Lady in the Lake was an attempt to make a first-person film, to accurately convey through film the experience of reading Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name, where the reader encounters everything through Phillip Marlowe rather than just reading about him. In literature, this means that that “he said” is replaced by “I said,” and that it is a little more difficult (and out of place) to have scenes occur where the main character isn’t around. It is much more difficult to transpose onto film. The camera must be the main character, thus Marlowe isn’t so much a face than a voice, except when the camera passes in front of a mirror and there has to be a body there to be reflected (a camera’s reflection certainly wouldn’t do!).
Since the camera is Marlowe’s eyes, it can’t cut back and forth, or cut out time through ellipses – scenes must be played out in real time. Director/star Robert Montgomery does a good job of handling such a narrative technique, one that is more precocious than tried-and-true. The best scenes are the ones that are the most complicated in terms of staging and directing. It is not that they are merely flashy, but that they fully realize the potential and difficulty of the first-person camera.
The use of mirrors, particularly, requires quick, subtle editing. The use of a real mirror would reflect the camera, so while the camera pans from a girl, for example, to a mirror, there must be a cut while the girl and Marlowe step inside an empty mirror frame. While the camera pans away from the mirror, another cut must be made, as well. If the editing seems a bit obvious nowadays, it doesn’t deter one bit from either the story of the effects they were reaching for. More than forgivable, it is admirable.
The downside to the film is the stagy acting. Since the actors are acting with a camera, rather than an actor, there is an inherent monologue quality, as though they were reciting lines rather than performing a scene with other actors. As an aside, characters in film noir never seem too sincere, but in this film I feel it is even more drastic and noticeable. One scene in particular is so hammy that you could cut it, if the knife were sharp enough: the bad cop is about to shoot his girlfriend who is wanted for murder. She throws up her limbs and strikes the pose; he shoots; her arms mechanically jitter back and forth like a robot; finally, after a fittingly tragedian death, she stops moving, but not before tragedy turns into farce.
Something I didn’t mention before is the music. It is quite uncommon for its time both for its sparseness, and because it is primarily choral. The subdued and atmospheric quality of the singing is ethereally creepy, and separates it from the melodramatic symphonic scores that dominated films of that era.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.