Skip to main content

Merry Christmas, you lug.

Lady in the Lake
(1946)

(SPOILERS) There’s a good reason this isn’t first in line for discussion of great Philip Marlowe adaptations. And it isn’t because Bogey isn’t in it (or Elliott Gould, come to that). Robert Montgomery doesn’t exactly look like a dishevelled PI – at least, on the occasions you can actually see him – but he gets the cadence right. No, the reason Lady in the Lake is largely left languishing in the icy depths is Montgomery’s leftfield creative choice as director: subjective camera.

Adrienne: Marlowe, where do you usually spend Christmas Eve?
Marlowe: In a bar. Where do you?

That’s right: Lady in the Lake is the ’40s’ Hardcore Henry. Time Out had this conceit right; it’s very difficult to make it work, and simply the idea of emulating a novel’s first-person narrative is far from like-for-like. Don Macpherson suggested “It really needed the magnificent panache of an Orson Welles, who had planned a ’40s version of Heart of Darkness… in the same subjective style”. Chandler didn’t like the result (“a cheap Hollywood trick”) and the way Montgomery approaches it, four-square, unfinessed camera, certainly makes it seem like expense was spared.

Marlowe: At least he had the decency to hit me above the Mason and Dixon Line.

The POV choice needs to advance the telling, or it’s entirely forfeit. In Cloverfield, it puts you in the melee, but with Lady in the Lake, it’s simply distracting, detracting from the murder mystery and replete with moments where you do see the detective (mirror shots or moments where we cut back to his in-person framing narration). There’s about one instance where the idea works, and that’s because it feels like a familiar POV choice; Marlowe comes round in a car wreck with a drunk leering over him (and, hilariously, the PI slugs him on the chin).

Marlowe: Mind if I go now, or do you want me to do card tricks too?

What it also does is make you wish someone would do a “proper” movie adaptation. Now, I wonder… Detective fiction. Acres of hardboiled dialogue, much of it quippy witty. Set at Christmas. Does Shane Black have anything going on since The Predator bombed out?

Marlowe: Is finding a corpse a crime?
Cop: In this town, yeah.

Marlowe gets put on a case by Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), who lures him to Kingsby Publications on the pretence of publishing his short story. She wants him to locate the boss’s wife Chrystal, who left him a month prior, telling she wanted a divorce. Adrienne herself is something of a gold digger, her sights set on the millions of boss KIngsby (Leon Armes). Marlowe duly tracks down Chrystal’s lover (Richard Simmons), learns of a body pulled from a lake near a Kingsby property that may or may not have been murderised by Chrystal, encounters a gun-toting landlady (Jayne Meadows) and a corrupt cop (Lloyd Nolan). He gets roughed up several times too, of course, and reels off a slew of made-to-order smart remarks.

Adrienne: Tell me, Mr Marlowe do you always fall in love with all your clients.
Marlowe: Only the ones in skirts.

Most of the movie’s focus is on the dame, though. Totter, who bears a passing resemblance to Lindsay Lohan, more than holds her own as the seething gal Marlowe maligns (“Not bad in this light”: it’s dark). He also has his romantic intentions, though (as much as Marlowe gets romantic). Tellingly, Adrienne is absent from the novel; even if she weren’t, it’s inconceivable Chandler would have finished up with the two pitching tents together and bound for NYC.

Marlowe decides to write his story because “I was tired of being pushed around for nickels and dimes” (so not precisely the same line as Robert Mitchum’s “Tired of getting pushed around” in Out of the Past, and the cue for Two Men and a Drum Machine’s 1989 hit of the same name). There’s a problem here – besides the aesthetic one – that there’s too little sense of threat and generated suspense. There aren’t enough suspects. There isn’t enough atmosphere. There’s no tension.

And there isn’t enough festivity. The Christmas side could have been played up, undoubtedly; that pesky POV gets in the way of everything. There are amusing moments, however. The office Christmas party crashed by Marlowe, and the kid there who asks Adrienne for a kiss: “I’ve waited all year for that” he sighs soppily. “You’ve had your Christmas, son. Beat it. and tell your boss not to send a boy to do a man’s work” instructs Marlowe briskly. Elsewhere, he falls foul of the law (“Striking an officer, resisting arrest, and all on Christmas Eve”) and receives confessions of Yule yearnings (“I want to be your girl. That’s what I want for Christmas”).

Adrienne: Marlowe never sleeps until all’s well with the world.

This came out the same year as the definitive Chandler, of course: The Big Sleep. You know, the one that doesn’t entirely make sense. I don’t think that’s so much the problem with Lady in the Lake. Rather, you don’t really care whether or not it makes sense. A failed experiment from Montgomery – star of Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith and father of Bewitched’s Elizabeth – undoubtedly, and an insufficiently interesting one to make for a conversation piece.



Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.