LADY IN THE LAKE is a most unusual film noir, for many reasons: this is the first credited directorial effort of actor Robert Montgomery, who also stars as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe; it's a film noir with a Christmas setting; and most significantly, Montgomery shot the film with a first person camera.
Other than a handful of "framing" sequences where Marlowe (Montgomery) directly addresses the audience, the camera acts as Marlowe's eyes. He is seen when he looks in a mirror, but otherwise we only hear Marlowe's voice as we watch the other characters reacting directly toward the camera.
This was a brave and interesting experiment, though not entirely successful. After the novelty wears off, the first person camera angle becomes a bit dull, although some scenes work better than others. When the actors emote to the camera, they don't seem to be acting as they normally would if we were watching a typical film shot with them reacting directly to Montgomery; they seem to "overemote" at times, perhaps because they're the only one filling the screen. I found Audrey Totter's facial expressions particularly distracting at first, although she grew on me as the movie went on.
I liked Montgomery's snappy, irreverent take on Marlowe, and the mystery itself was reasonably interesting. I was quite surprised when the movie started with cheery Christmas music and drawings during the opening credits, considering it was a murder mystery; the Christmas motif continues throughout the entire film, which provides a curious contrast to the dark goings-on. Despite its flaws, this is a film worth seeing just to experience a unique bit of cinema history.
Later in 1947, Humphrey Bogart's DARK PASSAGE also utilized the first-person camera, but only for the first portion of the film. Once his character has plastic surgery to disguise his appearance, viewers then see Bogart on camera.
Robert Montgomery is said to have had his first directing experience working on the classic THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945) when John Ford was temporarily indisposed. After leaving MGM he went on to host the long-running TV series ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS. He was the father, of course, of Elizabeth Montgomery of BEWITCHED fame. Two websites which Montgomery fans will enjoy visiting are The Earl of Hollywood and Classic Montgomery; the latter is also blogrolled to the left.
I came across a very entertaining interview with Audrey Totter which I recommend reading. It's a fun overview of her career.
LADY IN THE LAKE runs 103 minutes. The supporting cast includes Leon Ames, Lloyd Nolan, Jayne Meadows, and Tom Tully. I particularly enjoyed Tully as Police Captain Kane.
LADY IN THE LAKE is available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 3. The DVD includes a commentary track by film noir experts James Ursini and Alain Silver; a review of the DVD can be found here. I'm hoping to listen to the commentary in the next few days.
This movie is also available on VHS.
LADY IN THE LAKE can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, where it next airs on May 31, 2008.
The trailer can be seen here.