Lady in the Lake

The composition is in two movements, major and minor. Philip Marlowe is tired of “ten bucks a day plus expenses,” writes a story called “If I Die Before I Live”, and offers it to Kingsby Publishing. His encounter there with an icy editor initiates the major movement, which is the straightforward realization of her character. In the minor, she has a structural alter ego who is a murderess.

The structure is not so complex that it cannot be understood, rather no-one has ever quite bothered to take notice of it. Magill’s Survey of Cinema has this to say: “Ultimately, however, what happens in the film is immaterial, since the visual discipline and suspension of conventional perception required of the viewer eliminate the necessity for complete dramatic development.”

That is sheer and utter nonsense. Lady in the Lake is a satire of the literary world, and never veers from its point. The editor wants to marry her publisher, whose wife is missing and in fact murdered by a nurse who previously murdered the wife of the doctor she worked for, after jilting the police detective who loved her, and also murders her new lover for his money.

These two characters, the editor and the nurse, are the two sides of one same question, the one ultimately redeemed from her heartlessness, the other going its course.

You will deduce that Steve Fisher, the screenwriter, knows his business. Raymond Chandler is the author at hand.

Montgomery’s subjective camera has been a nuisance to the sort of persons who feel uncomfortable seated in the front row at a play. It requires of him the greatest skill imaginable, and the players, and everyone else involved, because there is no artifice between the spectator and the drama. You are Philip Marlowe in 1947 conversing with terrific actors in costumes and sets of the period that can withstand your scrutiny.

The experiment was tried by Frank Borzage in A Farewell to Arms, and succeeded brilliantly. Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage and Fellini’s 8 and Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor use it as well, and there are many brief scenes elsewhere with a POV. Marlowe, in an office almost identical to the one in Murder My Sweet, introduces and concludes the story by talking to the camera, like Liv Ullmann in Bergman’s Saraband, and he interrupts it to do so again. Long takes, whip pans (sometimes concealing cuts), dolly shots and mirrors characterize the technique.

Montgomery’s direction begins at that point. Twenty-five years later, directors were beginning to profit from his discoveries. His camera-detective inspects everything in front of it, there are no false fronts nor stylistic sidestepping. The discovery of the lover’s body owes something to Wyler in Mrs. Miniver, the camera and Marlowe’s right hand inspect room after room, open the bathroom door, see the bullet holes in the shower door, open it to see the bullet holes in the shower tiles, and the body slumped at the bottom of the frame.

Released from jail, Marlowe enters the Press Room, where a reporter in his coat and jacket is lying on the table next to a Racing Form, an ashtray with three cigarette stubs in it, and several black telephones, one of which he is using to discuss his girl’s rumba with her. He graciously lets Marlowe make a call (another reporter is asleep in a corner chair, the room is dark, it’s the middle of the night), the mouthpiece fills the lower right quadrant of the screen, with a zigzag of table corners in the center.

The purpose of this abstraction, aside from simple realism, is to produce a deeper sense of realism.

Marlowe leaves a house at night, sees a car parked outside, the dollying camera catches the merest glint of menace, he slides into his car, a cut makes it a process shot as he’s pursued through dark streets with the strange car in the rear-view mirror, it runs him off the road, his car overturns, the other driver leans in and pours whiskey all over the lens, a drunk reaches in and takes Marlowe’s wallet, gets punched, Marlowe makes it out of the car and crawls away on visible hands and knees, turns to look at the scene. His viewpoint shows the car on its side, the unconscious drunk, and a row of Red Cross signs in the background reading GIVE. He crawls again with great effort to a phone booth, seen from below with its dangling phone book making the same abstraction as in the Press Room.

The height of drama, or comedy, or both, is the view of the editor reclining upon a couch, and there is a radio on the coffee table playing the last moments of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s switched off, she talks about her early life and career. “If all the malted milks I served were laid end to end...” This is the iron lady who, seated at her desk in the first scene, dismissed one of her magazine artists with the words, “not enough gore.”

Lady in the Lake is a first-rank picture alongside Hitchcock and Lang and Hawks, and will be seen that way when it is seen at all rather than blinked at. Montgomery hasn’t just used the subjective camera in an entire film, he has used it successfully by realizing the immediacy it invokes at once, and gearing up his sets and costumes to the demands it places on the cinema.

