Lady In The Lake
Lady In The Lake (1947)

© 2008 William Ahearn

Raymond Chandler’s The Lady In The Lake is my second favorite Philip Marlowe story after The Long Goodbye. It’s the novel where Chandler breaks from the constraints of the hard-boiled genre and begins giving his characters more depth and nuances than he had previously. That’s not to say his characters are unbelievable or crudely drawn in other novels; it’s only to say that in this book the characters and the landscape are far more varied and the writing seems much more controlled and focused.

Chandler wrote in a letter to Charles Morton that: “It doesn’t matter a damn what a novel is about.” He goes on to say that “the only fiction of any moment in any age is that which does magic with words.” In a letter to Mrs. Robert Hogan, Chandler stressed that “the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.”

That style may account for why people still read Philip Marlowe novels and not Mike Shayne or Gay Lawrence. Or any number of other PIs who have faded from view like the chalk outline of a body fallen to the asphalt on a rainy night. In Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s style is so self-conscious that it was immediately open to parody and imitation. The Lady In The Lake isn’t constrained as much as it’s controlled and while this should be where we discuss who does what to whom, all I can add is – as Chandler wrote in a letter to Frederick Donnay – “I don’t seem to care who conked Sir Mortimer with the poker.”

The style of a writer seems to be the last thing that filmmakers are concerned with and filmmakers are expected to bring a style of their own. Edward Dmytryk, Howard Hawks and Robert Altman certainly did.

And then there’s Robert Montgomery and his “revolutionary” approach to “Lady In The Lake” that used a subjective camera to make the audience see the action from Philip Marlowe’s point of view.  The publicity shouted: “YOU and ROBERT MONTGOMERY solve a murder mystery together!” The camera stands in for Marlowe – after Marlowe does a conventional introduction – and the other actors talk to the camera as if it were Marlowe. This subjective camera approach was also used in Delmer Daves’ “Dark Passage” based on the David Goodis novel and released in the same year. In that film, another entry to the Bogart and Bacall franchise, only the first third or so is shot with the subjective camera.

Neither film succeeded with the public and it’s unlikely either will be rediscovered classics anytime soon. Both films are clunky and gimmicky and it would be decades before the technology would allow cameras the fluidity that made “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) possible. It seems that the subjective camera has been used extensively only in horror or thriller flicks. Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” comes to mind as does Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” and any number of teen slasher films where the demented undead looks through the slats of the closet while the nubile young teen – fresh from a roll in the hay – goes into the kitchen for something to drink.

The story of how the script ended up being written is another odd chapter in Chandler’s life in Hollywood. Chandler took the job of adapting his novel to the screen, or so the story goes, to protect his work from “studio hacks.” But in a few weeks, he began to lose interest. “[Working on the screenplay] bores me stiff. [. . .] Just turning over dry bones,” he wrote in a letter to James Sandoe. Chandler began taking his own story in new directions to the utter dismay of the producer who had hired Chandler because the producer liked the story just the way it was. After 12 weeks Chandler left the project leaving behind an unfinished script that was given to a studio writer to salvage. He was opposed to the use of the subjective camera saying, “it’ll never work.”

The last thing a screenwriter needs to do is to complicate further anything Raymond Chandler wrote. For some reason the scriptwriter, Steve Fischer, thought making it a Christmas movie would be a nice counterpoint to the murders. Plus, Philip Marlowe is attempting to write crime stories to sell to lurid pulp magazines to make some money and that’s where the story begins.

Adding Christmas and pulp magazines is one thing. Forgetting to have a lake in a film called “Lady In The Lake” where most of the important action of the book takes place is just beyond my mere mortal mind. Ignoring the gimmick of the camera for the moment and just dealing with the narrative, the script reduces the novel to just another mystery story. Chandler didn’t write mystery stories in any conventional sense and what Fischer added – the trail of rice is a good example – is so trite and unimaginative that it reeks of generic detectives whose names are long forgotten. The Lady In The Lake is a novel where much of the action takes place in the countryside, where the characters are conflicted and complicated, and where conversations are critical to the story developing.

Real conversations are impossible in the way Montgomery uses the camera and it’s readily apparent in the conversations between Marlowe and the love interest, Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). (There is no love interest in the novel.) There is nothing intimate about it and there could never be anything intimate where one half of the equation is someone projecting over the camera and into the microphone. In the scene where Marlowe is telling Adrienne that her role in life is “to take care of me,” it sounds as if he’s leaning out of a car window and ordering burgers and fries at a drive-through window.

What this film has going for it is as an early experiment in the use of the subjective camera. That experiment clearly shows that the technology wasn’t up to conveying a complicated narrative. The subjective camera at that time would be far better used in a “dark house” or “locked door” mystery than it would in the Raymond Chandler story that most demands that the scenes not be shot in a studio or a series of rooms.

Losing Marlowe is one thing, losing everything that gives meaning to the story is entirely different. If one pays attention to how Chandler created Philip Marlowe stories, one realizes – as we shall see – that Marlowe isn’t always the most important element.

William Ahearn