Life and Death in L.A.: The 900 Pound Gorilla in the Room: Why Watching “Lady in the Lake” Requires Extensive Mind Over Matter Skills, and Perhaps a Bourbon on the Rocks

Sunday, March 3, 2024

The 900 Pound Gorilla in the Room: Why Watching “Lady in the Lake” Requires Extensive Mind Over Matter Skills, and Perhaps a Bourbon on the Rocks

Robert Montgomery, "Lady in the Lake" (1946). 

By Paul Parcellin 

I have a confession to make: For as long as I’ve watched film noir (and I don’t care to go into exactly how long that is) I’d never sat down and watched “Lady in the Lake” (1947) until very recently. That’s not really a stunner, I guess. It’s not widely regarded as a top-shelf Raymond Chandler screen adaptation, as are “The Big Sleep” (1946), “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), and dare I say it, “The Long Goodbye” (1973) — I can almost hear the howls of disapproval over the last in that trio.

The reason why I’ve been ignoring “Lady in the Lake” all these years is the strange point of view camera placement that makes this one unique to all other Chandler adaptations, and come to think of it, to just about all other American films made up to that point.

The gimmick, and I don’t mean that as a put down necessarily, is that in each scene the camera sees the action from the point of view of private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery). That means that we the audience are drawn into the film, walking in the shoes of Chandler’s immortal private dick, in theory, at least. Consequently, Montgomery, as Marlowe, has little if any screen time in the film except here and there when a mirror catches his reflection. We hear Marlowe’s voice and occasionally a hand will jut out into camera range when he’s reaching for something or putting up his dukes for a fight. Otherwise, he’s pretty much the invisible man.

That was about all I knew of the film except that I’d seen some short clips on YouTube and from them I inferred that Montgomery’s avant garde camera placement is the 900 pound gorilla in the room that we’re not supposed to notice, and as much as I like the animal kingdom the idea did not appeal to me.

But, as I mentioned, the other night I decided to drop my preconceived notions about the film and give it a watch, and overall, I thought it was surprisingly good. The camera stuff is a bit freaky at first. Yasujirō Ozu is about the only other director whose work I’ve seen who lets his actors look directly into the camera when delivering monologues. Although his films make undeniably powerful statements and Ozu is widely regarded as a genius, for me it took a little getting used to. 

On the positive side, “Lady in the Lake” is a tightly constructed drama with a multitude of surprises along the way, the first of which is that the story takes place at Christmastime. Music director David Snell provides a chorus of seasonal carols that at times offer a sardonic counterpoint to the grimmest action on the screen. Opening credits are printed on Christmas cards, to boot. It’s oddly appealing that this may be the most unChristmas-like Christmas film ever made.

Apart from its bone-dry humor, the whole package is quite watchable — gripping, even. I’ve read the novel on which it’s based, of course, but the twist at the end, which I won’t give away, still got to me. 

What makes the film even more remarkable is that Robert Montgomery took on the Herculean task of both starring in and directing it, a voluntary undertaking that should require a note from one’s psychiatrist. Although he doesn’t appear on camera much, which presumably lightens his workload, Montgomery’s endeavor is still an awe inspiring undertaking. When the tire treads come in contact with the asphalt he comes out looking pretty good, indeed.

Now comes the part where I complain, so you can stop reading here if you’ve gotten this far and prefer not to tolerate a wet blanket.

Audrey Totter, with a hairstyle
like the grill of a '59 Buick.
The cast includes Audrey Totter as magazine editor Adrienne Fromsett, who hires Marlowe to find her boss’s wandering wife. Fromsett, who’s as brassy as her hairdo, an explosion of then-fashionable “victory roll” curls, works hard to appear benevolent but her demeanor immediately gets Marlowe’s back up. He senses that she’s a phony and he aims to let her know exactly what he thinks of her. His prickly manner is meant to show both us and Fromsett that he won’t tolerate her brand of mendacity. The trouble is that he comes on a good deal too strong and seems to play the bully. The woman may be putting him on, but she hadn’t exactly bared her fangs at him, either. 

Montgomery’s Marlowe is quite different from those seen in other films. He’s much more abrasive and ill tempered than Bogart in “The Big Sleep” or Dick Powell in “Murder, My Sweet.” Consider Bogart’s first meeting with Lauren Bacall, as Vivian Sternwood, in “The Big Sleep,” where he uses his dry wit to tamp down her snooty, entitled behavior. He refuses to knuckle under, but he gets his message across without getting nasty. The same is true for Dick Powell, who can be cool and charming even when dealing with thugs and murderers.

