Holiday Classics: “Lady in the Lake” (1947)

1947’s “Lady in the Lake” isn’t exactly the most memorable portrayal of author Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, who over the decades has been played on screen by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum. Robert Montgomery, who plays the iconic investigator in “Lady in the Lake,” plays him as perhaps a little too jaded. But “Lady in the Lake” is arguable the most interesting of the lot, and in fact one of the most intriguing Hollywood experiments of the 1940s, as the film is shot entirely from the first person perspective of Marlowe, the audience only catching a glimpse of the actor playing him in shots where he’s looking in a mirror, and in the interludes that break up the narrative in which Marlowe directly addresses the viewer.

The plot of “Lady in the Lake,” unsurprisingly for most films of this ilk, is quite convoluted. Marlowe, growing weary of the P.I. business, is trying to get a crime novel published. When he’s called for a meeting at Kingsby Publications, he believes it is for that reason, but executive Adrienne Fromsett (the queen of scathing stares, Audrey Totter) merely used that as an excuse to enlist his investigative services. Her boss’s wife, Chrystal Kingsby (who is never seen on screen, but amusingly credited in the film as being played by Ellay Mort, a homonym of the French phrase “elle est morte,” or “she is dead”), went missing two months ago, after sending her husband a telegram stating she venturing down to Mexico to divorce him and marry her lover. But her lover hasn’t heard from her in all that time either—and so, Marlowe is on the case.

Audrey Totter (with Robert Montgomery seen reflected in the mirror) in “Lady in the Lake”

“Lady in the Lake” was the first screenplay adaptation of his own work that Chandler (whose screen credits included the essential noirs “Double Indemnity” and “The Blue Dahlia”) penned, but the 195-page script was deemed unfilmable and reworked by Steve Fisher; Chandler was so dismayed by the changes Fisher made that he declined to take any screen credit in the final product. “Lady in the Lake” is more noteworthy for serving as the directorial debut of actor Robert Montgomery, who had been a versatile leading man at MGM for 18 years (in fact, “Lady in the Lake” was the last film he made for them). Montgomery caught the directing bug a couple years before while filming the war picture “They Were Expendable,” which he starred in alongside John Wayne and Donna Reed. When director John Ford fell sick during production, Montgomery filled in for him; next thing he knew, he was convincing MGM to purchase the rights to “Lady in the Lake” for his first solo directorial effort.

With the camera essentially serving as the protagonist, “Lady in the Lake” is a fascinating and at times uneasy film to watch, with characters speaking to Marlowe appearing to stare at and talk straight to the audience; and if, for instance, Marlowe blacks out, the scene fades to black. It’s far from a flawless approach, but it works better than many critics then and even now give it credit for. MGM’s head of photography John Arnold developed a new kind of dolly with independent wheels to help simulate Marlowe walking, as well as a rig that would allow the fight scenes to appear more real on screen. A little seat was situated under the camera for Montgomery to sit on during filming, so the actors could still see him and play off of him.

The holiday-themed title cards for “Lady in the Lake”

As I’m writing this in the context of the holiday season, it’s important to note that “Lady in the Lake” is set in the days leading up to Christmas. The Christmas card title cards set to “Jingle Bells” allude to a much cheerier movie than the one we’re about to see; but at the end of the credits, we see that they were concealing a gun. The holidays are present in almost every scene, including a Christmas party at the publishing house that Marlowe unceremoniously interrupts. It’s just enough to make “Lady in the Lake” the perfect alternative Christmas movie, as well as an essential watch for film fans who want a glimpse into one of Hollywood’s most unusual and creative directorial debuts.

Runtime: 105 minutes.

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