline at the same time.

Phillip Marlowe has been a popular character, depicted in several films most famously by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Elliot Gould in The Long Good-bye (1973) and by Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978). The last time I’ve seen Marlowe was on the small screen; James Caan appeared as the private detective in HBO’s 1998 adaptation of the Chandler started, Robert B. Parker finished novel, Poodle Springs. The film Lady in the Lake is based on the novel of the same name, published in 1943.

Even the credits evoke the holiday.

The film opens with Marlowe (Montgomery) sitting at his desk addressing the audience about his involvement with the Lady in the Lake case. This introduction gives us a bit of the backstory. Fed up with low pay, Marlowe decided to start writing crime fiction and has submitted a piece to Kingsby Publications.

One of the few shots of Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery).
He is called for a meeting by magazine editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), who he thinks wants to discuss the publication of his story. But Marlowe quickly learns that she has summoned him under false pretenses. Adrienne is not interested in Marlowe's story and instead asks him to help her find Chrystal Kingsby, the estranged wife of Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), the magazine's publisher.

Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames) and Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter)
Marlowe sees through Adrienne and accuses her of trying to break up Kingsby's marriage so that she can marry Derace herself. Marlowe is intrigued by Adrienne's desperation, and he’s also attracted to her, so he accepts the case.

After learning that Chrystal was last seen with a playboy named Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), Marlowe begins his investigation with a visit to Lavery's home in Bay City (aka Santa Monica). Lavery invites Marlowe into his home, and after calmly answering Marlowe’s questions abruptly knocking the detective unconscious. Hours later, Marlowe regains consciousness in a jail cell and is taken to see Bay City police detectives Lieutenant DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan) and Captain Fergus K. Kane (Tom Tully). Kane warns Marlowe not to start trouble in his district before releasing him.

Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons)

Marlowe reports to Adrienne, who advises him to go to Little Fawn Lake, where the Kingsbys have a house and where Chrystal was last seen. But before Marlowe can leave her office, a reporter arrives with news that Bill Chess, the caretaker at Kingsby's home, has been arrested, charged with murdering his wife Muriel, whose body was found in the lake. Adrienne fears that Chrystal may actually be the murderer since she hated Muriel and insists Marlowe leave immediately.

Marlowe eavesdrops on a report Kingsby receives.

We return to Marlowe in his office, who tells us that he made the trip. He once again reports to Adrienne, telling her the body found in the lake had been there for nearly a month and that he also discovered that Muriel used the name "Mildred Havelend." Further, Muriel had married the caretaker because she was being pursued and needed a place to hide. Marlowe also reports that Muriel and Chrystal had a fight over a man and that he, Marlowe, had found an anklet inscribed with the words, "to Mildred from Chris." Suspecting that Lavery is involved in the disappearances of both Muriel and Chrystal, Marlowe pays another visit to his Bay City house.

When he arrives, he finds the door unlocked and meets a confused pistol-wielding woman, who introduces herself as Lavery's landlady, Mrs. Falbrook (Jayne Meadows). Mrs. Falbrook tells Marlowe that Lavery’s not home. When Marlowe asks about the gun, she claims she found it on the landing and gives it to Marlowe before departing.

Mrs. Fallbrook (Jayne Meadows), Chris Lavery's landlady.

Going upstairs, Marlowe finds a handkerchief with the initials "A. F." on it in a bedroom and in the bathroom he finds Lavery's bullet-ridden body in the shower. Believing that either Adrienne or Kingsby is responsible for Lavery's murder, Marlowe crashes Kingsby’s office Christmas party. He shows Adrienne the gun he’d gotten from Mrs. Falbrook, but she appears genuinely stunned over Lavery's death.

When Marlowe brings Kingsby up to date on his activities, the publisher expresses shock that Adrienne has been trying to sabotage his marriage. He tells her she had misunderstood his interest in her. Though Adrienne confesses to Marlowe that she was after Kingsby's money, she denies Marlowe's accusation that she murdered for it or was involved with Lavery.

Adrienne then angrily fires Marlowe, but Kingsby immediately hires him to find Chrystal and help him protect her from false murder charges. Marlowe goes back to Bay City to return the gun to Lavery’s, but finds Kane and DeGarmot already there. When they’re left alone, Marlowe suggests DeGarmot knows Muriel and that he could be the man she’d been hiding from. DeGarmot scuffles with Marlowe and the police try unsuccessfully to have the detective charged with Lavery's murder.

Lt. DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan) and Capt. Fergus Kane (Tom Tully) investigating Lavery's death.

Marlowe gets information from a newspaper editor contact that Muriel, a nurse, was mixed up in the mysterious death of Florence Elmore, the wife of the doctor whom she worked for in Bay City. When he interviews Florence's frightened parents, he learns a policeman is involved. Marlowe begins to suspect that it is Chrystal, not Muriel, whose body was found in the lake and that Muriel is the murderer and DeGarmot is covering up for her.

