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Movie Review - Lady in the Lake (1947 - United States)

Updated on June 9, 2012

I always start my movie reviews with my personal five star rating at the top of the page, but in this case I find it impossible to do so. Lady in the Lake is such an unusual picture, so far unlike anything else that I have ever seen, that ranking it against other movies is inappropriate.


If Lady in the Lake is neither a good movie nor a bad one, it most definitely is extraordinary, unique and to times absolutely horrifying to watch, which makes it a must-see for anyone interested in the way movies are made. It is the only full-length film released by a major studio ever shot with a completely subjective camera. That means that what we see is—and is only —what the film’s main subject sees. Where he looks, we look. When he cannot see something, we don’t see it either. For the entire movie. And the only time we see leading man Robert Montgomery is when he looks in a mirror.


We only see leading man Robert Montgomery when he looks in a mirror


And because the subjective camera hides him from us, we start to loathe Robert Montgomery's bitter, sarcastic Phillip Marlowe almost instantly. Without the subtle clues of facial expression and body language to soften our opinion, all we have is the nasty dialog given to the character by Steve Fisher’s screenplay, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel.

“Why don’t you shut up and start acting like a woman,” he tells Audrey Totter's femme fatale by way of foreplay. I started hoping she would shoot the annoying SOB almost immediately, and my hope lasted right through the chirpy, pasted-on, MGM-obligatory happy ending, which was not in Chandler’s book. Frankly, I was still hoping that at least one well-placed shot would ring out right through the closing credits.

So, if Lady in the Lake is that relentlessly annoying, why watch it? Because it's the only one of its kind, because it's gutsy and because the parts that do work—the moments when we watch a still life of tabletops or door frames while Marlowe has no human to look at; the completely black screen (a cinematic taboo) when Marlowe passes out; the ability of the actors to carry remarkably long single-cut scenes while breaking the cardinal rule of acting (DO NOT look into the lens!)—are amazing. The fact that any of it works at all is amazing, actually.

It was promoted by MGM on its release as being the first film of its kind and as innovative a change in movie making as had been the birth of talkies. Reviews were not as kind to Robert Montgomery, who directed as well as starred, and noted that the rarity of the technique loses its charm quickly and becomes annoying just as fast. The weird explanatory prelude—during which Montgomery sits at a desk and tells us what a subjective camera is—doesn’t help make the picture more palatable, it has the opposite effect of placing yet another layer of oddity on top of this most odd of films.


It was made at the height of the noir era, and the convoluted plot is nearly a pastiche of every noir cliché. I realize that none of this is a ringing endorsement for the movie, and yet I still recommend that you watch it, for the original trailer and ads for the film do not lie, it truly was a remarkable cinematic innovation, as amazing as the first talking picture or 3D film. The fact that the subjective camera technique didn’t catch on the way those other two did in no way diminishes the historical interest of Lady in the Lake.

If for no other reason, you should watch this truly unique picture because whenever someone attempting to impress you bores you instead with a list of the same auteurs and landmark films, you can casually drop the names "Robert Montgomery" and "Lady in the Lake” into the conversation. If they know anything about movies, they will be the ones impressed, because Lady in the Lake is the most little known film that deserves a place on that list of film milestones, and so does Montgomery.




(I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at RobertaLeeArt.com.)


Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.


Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Drama Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.

Directed By: Robert Montgomery

Written By: Steve Fisher

Based On A Book By: Raymond Chandler


Cast:

Robert Montgomery - Phillip Marlowe

Audrey Totter - Adrienne Fromsett

Lloyd Nolan - Lt. DeGarmot

Tom Tully - Capt. Kane

Leon Ames - Derace Kingsby

Jayne Meadows - Mildred Havelend

My favorite film noir classic is: (Another choice? Use the Comments box to vote for it)

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    • DIYmyOmy profile image
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      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      What is the most unusual film you have ever seen?

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

      Enjoyed your review DIYmyOmy. It is an interesting film, something that Hitchcock might have attempted if this hadn't come out first. Hitch always loved a challenge.

      But the gimmick of first person perspective aside the film itself isn't particularly enjoyable and it does get annoying after a while with all the characters talking to the camera and the hero's hand coming in to view to open doors light cigarettes etc

      This might explain why the film isn't a well loved film noir or a cult classic like Out of the Past.

      But its definitely worth a watch, I enjoy watching experimental films.

      The most unusual film I've ever seen? Probably Eraserhead by David Lynch, still does me head in just thinking about that film. And I've watched it many times. :)

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • DIYmyOmy profile image
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      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Steve - As always, thanks for the thoughtful comment! Yes, I would agree with you about Eraserhead. It's definitely an odd film and I think one of those 'love it' or 'hate it' movies, as well. I haven't watched it in years but your comment made me put it on my 'must watch' list!

      Here is a bit more on Eraserhead, for anyone reading this and unfamiliar with it or the relentless, piercing cries of it's BabyMonster: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/eraserhead/

    • profile image

      leann2800 5 years ago

      I have to say when I originally clicked on this I thought you were reviewing Lady OF the Lake. I had not heard of this one. But, now i really want to watch it. I feel like I am missing out. Thanks for sharing.

    • DIYmyOmy profile image
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      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Leann - Yes, the title is confusingly like that of several other movies, but--trust me--Lady in the Lake is one of a kind! If you watch it, please check back in and let me know what you thought!

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

      One thing that makes the film odd is that that the studio required Robert to appear briefly in front of the camera. He did the film with a subjective camera as an experiment and if it had remained throughout the entire picture, there would have been a logic to it. But because the studio didn't think people would attend if he didn't add that one scene, the gimmick does seem pointless.

      I am a fan of both Marlowe and Montgomery, so I have seen this more than once. But it is not my favourite Marlowe or Montgomery.

    • DIYmyOmy profile image
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      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Flora - I was quite sincere at the end of the review, when I mentioned that Lady in the Lake and Montgomery both deserve a place on any list of innovative filmmakers and groundbreaking movies. You're are correct about Montgomery's "face time" preface, as well--it's so off-putting that I suspect many people don't watch past it. It's a shame MGM insisted on including it, although it is interesting to realize that Montgomery looks so uncomfortable in it because he knew it was a bad idea! Thanks for the thoughtful comment....

    • CR Rookwood profile image

      Pamela Hutson 5 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      I've never seen this but now I really want to see it. Great review. I do get annoyed with movies in which the director sort of shouts (visually), "Hey ma, look! I'm directing!" But I also love black and white noir films so I'm looking forward to it. Thanks!

    • DIYmyOmy profile image
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      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      CR - The Lady in the Lake is such an unusual movie that I think you will enjoy it on several levels, even though--as you say--it has that "Look it me!" vibe. But when Montgomery's objective camera technique works, it works really well. Enjoy it!

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