Montgomery is sturdy and determined, but lacking in the charm that Bogart could exude, despite the fact that underneath it all he’s a tough guy, too. We get the sense that Bogie enjoys parrying with cranks, crackpots and cutthroats alike and only turns mean when he needs to do so. Montgomery’s Marlowe has a chip on his shoulder and is less enjoyable company for it. By the end of the film his personality gets a makeover, but first impressions are lasting ones.

Maybe it was Montgomery’s extra heavy workload of directing and acting that led to some important characters feeling a bit off. A more objective director might have identified and remedied the film’s flaws and dissonant tones. 

The first off-key note, other than Marlowe’s heavy handedness, is Audrey Totter’s performance, which feels self-conscious and out of place with the rest of the cast, especially in the scene of her first meeting with Marlowe. We’re too aware that she’s playing to the camera and her performance of the magazine editor of questionable character would seem more at home on the stage than in a movie. She comes off as a caricature rather than a character, with her every line reading telegraphed across her face. Another director probably would have told her to cool it.

Fortunately, veteran actors Lloyd Nolan as the corrupt Lt. DeGarmot and Tom Tully as Capt. Kane bring us back to reality with subtle, natural acting that puts the film on the right track. Both were veterans of the stage and screen and they knew how to play their gruff lawmen roles with a light touch. Leon Ames as magazine publisher Derace Kingsby also helps anchor the film in place with a subtle but colorful performance.

Then, there’s the story itself, typical of Chandler fiction, this adaptation nearly dips into incomprehensibility in expositional moments as the players tell us about important action that takes place off screen — no matter; if the plot isn’t at least somewhat confusing it isn’t a Chandler story.

Montgomery, Totter
What the film lacks, however, is both the lady and the lake. Unlike the novel, in which Marlowe spends a good deal of time in the Lake Arrowhead region, the camera never ventures out into nature or gets near the water, except in scenes that take place in the oceanside community of “Bay City,” which is really Santa Monica. That’s a shame since it would have been entertaining to see Marlowe out of his element, without pavement under his feet or a cocktail lounge where he could order a soothing gimlet. He’d no doubt wander through the woods and lakeside summer cabins in suit, tie and fedora, searching for clues in the drowning of the cabin caretaker’s wife. Typical of Chandler stories, Marlowe becomes embroiled in what seems like two separate cases, but lo and behold, it turns out they’re related.

The film concludes on a rather too sweet note, with Marlowe uncharacteristically in the throes of romance. Sentiment is never a good look for him, particularly when he’s been a snarling bear of a man throughout the film. It feels like a meet-cute romcom with gunplay, which now that I think of it isn’t a bad idea for a movie, but not quite the way it’s executed here.

Still, I enjoyed “Lady in the Lake” and will watch it again sometime soon despite Montgomery’s failed experiment in camera positioning. I must admit that some shots using mirror reflections of Marlowe’s kisser, as well as some woozy drunken driving scenes that seem to be shot with a jittery hand-held camera are quite effective.

It’s usually encouraging to see a director go out on a limb and try unconventional approaches to movie making, but this is the exception simply because it doesn’t work, at least not for me. I prefer to view the action from the sidelines and not be a participant. 

The bottom line is that had the film been shot in the more standard way it would almost certainly have been better. We’ll never know for sure unless someone gets the notion to remake it. Then we might get to see that theory put to the test.



  1. ajwrites57@gmail.comMarch 3, 2024 at 12:32 PM

    I haven't watched this movie in awhile. Your critique is artfully written. The depth of your analysis is remarkable. And, I found it intimidating, to say the least. Whether I would agree or disagree with any of your points, I will not add them. Thank you.

  2. It's been 77 years since I saw "Lady in the Lake." I can't remember many of the plot details, but it left a good impression. The POV was the most striking thing about it at the time. I'd like to watch it again sometime soon.

  3. .I disagree on various points about your analysis of Lady in the Lake, not the least of which is your opinion of Audrey Totter. I think she did a fine job, almost tongue-in-cheek in her responses to the camera. The movie itself is excellent in its own right, apart from necessarily being lumped into and compared with the rest of the Raymond Chandler cannon. Montgomery took a chance in the filming, and it paid off. I think there's good humor there and some unusual twists to it. In addition, it has the smell of 1940s Los Angeles, and the movie industry itself at that time. As for the ending, is my understanding that Montgomery did not like that ending and wanted to end it without the sweet tryst. But the studio prevailed. Anyway, I have watched this movie a number of times and enjoyed it each time. Enough said.

  4. I don't think the pov enhanced the understanding or appreciation of the story. Montgomery's performance was better than I expected. He's probably the only actor to have played both Phillip Marlowe and Lord Peter Wimsey