Florence's parents help Marlowe's investigation.

When he drives away, Marlowe is chased, resulting in his car crashing and ending up on its side. DeGarmot arrives and tries to doctor the scene by making it look like Marlowe is drunk. He goes off to anonymously call the police. But Marlowe regains semi-consciousness. Thwarting a mugging, he changes places with the would-be robber, just as police roll to the crash. He even leaves his identification card on his would-be attacker. Still woozy, Marlowe makes it to a phone and calls Adrienne for help before passing out.

The next morning, Christmas day, Marlowe wakes up in Adrienne’s apartment. Adrienne admits she has fallen in love with him and even gives him presents she had originally intended for Derace. The two spend the day together until Kingsby arrives. He’s received a telegram from Chrystal indicating she’s in Bay City and in need of money. Suspecting a trap, Marlowe volunteers to deliver the money.

Marlowe makes the rendezvous with Chrystal and, leaving a trail of rice for the police to follow, he accompanies her back to her apartment. There, Marlowe discovers that the woman who is trying to collect money is the same woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Falbrook. Marlowe realizes that Mrs. Falbrook is really Muriel and that his suspicion that she killed Chrystal and Lavery to cover up her murder of Florence is correct.

Muriel leads Marlowe back to her apartment on Christmas Day.

Muriel threatens Marlowe with a gun, but DeGarmot arrives unexpectedly, having followed and destroyed the trail of rice. DeGarmot threatens to kill both of them and frame them for all the murders. DeGarmot confesses to Marlowe that he has been covering up for Muriel, who professed romantic interest in him to get his help in covering up Florence's murder. Furious at her deceit, DeGarmot shoots Muriel. He is about to kill Marlowe as well, when Kane and other policemen arrive on the scene and shoot DeGarmot dead.

With the murder case solved, Marlowe resumes his romance with Adrienne and the two plan to go to New York to pursue his writing career.

I’ve previously written about Robert Montgomery’s acting career as part of the review of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), so I don’t want to repeat the biography. Lady in the Lake was his debut film as a director and as such, there are what I’d call rookie mistakes, the biggest of which is the use of a subjective camera. Literally, we’re watching the film as if we’re Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s best-known character. All the action takes place in front of our eyes with only a glimpse of Marlowe being seen in mirrors. Like a film based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, the joke gets old after a few minutes. While it’s an interesting premise, a more experienced director wouldn’t have done it, realizing the limitations and the effect it has on the acting involved.

Since there is no intercutting during the dialogue, actors had to get used to longer takes. These make for uncomfortable looks. The only thing worse is when Audrey Totter moves in for a kiss from Marlowe. You feel bad for her having to pucker up for the camera lens. No one needs to see that.

One of the problems with Lady in the Lake is awkward looking reaction shots like this.

In addition to negatively affecting the acting of the supporting cast, Montgomery’s Marlowe comes off as wooden and stiff as the actor/director limits himself only to his voice. While this is also true of voice acting in animated films, there are no visuals of the Marlowe character, in this case, just the pained expression of the other actors listening to Montgomery reciting his lines.

Another rookie mistake is that the film tells rather than shows us. The trip to Little Fawn Lake is exposited to us, not shown. My guess is that it would have been difficult to shoot such a sequence solely from Marlowe’s POV, this being the days before steady-cams and the like. The film feels sort of claustrophobic as it moves from one room to another. I never get the sense that we’re ever actually outside on the streets and film noirs seem to draw power when they seem to happen in the real world. This comes across strictly as a film made on a sound stage.

I want to like this film more than I do. Besides being a film noir, which is usually a plus for me, it’s a story based on the writings of one of the great detective writers of all time, Raymond Chandler. But we’ve seen messy film adaptations of his work before (think 1946’s The Big Sleep). Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter and the rest of the cast are all fine actors. It wouldn’t be a film noir without Totter and it’s nice to see Lloyd Nolan back in his heyday.

But the gimmick with the subjective point of view gets old fast and wears out its welcome before the movie is completed. I’m aware that at the time of the film’s release, Variety called the subjective camera “a novel method of telling the story” and thought that its use transfers “a fair whodunit into socko screen fare.” I have to humbly disagree.

If you yearn for a good holiday-themed film noir, you might have to keep looking. Lady in the Lake has too many flaws, despite its Christmas-themed backdrop, to recommend it. Frankly, I’m not sure if there is a good Christmas noir out there. I haven’t seen Roadblock (1951) or No Man of Her Own (1950), other noirs that I understand have Christmas themes as well. Maybe that’s something we can ask Santa to bring us for next year.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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