It’s not like any other movie you’ll ever see, but the fact that its central gimmick was never used again should tell you something.
The gimmick is that nearly the entire film is shot in a first-person point of view (POV). The film is a series of long tracking shots, but there are a few jump cuts and wipes when necessary. The trailer for Lady in the Lake told audiences that the film stars Robert Montgomery … “and you!” But this isn’t entirely true, for reasons that we’ll get into later.
Lady in the Lake is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1944 novel The Lady in the Lake, and stars Montgomery as private investigator Philip Marlowe (whose first name in this movie is spelled “Phillip”). Montgomery also directed the film — his first time as director, although he provided uncredited directorial assistance to John Ford when he starred in Ford’s World War II PT boat saga They Were Expendable (1945).
The only parts of the film that aren’t filmed from Marlowe’s POV — every actor interacting directly with the camera, Montgomery’s face only visible if he happens to look in a mirror — are stiff monologues by Montgomery as Marlowe, seated at his desk in his office, speaking directly to the viewer. These monologues are used to introduce the picture and to cover some gaps in the narrative.
Montgomery begins the films by telling viewers that they will be solving the mystery alongside him. He recites a street address and says, “make a note of it.” The problem with this is immediately clear. The film will continue to spool forward for you the same way it does for everyone else in the audience, whether you remember the address or not.
A first-person POV version of a Chandler novel must have made sense on paper. Chandler was a master of first-person narration, and his brilliant prose made first-person narration inextricable from the P.I. genre.
But first-person POV in film is very different from first-person narration in a novel. Despite what many critics of slasher films in the ’80s would have had you believe, first-person POV in a film does not create identification with the killer, it makes the viewer feels trapped and terrified.
While you’re unlikely to feel terrified while watching Lady in the Lake, it does inspire a sense of claustrophobia and surreality that is at odds with its goal of putting the viewer in the center of the action like no film had before.
Lady in the Lake begins in an odd fashion, as Marlowe tries to sell his semi-autobiographical story “If I Should Die Before I Wake” to magazine editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). When Fromsett’s stacked and gorgeous blond secretary (Lila Leeds) enters the office, she makes eyes at Marlowe, and the camera tracks her as she sashays out of the office. The eye contact she maintains with the camera is unbearably erotic. It’s ridiculous in terms of an actual narrative, but it works in the heat of the moment, like a tomahawk flying out of the screen in a 3D western. (Proponents of the “male gaze” theory can have a field day with this film.)
The problem with Lady in the Lake isn’t just its technique, it’s the fact that most of the actors interact with the camera in an unnatural fashion. Most of them never look away or even blink. Totter is the worst offender. She’s pretty, but her habit of arching one eyebrow while speaking to the camera is bizarre.
When Marlowe asks Fromsett a question — “What would happen if I kissed you?” — there’s no heat or interplay. It’s a purely technical question. If Marlowe kisses her, where will the camera go? Will it smoosh up against her face?
The only actor who interacts well with the camera is Lloyd Nolan, who plays the nasty and volatile police detective Lt. DeGarmot. Unlike the other actors — who seem afraid to break eye contact with the camera — he looks down, and around, occasionally turns his back on Marlowe, and steps forward to be threatening. In a memorable scene, he even slaps the camera in the “face” several times while sneering.
Lady in the Lake takes place during the Christmas holiday, and there’s very little incidental music, except for an eerie holiday vocal choir that shows up every now and then on the soundtrack.
While the first-person POV of Lady in the Lake doesn’t always work, there are a number of interesting “verité” moments, such as the scene in which Marlowe and the viewer sit around while observing Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) on the phone with his daughter on Christmas Eve. He’s embarrassed to be on a personal call while at work, but he chats with her anyway. There’s also an amazing quiet moment when Marlowe wakes up in Fromsett’s house on Christmas day, and the camera observes her lounging on the opposite couch in the living room, smoke curling out from behind the camera (Marlowe’s having a cigarette), as she and Marlowe listen to an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” on the radio.
Because of the nature of the film, I still don’t feel as if I’ve ever seen Robert Montgomery play Philip Marlowe. He seems like a good choice for the character, since he bears a resemblance to Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler, but his disembodied voice was too monotone to make up for the fact that he’s off-screen for most of the movie.
First-person POV would be used again in 1947 for the first section of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage, and for memorable moments in other films, like the opening murder sequence in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and a fistfight in Gordon Parks’s Shaft (1971), but this was the only time it would be used for an entire motion picture.
I actually really enjoyed Lady in the Lake, even though I think it’s a failed experiment. It’s worth seeing at least once by anyone who’s interested in film, and there are enough powerful, uncanny, and interesting moments to make up for the long stretches of flaccidity.