Noir Nook: Not So Christmas Noir
In watching the opening of Lady in the Lake (1947), if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that you’re about to take in a lightweight Christmas movie along the lines of It’s a Wonderful Life. You hear an earnest-sounding choir warbling “Jingle Bells,” “The First Noel,” and a medley of other Christmas favorites, and the names of the film’s performers are on cards featuring delightfully vintage holiday scenes.
But this ain’t no Christmas movie, and it’s no lightweight, either. It’s undeniably noir – a fact that becomes clear when the last thing we see at the end of the credits is the shot of a gun.
Lady in the Lake tells a typically complex noir tale of a private detective – Phillip Marlowe – who’s hired by a crime book editor to find her boss’s missing wife. The entire picture is presented in the unique “camera I” method of filming, in which the camera serves as the eyes of director and star Robert Montgomery. In addition to Montgomery, the cast included Audrey Totter as the book editor, Leon Ames as her boss, and Lloyd Nolan as a police detective.
In celebration of the holiday season, this month’s Noir Nook serves up some trivial tidbits about this non-Christmas Christmas movie.
- Robert Montgomery, who plays Marlowe, is only seen on screen as a reflection in mirrors or windows, or in a few scenes when he directly addresses the viewer.
- The film’s trailer touts the movie as a “revolution innovation in film technique” and “a startling and daring new method of storytelling – a milestone in movie making . . . mysteriously starring Robert Montgomery and YOU!”
- The movie was based on a 1944 Raymond Chandler novel.
- Raymond Chandler wrote the original screenplay for the movie, but Montgomery wasn’t satisfied with it and hired writer Steve Fisher to do re-writes. Chandler was unhappy with the changes that Fisher made to his story, but he still demanded a screenplay credit. When he saw the final result, though, Chandler asked that his name be removed from the picture.
- Incidentally, Steve Fisher wrote the 1941 novel I Wake Up Screaming, and went on to pen the screenplays for several other noirs – Dead Reckoning (1947), I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes (1948), and Roadblock (1951).
- Lady in the Lake was Robert Montgomery’s directorial debut. He’d been wanting to direct for a number of years, and while appearing in They Were Expendable in 1945, he’d filled in when director John Ford fell ill. Montgomery did such a commendable job that the execs at MGM told him that he could pick a script and they’d allow him to be at the helm. He picked Lady in the Lake.
- The film was Montgomery’s last picture for MGM, where he’d been under contract for nearly 20 years.
- The reviews for Lady in the Lake were mostly favorable. The film was described in Time as “unusual, effective and clever,” and the critic for the New York Times stated: “You do get into the story and see things pretty much the way the protagonist, Phillip Marlowe does, but you don’t have to suffer the bruises he does. Of course, you don’t get a chance to put your arms around Audrey Totter, either.”
- The film’s credits list the actress Ellay Mort in the role of Crystal Kingsby – also known as the Lady in the Lake. The credit is an inside joke – the name is the phonetic spelling of the French phrase “elle est morte” or “she is dead.”
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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