Lady in the Lake

One tried. One failed.
Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan Tom Tully
The Setup: 
First-person adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel.

So my big reading project right now is the Divine Comedy, and after finishing Inferno, I thought I'd take a little break before Purgatorio and this I grabbed this Raymond Chandler novel I had on the shelf. It turned out to be a delightful little read (it's also considerably lighter for subway carrying), and thus I wanted to see the movie adaptation soon after. Well, imagine my surprise to learn that there's something very special about this adaptation.

The entire film is shot from the point of view of the detective, Phillip Marlowe. Thus the characters are talking to the camera, we see the camera approach doors, then a hand reach out and open them, we see the camera talking on the phone [see photo] and even smoking. We only see director Robert Montgomery, also starring as Marlowe, when he is reflected in a mirror. The idea is that you are the detective, you see the clues, you piece the story together. The reality is somewhat different, but in such a way that illuminates why normal films are made the way they are.

The whole story has been set at Christmas, something that doesn't figure into the novel at all. The credits are printed on Christmas cards, as we hear a medley of Christmas carols, and the cards are removed until we see a gun underneath. Then Montgomery comes on and introduces the tale, and the way it's being told. We'll come back to him periodically for exposition. In the novel, the people who hire him are from a department store, but in the film he is invited in by a publisher interested in a short story he has written. Turns out they story actually sold his services as a detective, and they want to hire him to find someone, the wife of the publisher. A woman who was a secretary in the novel, Adrienne Fromsett, is now promoted to manager of the publisher, and is given a much larger, much different role.

And there's where the problems start, immediately. Poor Audrey Totter, who plays Fromsett, has to have numerous conversations directly into the camera (we hear Marlowe's voice offscreen), and actors just don't react to a camera the way they do to a living person, so her face remains relatively blank, when it's not overemoting to make up for it, and the whole thing is just clangingly wrong. Marlowe goes up to visit a guy who may be involved, and it's the same with him--flat performance. He slugs Marlowe--you see his fist hit the camera, then it go out of focus--and Marlowe wakes in jail, where he meets two detectives who will figure in later.

He returns to Fromsett just as they are getting news that a body has been found at a lake upstate, and this is where fans of the novel may first be really disappointed. In the novel, Marlowe goes to the lake and meets Bill Chess, recovering alcoholic. Marlowe offers Chess a drink to get him talking, and there follows an unforgettable scene with a salty character that culminates in the great image of the body being found under the pier--the image that sets the story in motion and explains the title: there is literally a lady in the lake. When it becomes apparent that in the film we're just going to HEAR about it, and completely lose the delightful character of Bill Chess (he never appears) and lose the striking image of the body emerging from the water, not to mention the whole very vivid small resort town much of the novel takes place in, it can only be a major disappointment.

In its place, we just have a bunch of talking, as effective and involving as I've described, and restrict ourselves to sets, necessary for the technique, but losing all of the intriguing atmosphere of the novel, which it was awash in. Not to mention that massive, central story threads have been eliminated, the whole story vastly simplified, and characters shifted around liberally--and ineffectively. When it suddenly seems that Marlowe and Fromsett are going to get romantically involved, anyone who has read the novel will know that this version bears only the slightest resemblance.

So I’ve got to be honest and tell you that around this point I started fast-forwarding, stopping periodically to watch certain scenes. You may fault me for this, but first of all, the movie was well-neigh unendurable, and I knew that if I didn’t finish it that night, I would never, ever come back to it. And I’m not sorry. Eventually, after more than an hour, there is a scene that takes place outside, finally breaking the hermetic, set-bound claustrophobia of the film.

And suffice to say that anyone who loves the novel is not going to find much of interest here. I didn’t love Chandler’s The Big Sleep, so I was surprised to find myself SUPER into this novel, which has a number of interesting, vivid characters and situations that don’t seem related at first, then all gradually thread together into a story with several fascinating surprises. Not to mention that the novel shuffles between several physical locations, all of which are interesting and atmospheric. In the film, we shuffle between a few locations, almost all indoors, and mostly just hear about the major plot developments. The cast of characters has also been vastly reduced.

But it does, by providing a bad example, reveal a lot of what works in regular ‘ol narrative films where we watch actors interact with each other, not just the camera. First, as I said, the actors just don’t react in a believable way when they’re acting against a camera, not a person. Second, only hearing his voice issue from offscreen, Marlowe just comes off as a cranky asshole, as we don’t have anything about a physical performance to relate to. Third, the technique is continually drawing attention to itself, so you never really get involved in the story, because you’re constantly paying attention to the technique.

So I thought it was a total bust. A quick glance at the IMDb tells us that not everyone hates it as much as I do, though very few people like it, and when they do, it’s that they like this or that tiny aspect [e.g. the portrayal of Christmas in California]. I say skip it, but if you’re in the mood for a super-fun, well-done page-turner of a classic detective novel, the book is a real pip. An adaptation of that book is still waiting to be made.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn’t, unless you can watch a few minutes to satisfy your curiosity without paying.