Friday, December 21, 2018
Christmas Noir Watch: Lady in the Lake (1946)
Format: DVR off TCM
Viewing: unknown. 5th?
Of course you have family traditions for Christmas, and of course there are lists of films we watch each Christmas. In recent years, my personal tradition has become finding time to watch Lady in the Lake (1946), the experimental noir thriller based on a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name.
A murder mystery, and a tough, hard-boiled one at that, the film opens to a Christmas tune medley, much as one would find in Christmas in Connecticut - ending on the title cards being pulled away to reveal a small pistol. Post opening credits, we swing into an odd shot of Robert Montgomery addressing the audience directly. He's breaking the fourth wall in character - as Chandler's famed detective Philip Marlowe, informing us we'll see the action as he saw it, sniff out the clues alongside him - and challenges us to see if we can put all the pieces together.
In short - you've barely started the movie and it's already 100% bananas.
From here, we're switched to what I believe to be the first feature, studio film to take place entirely from a fictional character's first-person/ subjective perspective, and all in an era before steadicams or handheld work. The lens is literally Marlowe's POV, characters looking right into the camera to simulate eye-contact. Steady tracking movements simulate Marlowe walking around, and overly complicated shots include large mirrors so we occasionally do see Montgomery, or we see his silhouette.
1947 would bring Dark Passage, a faithful Bogart and Bacall translation of a terrific Goodis book, which uses the same basic idea for the first reel, and seemed to learn a lot about how to better deal with the subjective first person camera work.
A lot of what Montgomery does just draws attention to itself and the artificiality of the experience, breaking the illusion every time we see Marlowe's face. Those shots that include mirrors and silhouettes wind up a distraction as you sort out the angles automatically, and they don't really match. We aren't, after all, Marlowe, we're a passenger on a ride sitting like a GoPro between his eyes.
What's a point to consider is that this movie is also "the male gaze" in a literal sense.
The co-star of the movie is Audrey Totter, playing Adrienne Fromsett, a role blown up from a 3 page minor character in the novel to our femme fatale of the yuletide season. Totter isn't the only woman in the film to get the eye from the camera (there's an ingenue playing an assistant who catches Marlowe's eye enough that his head turns), both women fitting the line from Farewell, My Lovely: I like smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.
Like some of the best noir, the movie is coded sex, which is kind of a weird/ welcome entry in the Christmas movie pantheon. Totter's character is surprisingly forward and aggressive in all of her actions, including her expectations of Marlowe, and Marlowe's eye for women plays the hand of the casually stolen glance, watching the assistant overtly and Fromsett covertly. And, once Marlowe starts actually appreciating Fromsett, you can see a change in the camera angles. We're no longer visually copping a feel.
There's also the interesting bit, storywise, that comes with the "you are Marlowe!" notion. We're witness to a lot of extra bits of business, such as the Bay City police captain speaking with his family on the phone - stuff that wouldn't even make sense or would likely not make a final cut in a standard picture - but here it's part of the experience of the scene - and that's where the action works best. Aside from the mirrors and tricks, at some point the repetition of the eye-level shot in proximate speaking distance can get tiresome, visually. As much as I can watch Audrey Totter all day, I also don't just blindly stare at any one spot or thing for more than a moment.
Drawn to some sort of dystopian worst case scenario, the idea that a movie should be characters talking from a screen to the audience member is actually more or less how Bradbury describes Montag's wife's constant television viewing in Fahrenheit 451. Except on 3 walls (and she really wants that 4th).
But our movie does have a story, one penned by mystery legend Raymond Chandler. So what's it all about?
Fromsett uses her position as an editor of pulp magazines to lure Marlowe - who is trying his hand at short story writing in the hopes to make some money without getting beat up or shot at. But it becomes clear, Fromsett has figured him for a real-life PI and is trying to close the open loop on her boss's missing wife. Indeed, so she can marry the boss and get access to his considerable fortune. Meanwhile, she's also making a play for Marlowe.
From here, the plot becomes incredibly dense as Marlowe digs in, seeking the truth as he always does, a sort of back alley Galahad who speaks in the same hard-boiled tongue as the toughs and dames. A lot of actors play Marlowe, and no one will accuse Montgomery of stealing Bogart's thunder in The Big Sleep, and I have my own preference in Dick Powell's take (to me, Bogart's Marlowe is a distinct entity all its own, while Powell feels like Marlowe in the novels).
A lot of folks make hay about how The Big Sleep makes no sense, which I'm not sure is exactly true. It just doesn't lead the audience through all the connections as well it could and never explains a murder that could have been caused by any number of parties. Lady in the Lake is just as guilty of struggling to bring the convoluted mystery of the book (which is a great read, by the way) to the screen, but handicaps itself even more by not actually showing key scenes from the book that take place up at the titular lake, instead having Marlowe and others talk about what happened up there, an absurd story device in a movie dependent on showing us what Marlowe sees. It'd be like skipping the Death Star sequences in Star Wars to just have Leia tell General Madine how she escaped in a couple of clipped sentences. I don't know if it bothered me that much before reading the book, but now...
And yet... I like this oddball movie.
Maybe it's the ample screentime the film devotes to Ms. Totter. Maybe it's the rambling mystery story that fits pretty well in my wheelhouse. Maybe it's that the film also captures a certain melancholy of Christmas, both as people aren't always their best during the season (a good murder scheme does not stop for the holidays) and the peculiar heightened stakes of drama at Christmas time - knowing everyone else is celebrating.
The actors in the film are pretty terrific - and I consider Totter's natural approach to working with the camera no small achievement, and some of the more melodramatic moments with the camera part of its charm (anyone doubting her need only go check out Tension or The Unsuspected). I applaud what all of the actors were able to do in difficult circumstances, and its only on repeat viewings you can see how the limitations of the stunt limited what actors could do (with more than one in a scene, they often have to stand weirdly close together, unmoving). And I should probably mention Jayne Meadows' performance in the movie, which - once you know what's up and get to watch her again, she really is terrific.
Anyway - another year, another viewing.
Here's to you, Ms. Totter. Always terrific. Happy 101st birthday.