Thursday, February 1, 2007

LADY IN THE LAKE (MGM 1947) Warner Home Video

During its zenith MGM was not readily known or associated with film noir and for good reason. 

Frankly, it’s not the forte for a studio with 'more stars than there are in heaven'. L.B. Mayer's glamorous 
'Victorian' approach to film making was on the wane by 1947 and the studio was reluctantly trying to branch out from its comfort zone. From this awkward period came Lady in the Lake director Robert Montgomery's flawed attempt to tell a Raymond Chandler detective thriller in the first person with the camera taking his place as Chandler's celebrated detective, Philip Marlowe. 

The gimmick of the subjective first person camera technique for nearly all of its hour and a half run time became the film's chief problem. There's a reason audiences go to movies and its mostly for 'the star' in the picture; in this case Robert Montgomery. Yet, Montgomery is only glimpsed sporadically in Lady in the Lake. Billed as a ‘revolutionary breakthrough’ in movies, the extensive use of this subjective POV limited what the audience saw to only what the character of Marlowe did.  Hence, the even bigger gimmick advertised in trade publications was that the audience would solve the crime along with Montgomery. 

Equally troublesome is the choice of Robert Montgomery to fill the shoes of Chandler’s most celebrated gumshoe, Philip Marlowe. The narrative positively screams for the hard bitten realism that Humphrey Bogart infused into his outings. Montgomery, though talented, is simply not cut out to play this pulp fiction cynic.

Plot wise, Philip Marlowe is hired by Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) to locate the wife of her publisher boss, Derance Kingsby (Leon Ames). Seems Mrs. Kingsby hasn’t been seen or heard from for several weeks, though Derance is hardly heart sore or concerned. In fact, he knows nothing of Marlowe’s retainer until much later in the plot. Even so, he’s a suspicious character that quite ineffectually turns out to be a MacGuffin.

At the insistence of Adrienne, Marlowe calls on Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons) a man presumed to be Mrs. Kingsby’s lover. But Lavery’s no fool. He knocks Marlowe cold. Waking up in the city jail, Marlowe is next questioned by police Lt. DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan working against type as a dirty cop). From here, the plot is a convoluted mesh of dirty little secrets that top out their suspense about midway through the story when Marlowe – returning to give Lavery a bit of his own – discovers him naked and dead in the shower.

Robert Montgomery, who also directed this film, is not a terribly engaging storyteller. Though he’s working with smart, snappy dialogue a la the wit of Raymond Chandler, he manages to deliver most of his lines with an eerie hint of slime that is quite unbecoming the character. Where Bogart’s aura of world weariness would have lent an air of tired refusal, Montgomery’s narration proves quite disengaged. There’s a sense that even he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.

Warner’s DVD is, in a word, abysmal. No attempt has been made to clean up or properly contrast the B&W image. The gray scale is quite dull throughout. Blacks are merely a muddy gray. Whites are rarely clean. More often than not, night scenes are so poorly contrasted that little to nothing in fine details can be seen. Age related artifacts are everywhere and occasionally quite distracting. But the worse of it is that Warner Home Video has not even taken the time to progressively process the image, hence viewing it on a progressive monitor results in excessive digital combing that is distracting to say the least. Edge enhancement riddles most vertical and horizontal plains. The sound is mono and frankly, just adequate. An audio commentary accompanies this presentation, but after all the negatives associated with this transfer, it hardly seems worth the effort. Not recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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