The Lady in the Lake
Raymond Chandler only wrote seven novels. Six of them were made into films, some of them twice. (The only exception, Playback, was pretty bad.) If asked who played the best Philip Marlowe, most people would choose Bogart in The Big Sleep. He was very good, but my personal preference would be Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely. (Mitchum played him again in a re-make of The Big Sleep, where Marlowe was transplanted to London, which has to rank as one of the stupidest ideas ever to emerge from Hollywood. Some characters are inseparable from their location. You might as well transplant Sherlock Holmes to Los Angeles.) Aside from those two, no one, in my opinion, was a very good Marlowe. Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (adapted from Farewell, My Lovely) was pretty bad. James Garner in Marlowe (adapted from The Little Sister) was more like Jim Rockford than Marlowe. Which is not a bad thing, but it ain’t Marlowe. George Montgomery in The Brasher Doubloon (adapted from The High Window) wasn’t within miles of Marlowe. Then we have two movies that very were good despite the fact that the actors were nothing like Marlowe: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye where Eliot Gould created a quirky 1970s PI who talked to himself a lot, and this one, where Robert Montgomery really went into unexplored territory.
The film is done from the first-person POV; that is, we see everything from Marlowe’s perspective. We see him only when he looks into a mirror. (There are scenes at the beginning and end, and a few in between, where he talks directly to the camera. I think these scenes could have come out entirely, and used as voice-over for more POV shots.) This must have been a novel experience for the actors. Trained never to look at the camera, they spent this entire film doing nothing but looking directly into the camera. This technique presents numerous technical challenges, and I think the cameraman and other technical people solved them all very well. There are two magnificently done sequences. In one, Marlowe slowly explores an empty apartment, finding a corpse in the shower at the end. In the other, he is briefly pursued by a bent cop, forced off the road, the car overturns, and he groggily escapes arrest and crawls to a phone booth. Amazing! There is very little music in the film, but what we do hear is eerie and evocative, abstract, years ahead of its time. The acting is very good, from Lloyd Nolan, Tom Tully, and Jayne Meadows, of all people. She is scary and manic, edgy, nothing I would expect from a woman I know only as a panelist on ‘50s TV game shows, and as the wife of Steve Allen. I would have nominated her for a Supporting Actress Oscar. Then there was Audrey Totter, somebody I’d never heard of, who is pretty much a perfect noir tough girl. Oddly enough, I think actor/director Robert Montgomery was the least interesting of the cast.
Let me say again, Montgomery is not Marlowe, and this movie is only fitfully faithful to the book, so Chandler fans, be warned. Montgomery plays him as sarcastic instead of with the restrained cynicism that was in the books. He has too many wise-guy lines, too many tough-guy lines that sound phony. The basic structure of the plot was retained, but a great deal of the details were altered. Big disappointment: we never travel to the lake where the eponymous lady’s body was found. The POV style puts a lot of restrictions on the storytelling, and I know some of the alterations were justified because of this. Most amazing of all, the Audrey Trotter character, Adrienne Fromsett, the female romantic lead, doesn’t appear in the book! And worst of all, Marlowe and Adrienne go off together at the end. Hello? Marlowe doesn’t get the girl! James Bond gets the girl, Travis McGee gets the girl (who then dies). Marlowe does not get the girl. He may fall in love with her, but nothing is done about it. Stupid, sappy, happy ending.
So, if you can get through all those changes, or just haven’t read the book and don’t particularly care how Marlowe is played, this is well worth seeing.