This 1947 film noir is unique in its presentation.
“Right now you’re reading in your newspapers and hearing over your radios…about a murder. They call it the Case of the Lady in the Lake. It’s a good title. It fits. What you’ve read and what you’ve heard is one thing. The real thing is something else. There’s only one guy who knows that…” says Phillip Marlowe, directly to you, the audience.
Robert Montgomery stars and directs this Raymond Chandler story that’s filmed—except for the prologue, a few interludes, and an epilogue—entirely from the viewer’s point of view. You become Marlowe’s eyes and see what he sees. For most of the movie, Marlowe is never seen unless it be in a mirror or some other reflection.
“You’ll see it just as I saw it. You’ll meet the people. You’ll find the clues. And maybe you’ll solve it quick, and maybe you won’t…”
The case begins with Marlowe receiving a letter asking him to come to the offices of a pulp fiction magazine by A. Fromsett. Perhaps they’ll publish the story about a case he worked on. Instead, the female editor, Adrienne Fromsett, is hoping Marlowe will work on a “delicate and confidential matter.” The wife of Mr. Kingsby, president of the company, has disappeared. At first, Marlowe refuses, but after a brief meeting with Derace Kingsby, Adrienne offers enough money to change Marlowe’s mind. To tell him more, she invites him over to her place for drinks.
“Imagine you needing ice cubes!” says Marlowe to the frosty A. Fromsett.
Adrienne Fromsett explains that she has a telegram from Mrs. Kirby stating she’s gone to Mexico to marry Chris Lavery—the type of man you don’t marry but lavish money on and forget about it—but Adrienne has seen Chris in town recently. He claims he hasn’t seen Crystal Kirby in weeks. So Marlowe goes to pay the Southern gentleman. Chris maintains that he knows nothing, but slips up and refers to Chrystal in the past tense. Then it’s lights out for Marlowe, when Chris suddenly slugs him.
Marlowe wakes up in the drunk tank. He’s released, but has a belligerent conversation with the cops, including one Lt. DeGarmot. Returning to Fromsett, he learns that he should go to Little Fallen Lake, the Kingsby place up in the mountains, where Chrystal was last known to be staying. Just then a reporter shows up wanting to speak to Mr. Derace “Derry” Kingsby about the murder of the caretaker’s wife, Muriel. Was this woman killed by Chrystal?
Marlowe discovers Chris has a connection to both women. Returning to confront Chris, he encounters a woman claiming she’s the landlady and that Chris is several months late with his rent. Oh, and she’s holding a gun she just happened to find lying on the stairs. Really?
The case’s complexities increase as more murders are discovered that may all have a connection to a certain woman who is being pursued by a certain cop.
Audrey Totter plays the obligatory ice queen, Adrienne Fromsett, who may or may not have a vested interest in the outcome of the case or who could just as easily end up being the killer setting up the detective for a fall. Leon Ames is Derace Kingsby who may be divorced from Chrystal, but is apparently still willing to overlook her faults…including possibly murder! Lloyd Nolan plays the possibly crooked cop Degarmot, and look for Jayne Meadows in a starkly dramatic role.
The camera work to maintain the illusion of being Marlowe’s eyes is a marvel, especially in a brief car chase scene and Marlowe’s mutliple brushes with getting slugged. There are moments when it’s not as fluid as a real human’s natural eye movements, but otherwise it’s an ingenious, seldom used experiment in cinema.
Lady in the Lake is available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection Volume Three. Try solving a murder as Phillip Marlowe and watch this gritty classic from the golden age of film noir. View the trailer here.