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Lady in the Lake

★★★★☆
Lady in the Lake

I believe that director Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Enter the Void) has a vision that is unparalleled in all of cinema. I’ve given two of his films a full five stars because no matter what other flaws they may have, his films are totally unlike anything else that exists. Noe’s camera moves through time and space without concern for whether there are solid objects in the way, much less which direction is up or down. His camera is constantly apart from the action, even as it gets intimately involved in it. To many, this is brushed aside as a gimmick – the idea being that there is no way that the filmmaking style can be more important than the story at the center. I disagree with this mode of thought. The films of Noe and other visionary directors (I’m fond of mentioning Tarsem Singh here) are exciting, in spite of sometimes having a less polished narrative, because they amaze visually, because they bring you into the action in a way that few other films possibly could. I say all of this now because I have read that Noe’s work was inspired by the 1947 black and white noir Lady in the Lake, and it was on this basis alone that I sought the film out. The film’s gimmick is that the events all unfold in front of the camera from a first-person perspective: you the viewer are the detective. Most critics take aim at the unorthodox film method, calling attention to the lack of emotional resonance in the story, the tepid interactions which the actors share with the camera, or finally the weak characterization of protagonist Phillip Marlowe (an evolving character, like James Bond or Santa Claus, who has been portrayed in many different ways by many different actors).

I don’t deny that all of these problems exist, save for maybe the final issue regarding the weakness of this particular Marlowe. Having little past experience with the character, I can neither confirm nor deny the charge. But yes, it’s true that the actors in the film are not equipped for the task of interacting primarily with the camera. There’s a phrase that pops up a lot in reviews for Lady in the Lake, and that phrase is “screen test”. The complaint is that most of the actors, in their long-winded monologues looking directly into the camera, come across as though they are merely auditioning for their respective roles. This is a valid criticism, but given the experimental concept behind the film (may I remind you that this was released in 1947?), it’s hard for me to be too hard on the film for this flaw. To my knowledge, director Robert Montgomery’s film is the first of its kind. Is it any wonder that the movie isn’t able to allow the characters to interact more realistically with the camera?

As far as the issue regarding the lack of emotional resonance, the problem does become acute once Marlowe begins to have more of a presence in the film. We are seeing the mystery play out from his eyes, and so for the bulk of the story when what is required of the audience is to pay attention to what is going on, keep one’s ears open for clues, et cetera, the need for an emotional throughline is far less. We are enraptured in the game, in determining which players are trustworthy and imagining ourselves in the life of Marlowe. It is with later scenes, as Marlowe becomes a player in the action himself, that the problem of the emotional characterization comes to the forefront. His thoughts are impossible to read, his decisions difficult to follow. Things don’t exactly come together to form an ‘a-ha!’ moment for the audience as we piece together the clues; instead, we are handed the conclusion like a plane landing roughly on a runway, coming to a stop but not in a smooth or satisfying manner. This problem is perhaps the most difficult to ignore, since the majority of the film is ostensibly a detective story which the viewer is expected to follow along with – Marlowe himself begins the movie by looking directly into the viewer’s eye and daring him or her to put together the clues faster than the detective himself was able. To be torn out of this in favor of letting the character move toward something on his own causes the film to lose a lot of its flavor. It’s understandable how many might lose interest.

Now, having admitted the validity of those complaints, I reaffirm that Lady in the Lake is much more extraordinary for what it intends to do, even if it fails in some ways. The audience sees things from the point of view of Marlowe, but it’s not limited to the other actors turning to the camera and speaking directly to it (although that is certainly a large portion of the act). To remind the audience that Marlowe does exist independently of our viewing of events, sometimes the actor (Montgomery, who also directed) appears in mirrors in the periphery. Some have complained that the angle of the camera when shooting these mirror shots is off, that this makes it difficult to follow because we are aware that the actor is standing in a different position than the “character”, i.e. the camera. This criticism is absurdly nitpicky, as the seams of cinematic mirror tricks were still easy to spot forty years later in the television show “Quantum Leap”, a veritable anthology of mirror tricks. In addition to seeing Marlowe in reflection, there’s one incredible moment where his shadow is cast out in front of the camera as he walks toward a door. And the rising smoke in front of the lens as the detective puffs on a cigarette is equally impressive.

And again, what makes this so impressive, is that there had heretofore been nothing else like this. It stretches the entire concept of the cinematic experience, putting the viewer literally into the action so that when a group of aristocrats turn to look in disgust at the detective, they are actually turning to look at YOU. The style has been re-appropriated in the “mockumentary” style that has become so popular these days, particularly for films in the horror genre (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield…), but Montgomery’s film did more than change the setting or time period or thematic elements of its genre: it changed the playing field entirely. It does what it can to prevent the viewer from ingesting its contents passively. With full intent, Lady in the Lake entirely altered the way that a film could be experienced.

The film may have its flaws, but for being so brazenly unique, I can’t help but feel far more awe than antipathy. Lady in the Lake is probably not a great movie, but it is an extraordinary film.

2 Responses to “Lady in the Lake”

  1. Harris says:

    I just wanted to comment to say how pleased I was to finally see a positive review of what I think is one of the most mischaracterized and under-appreciated films of all time. I also bristle when I see the POV technique brushed aside as a “gimmick,” because when a more “auteurist” director performs a similar trick, these same critics often fall over with praise. There are some points I’d give a healthy counter to, though:

    Regarding the “weakness” of the performances, I wonder how anyone could say that when watching Audrey Totter give such a forceful, vibrant performance as the supposed femme fatale, never keeping her eye off the camera or breaking concentration, which would be easy for an actor in her situation to do. Lloyd Nolan also gives a fantastic, intense performance as Marlowe’s corrupt foil.

    I also don’t find the film lacking in emotional resonance, for it is, at times, quite funny (i.e. the drunk singing “Oh Santy Claus” to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree” before getting knocked out by Marlowe, or the villianess disguised as a landlady, chattering a thousands words a minute and frantically waving a gun).

    I admit that the “plottiness” of the film makes it hard for the viewer to act as a detective, but for me, the POV setup made the viewing experience so visceral and absorbing in a way that a conventionally-shot film would not have. So that is the main reason why this film is so fascinating to watch, as you said; it radically alters the way a film could be experienced.

    • Josh Glasgow says:

      Thanks for the comment, Harris. It’s been a while since I saw this movie, so unfortunately I don’t remember the specific scenes you refer to above.

      Reading my review now, though, I think what I meant by “emotional resonance” is the distance the film put between me, as viewer, and the story when I was no longer able to feel like I was PART of it – that is, when Marlowe began making deductions/choices on his own that no viewer would conceivably be able to follow. I was less engaged at that point, leading me to find the conclusion less hard-hitting than I might have when I was caught up in the game earlier.

      Regarding the performances, I don’t think that the suggestion is that they were “weak”, so much as that they feel unnatural. The “screen test” analogy says nothing about the strength of the performer, generally, but too often the actors look directly into the camera when they’re interacting with Marlowe. This tends to ring false, as normal interactions don’t have steadily-maintained eye contact throughout the conversation. As noted, the first-person tactic is revolutionary and therefore the uncertainty in playing to the camera is understandable, but it tends to keep the artifice in mind.

      Or at least, it did to me – it’s clear that you didn’t have the same problems. So it may say more about me as viewer than it does about the film… but that’s exactly the point of the review, to open up that dialogue. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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