From the 1930s through the 1950s, Raymond Chandler was the definitive voice of the American crime genre. His work in literature would go on to influence the the golden age of crime films, shaping film noir. The Marlowe Files is a monthly series looking at Chandler’s novels and film adaptations starring his famous detective Philip Marlowe. In our first article, we’ll be looking at LADY IN THE LAKE. One of the earliest films to use first-person camera work, LADY IN THE LAKE has become a strange footnote in film history. However, director Robert Montgomery’s bold directing style unearths thematic ideas behind the text and forms a road map toward the modern found footage film.

What we see is never what we get. Behind the eyes of every human being is an infinite library of secrets that remain locked away for a lifetime. An author or director’s job is to unlock hidden chambers of the mind. They put their audiences into a new perspective allowing them to understand the life of another. Biographer Tom Hiney, in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library collection of Raymond Chandler novels, quoted Chandler himself in saying, “Writing at its best is magic, casting a spell over readers, and drawing them into a high-voltage perspective of the world they can inhabit as their own for awhile.”

It was that desire to “cast a spell” that inspired director Robert Montgomery’s unique adaptation LADY IN THE LAKE. The film, released in 1947, used a revolutionary technique for the time. The film is shot as though the audience is seeing looking through the eyes of Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe (played by Montgomery). Montgomery, as director and main character, quite literally guides the audience through the world around Marlowe. This is more than the director as auteur, this is the director as the literal eyes and ears into the world of the film — for better and for worse.

“Starring Robert Montgomery and You!

Lady in the Lake

The trailers for LADY IN THE LAKE hail the innovation as the next big thing after the talkies. The advertising even leans into the gimmick by proclaiming that it stars Robert Montgomery and you! A revolution in filmmaking was promised, but in reality, it would take almost half a century for the first-person storytelling to become ubiquitous in American culture.

Looking back at this odd piece of film history, it’s a fascinating creative risk. The Marlowe character had already proven to be a money maker in THE BIG SLEEP, so it seems like folly to bet on an unproven style of filmmaking with an already beloved character. Imagine if Marvel filmed the next Spider-Man movie entirely in VR. It seems like a needless gamble.

Chandler supposedly refused to have his name credited in the film due to his displeasure with this new technique. It’s somewhat ironic that he felt that way since The Lady in the Lake is a novel whose plot hinges on it being told from Marlowe’s perspective. In the novel, Marlowe finds himself hunting for a woman who doesn’t want to be found and stumbles upon the death of another woman entirely.

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The woman he’s looking for is Crystal Kingsley, wife of Derace Kingsley (Leon Ames, inexplicably named “Kingsby” in the film). While searching for Crystal in the small lake town where Kingsley has a second home, Marlowe discovers the body of Muriel Chess, wife of the Kingsleys’ caretaker, Bill. The lady in the lake seems like she has no relation to the disappearance of Crystal, but the more Marlowe digs, the more the connections he finds between the woman who died and the woman who vanished.

Outside Looking In

Marlowe’s place in the narrative is the outsider looking in. As the mystery unravels, the web of adultery in the lives of the Kingsley and Chess families becomes more tangled. Marlowe chips away at the American marital bliss to discover its hollow core. The wood of the white picket fence is rotting. Ultimately, the answer to the mystery is hiding in plain sight, but Marlowe’s limited knowledge keeps him from noticing it right away. It’s only appropriate, then, that Montgomery would try to make the film adaptation of THE LADY IN THE LAKE into an immersive experience. We know as much as Marlowe does, which helps to preserve Chandler’s original mystery.

The film’s opening credits appear on Christmas cards. We see the cards through the film’s first example of first person perspective. Yuletide carols bombard the audience. This juxtaposes the violent crime with the harmony and peace of the season. The Lady in the Lake is about the dark interior lurking under wholesome exterior, and right away Montgomery is creating a visual metaphor for the novel’s motifs.

Following the opening credits, Philip Marlowe is sitting at his desk speaking directly to the audience. LADY IN THE LAKE’s major flaw is its attempts to condense the novel’s labyrinthine plot. These fourth-wall breaking sequences have Marlowe summarizing aspects of the plot that were likely too challenging to film outside the tightly controlled studio set. It would have been a nightmare to shoot from the first-person on an actual lake with the technology of the time.

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Despite these limitations, Montgomery’s camera positioning and framing were still ahead of their time. Numerous moments in the film feel like a point-and-click adventure, but minus the pointing and the clicking. It’s infuriating that there seems to be little behind-the-scenes information regarding the film since the lighting and camera tricks really do help maintain the illusion. With the limited resources, scenes like the one below feel like actual magic.

Another interesting note is the performances within the film. The actors acclimate themselves well to the new camera tricks. It would be easy to imagine the scenes playing out in the same manner as a “traditional” camera angle. Though top marks must go to Audrey Totter as the quasi-femme fatale and love interest Adrienne Fromsett. Her wild, bug-eyed accusations are fine works of high camp, and her saucer eyes seem to burrow through the screen.

Montgomery’s performance as Marlowe is an interesting one. He has to use solely his voice to convey emotion to the audience. He remains unseen, with a few exceptions, so his Marlowe is a bit gruffer and quicker with a pithy retort than Chandler’s version. This interpretation was likely a necessary step to convey Marlowe’s cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold attitude through nothing but a voice.

Unfortunately, Montgomery’s film was less dazzling to critics. The New York Times praised the film’s innovations but said that “the novelty begins to wear thin.” Despite that review’s claim that it would lead to more films of a similar style in the future, it wouldn’t be until films like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that first-person films would become a serious method of filmmaking.

Immersed in Perspective

Perhaps the issue with Montgomery’s film was one of immersion. There’s something disorienting about LADY IN THE LAKE. You feel like you’re a passenger in someone else’s body. It makes you feel like you’re constantly watching something rather than experiencing something. Your brain is more distracted by how they did something on-screen rather than engaging in the narrative. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT manages to avoid this pitfall by presenting the narrative as a documentary.

A film in the found footage style should make the audience feels as though they are watching a real “documentary.” The immersion comes from the idea that what you’re watching is “real.” In fact, part of what made THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT such a hit was that the verisimilitude of the marketing and presentation of the film made people believe that the actors were actually real people. This is why so many modern found footage films bend over backward to justify why the characters are filming. Breaking the realism will also break the audience’s immersion.

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In first-person video games, the immersion remains intact because the player is an active participant in the action. You may not actually be storming the beaches of Normandy in CALL OF DUTY, but the ability to control the actions of your character makes you feel that way. Just because the audience is in Marlowe’s head, doesn’t mean we feel like we are the character. We see him move, but we can’t control his movements. There’s little to no tension and therefore no immersion. 

Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE is ultimately a weird experiment, but one that deserves to be remembered. Filmmakers are still accomplishing new things with first-person POV. Gone are the days of shaky cam faux-documentaries. Now action filmmakers are trying to use first-person to create a new style of fight scenes. Films like HARDCORE HENRY and THE VILLAINESS are taking Montgomery’s techniques to the next level. A filmmaker may someday succeed where Montgomery failed and achieve total immersion by making a contemplative drama like MOONLIGHT shot entirely in first-person. If they do, I hope they take the time to look back at Robert Montgomery’s trailblazing efforts.

Next Case: We take a look at Chandler’s The Little Sister and its adaptation MARLOWE. James Garner steps into the shoes of the gumshoe and Bruce Lee (!) makes an appearance. We’ll discuss how to cast a great Marlowe and the growing pains from film noir to neo noir.

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