The simplest way to understand it is, now you know what it’s like to act with Audrey Totter and Lloyd Nolan and Leon Ames, in costumes by Irene with a script out of Chandler. They look right at you as someone else, and they’re quite skillful, so that it’s up to you to do your part, but so enjoyably that it’s a pleasure.

Nevertheless, when Bergman’s actors began talking to the camera, that was disconcerting in the general belief, like the first soliloquy known to the Globe. If you’re going to be put off by a bit of style, you might as well not go to the theater at all.

Marlowe meets the murderous nurse, a blonde passing herself off as the publisher’s brunette wife. “Nice dyeing job,” Marlowe observes, and laments not seeing her blonde hair. She replies, “Have you hoped?”

“Have you got the tickets?”, he asks the editor in his office at the close. “Two tickets to New York,” she says, showing him. He had rattled her cage earlier by sardonically asking, “Do you have that I’m–scared-but-it’s-wonderful feeling?” Now he wants to know, “Are you scared?” She tells him, “Yes, but it’s wonderful.”

It all happens over Christmas, the opening titles are on Christmas cards, Marlowe addresses the publisher as Santa Claus, Capt. Kane interrupts his police interrogation of Marlowe to listen to his daughter on the phone read “The Night Before Christmas”. Kubrick must have remembered the wordless chorus during and after the night car-chase, and suffered critics decrying the gimmickry of Barry Lyndon.


Ride the Pink Horse

Montgomery takes up the camera once again for the opening sequence, an intricate move that establishes the tricky business of the check and the locker and the key stuck with bubble gum behind the map (this sort of thing often goes by an audience early on in a film), it also fixes Lucky Gagin’s entry into San Pablo for the extraordinary reprise when, beaten and stabbed, he retraces his steps from the bus depot to the La Fonda Hotel, thinking he’s just arrived.

Pauline Kael later reportedly called it “one of a kind: no-one in his right mind would imitate it,” although Welles seems to have had it in the back of his mind while making Touch of Evil.


Once More, My Darling

It is a question of acting the lover, in movies.

The Army calls him back to ferret out a jewel thief in Germany, he must win the heart of a debutante in a perfume ad, thus exciting the thief’s jealousy.

She’s at the Hotel Bel-Air with her father, a Sunday painter on two continents.

The girl has a chauffeur who boxes.

The actor, a movie star with never a leading role, is a lawyer by profession, his mother’s a lawyer, too.

It starts ten years ahead of its time, and goes on from there.

In the actor’s social circle, his “hobby” is looked down upon, all work and no union.

An “antic labor” in what must be called the mind of Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “which we imagine read a lot better than it plays and which certainly isn’t as witty as its participants seem to think it is.”

Variety was quite a bit too much on the finical side, nevertheless “amusement quota strong.”

Halliwell’s Film Guide pronounces it “tame”, no doubt thinking of Dr. Johnson.


Your Witness

Formal reparations for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Possibly as a result of his subjective camera work in Lady in the Lake, Montgomery achieves a most remarkable suspension of activity in the main character, an American in England, who is most confoundingly seen to be always taking up space in the most interfering way. You can see how he engineered it in the pivotal shot on Alix right before the end, it’s a matter of judicious setups, fine acting, and a very good script.

Anglo-American relations in the great tradition of Thunder in the City and Royal Wedding, distinguished by its quiet style and musical sensibility (Colonel Mustard likes to play the Polovtsian Dances on his phonograph), under the tutelage of Sir Malcolm Arnold.


The Gallant Hours

The high command, Halsey on the spot in ‘42, Guadalcanal.

A very few films attain this eminence of surprising insight and all-encompassing intelligence, Bosley Crowther (New York Times) can bear witness.

“Cincinnatus of the West”, and a chorus to sing of the dead.

Montgomery’s precision is on the drama at every moment, nothing waits or halts or lingers.

Ahead of his time (but concurrent with Gilbert’s Sink the Bismarck!) he carries the film where it must go, always finding unique circumstances.

One of the great works of the cinema, from one of the great directors.