Lady in the Lake
Director/Studio/Author: Robert Montgomery/Warner Brothers/Steve Fisher
Original release date: 1946
Format, Genre and length: DVD/Film Noir/103 minutes
Publisher/Industry Age Rating: NR
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★
Private detective Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) decides to try his hand at writing, in order to supplement the living he ekes out as a shamus, so he pens a story he calls If I Should Die Before I Live. He submits it to a publisher, Kingsby Publishing, and receives a letter from an A. Fromsett, requesting his presence. When he duly presents himself, he discovers that A stands for Adrienne (Audrey Totter) and the lady has something else on her mind besides his story.
It sees that Ms. Fromsett is more interested in Marlowe’s detective skills than in his ability to wield the literary pen. It seems that her boss, Derace Kingsley (Leon Ames) has a wife that has been missing for a month. A telegram received from El Paso claims that she’s run off to get a Mexican divorce and intends to marry Chris Lavery. Fromsett says she wants to find Chrystal Kingsby for her boss’s sake, but Marlowe quickly figures out she has her own agenda.
She sweetens the pot by adding $300 to the $200 she was going to pay for his story, the additional monies to cover his fees for his services. Kingsby learns of her interfering and lets her know in no uncertain terms that his wife is free to do as she wishes, and that he has no romantic interest in Fromsett.
Taking the case, Marlowe goes to Bay City and visits Lavery (Dick Simmons), a southern boy with a smooth way of talking and a way with the ladies. He doesn’t take kindly to Marlowe’s questions and clocks him. Being a stubborn sort of guy, Marlowe continues to follow the trail and ends up on the wrong side of the Bay City police, especially one Detective Degarmot (Lloyd Nolan).
In trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what, Marlowe has to contend with unfriendly police, a dead lady in a lake, a corpse, a landlady, being set up and jailed, and fighting off feelings for Adrienne. Makes him wonder if perhaps writing isn’t a safer career.
First, I have to say if you’ve read the book and enjoyed it, just pretend you haven’t or you might be confused and/or dismayed at the film translation. Yes, the basic facts are there, more or less. But there are some significant, as well as minor changes. I understand the constraints of film, but if I hadn’t read the book, I think I wouldn’t have had a full appreciation for the film. Which isn’t to say you have to read the book to enjoy the movie, but it helps.
Second, the film employs a technique that was new in its day and I don’t believe ever really caught on, although if you watch the film trailer in the extras on the DVD, you’ll see it was touted at the time as quite the breakthrough. The camera shows the film from the perspective of Phillip Marlowe, a subjective view. You and Marlowe together view everything. What he sees, you see. When he gets knocked out, your world goes dark too. I guess in theory it sounded better than it was. Or perhaps the director didn’t utilize the technique very well. Ironically, Robert Montgomery directed as well as starred in this. But it didn’t work for me, and I actually found it annoying, and felt it slowed down the action. I can see why it didn’t catch on.
Montgomery is the third actor I’ve seen portray Marlowe, the first two being Bogart and Dick Powell. I rank him third in my list of who did the best job, with Powell at the top. That doesn’t make him bad, just not great. Besides, he doesn’t spend as much time onscreen, because of the filming technique. Maybe that’s a good thing.
There are minor changes with names and spelling. In the book, there is no Kingsby Publishing Company, and Marlowe deals with Mr. Kingsley, rather than his subordinate, A. Fromsett. You may remember the actor who plays Kingsby as the father in Meet Me in St. Louis. Jayne Meadows appears as Mildred Haveland; she was married for many years to comedian Steve Allen. Lloyd Nolan plays the prickly Lieutenant Degarmot. He’s done many things over the years. I think of him first as the kindly doctor in the TV series Julia.
On the whole, I enjoyed the film, but I think it could be done better. They really missed the boat in not even going up to the lake where the lady in the title is discovered, and we don’t meet Bill Chess at all. Those could have been interesting scenes, especially the discovery of the body. Plus it’s in the title—Lady in the Lake—but we never see the lake. I think the book could have been adapted better. But, taken as it is, it’s a solid watch, although flawed, and if you enjoy Marlowe and want to experience it all, book and film, then it’s worthwhile watching.