By Philip Schweier
Lady in the Lake (1947) is based on the Raymond Chandler story of the same name, which features his private eye, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is one of those characters which has been featured in many movie adaptations but never played by the same actor twice, Robert Mitchum being the exception. As much as I like Mitchum, he was too tough and not sarcastic enough to suit me, starring in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978).
Humphrey Bogart, in The Big Sleep (1946) is perhaps the most well-known, perhaps simply because it’s Bogey doing his private eye/film noir schtick. Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944) is another highly-regarded portrayal. (Ivan’s note: That would be me.) Pretty good for a guy who was best known at the time for being a song & dance man. My personal favorite is James Garner in Marlowe (1969).
Lady in the Lake was directed by Robert Montgomery, who also stars as Marlowe, though his on-screen time is rather minimal. In an experiment in film-making, much of the movie is shot from Marlowe’s point of view. Montgomery is shown in a few expository moments and reflected in mirrors, but otherwise all the actors play to the camera.
Another interesting aspect of the movie is that the studio tries very hard to make it a Christmas story, complete with opening credits displayed on Christmas cards while a medley of carols plays. Sure, the story takes place over the holidays, but that’s about as yuletide as it gets.
In the story, Marlowe decides to supplement his meager income by submitting a true-to-life detective yarn to a pulp magazine run by Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Ames is favorite character actor of mine, mainly because he looks like he stepped out of one of those 1940s/50s-era Batman comic books.
Marlowe’s story is intercepted by Kingsby’s editor, Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), who, upon learning Marlowe is a bona fide shamus, sets him on the mystery of the disappearance of Mrs. Kingsby. It seems she’s carrying a torch for her boss, but until the fate of the current Mrs. Kingsby is settled, she’ll never be anything but a lowly editor-in-chief.
Nevertheless, as Marlowe looks into the matter and runs into all sorts of gigolos, cops and assorted disreputable characters, things started to blow hot and cold between him and Ms. Fromsett. He begins to suspect she may know more than she’s letting on about the Kingsby’s affairs, so it takes a while for their budding romance to get off the ground.
Also working against Marlowe is Bay City cop DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan). He seems all to happy to throw Marlowe in the clink for whatever charge he can dream up, but Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) is more inclined to demonstrate some restraint.
I’m taking it on faith that fans of old movies will most likely have seen this one, and if you’re not a fan of old movies, you’re not likely to recognize Jayne Meadows as, shall we say, “a person of interest” in the case. She gives a fascinating performance from the moment she appears on screen, dressed much like The Shadow, complete with slouch hat and automatic in one hand.
Both she and Nolan give what are perhaps break-out performances, suggesting why they became the bigger stars, while Totter and Ames are relegated to moments of, “Oh, yeah, I remember them from… from… what was the name of that movie? You know, the one with the guy and the thing?”
As mysteries go, Lady in the Lake is as convoluted as usual (though not as much as The Big Sleep). But for fans of the genre, it’s a milepost in an interesting point-of-view experiment.
Normally I don’t care for gimmicky movie tricks. I think a film should stand on the story it tells rather than extended “Look what we can do. Aren’t we clever?” nonsense. The same idea was employed in Dark Passage (1947) to great personal annoyance, but thankfully went away once Bogart’s character had plastic surgery and it was possible to show his face.
But in Lady in the Lake, the trick works okay, and because less is more, it is thankfully one of the films to pull it off successfully.