Here is private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) to explain about his latest case, which began when he decided to try and sell one of his stories to a magazine publisher which specialised in the lurid end of the market. On arrival at their offices, he was greeted by Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), who was an editor there, and told him she was very pleased with what he had submitted, yet Marlowe was immediately cynical, telling her bluntly that she was only interested in him because of his profession. There was a missing person case that the head of the company was involved with as it was his wife who had disappeared, and Marlowe was keen to investigate...
There was one aspect to this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel Lady in the Lake that everyone who saw it remarked upon, since it was impossible to miss: it was entirely told in the first person, that was, director and star Robert Montgomery used subjective camera throughout, meaning everything we saw was through his eyes. This extreme point of view cinema was not a style often returned to, indeed there was not much precedent for it other than, most famously, the opening of Rouben Mamoulian's version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde back in 1932, though in the twenty-first century the action movie Hardcore Henry adopted it and referenced this film too.
It's a difficult technique to sustain, not least because the approach was in danger of becoming monotonous, and that was a problem here, as though Montgomery broke up the action with shots of him seated at a desk and addressing the audience to fill in the gaps in the plot, most of it featured the other cast addressing the camera with his voiceover for them to talk to, his visage occasionally glimpsed in mirrors. Not helping was that since this was technically tricky, much of the film was noticeably studio-bound, and those offices and apartments grew to look mightily samey after about half an hour of this. That was not to say Montgomery was not above being ambitious, however.
There was a sequence where Marlowe got involved in a car chase, for example, which offered an idea of what this style could achieve, especially when our hero is forced off the road, crashes and has to crawl from the wreckage of his vehicle. This indicated Montgomery had at least some notion of the potential of what he was attempting, but the fact remained much of the film noir detective genre was concerned with people having intense conversations in rooms, and the dialogue was a big reason they were so compelling. Here the dialogue, aping that of Chandler's text (he went uncredited because he was so offended his work was not being filmed in a conventional manner), simply sounded silly, and the star came across as bad tempered and intolerant rather than wisecracking and wry.
The cast aside from the director did variously well, though you had to fight the urge to watch if they were reading off cue cards by paying attention to the movements of their eyes. Totter was the most fun, delivering one of her bad girl performances that may not have graduated her from the B-movies and supporting roles in A pictures, but was highly amusing to witness: you tended to miss her when she was not around, as she had plenty of personality. Lower down the rankings was Lila Leeds as the receptionist who catches Marlowe's attention, better known for her upcoming scandal where she was arrested for smoking marijuana with Robert Mitchum; his career quickly recovered, hers was tarnished and that was that for her Hollywood prospects. As for the plot, it was a little easier to follow than the book, streamlining Chandler's famously convoluted plotting, but that first-person business was more distraction than novelty. A curio, nonetheless - and an eccentric Christmas movie, to boot. Music by David Snell.