Friday, August 13, 2010

100 years, 100 films 37: The Lady in the Lake (1946)

This is more of an experiment than a movie. It's ostensibly an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, but... it's all shot in first person perspective, and I suppose this was supposed to be analogous to Chandler's first person narration, but it just isn't. What would be analogous to Chandler's first person narration would be, you know, first person narration. Robert Montgomery was both director and star of this movie, so I suppose that the idea might have been that the film would offer one ultra-unified vision. But it doesn't. It just offers a cheap and not particularly well executed gimmick.

Not that the first person perspective gimmick is an inherently bad idea, but it is rarely actually utilised properly in the movie, and it just means that you get a whole lot of actors trying awkwardly to interact with the camera, without really having any idea how to do that convincingly. Also, because the camera is an awkward, clunky, hard-to-maneuver 1940s camera, it always looks weird - like Chandler is walking in perfectly straight lines, standing perfectly still, not moving his head for minutes at a time, keeping his head perfectly straight as he stumbles around drunk. Rather than pulling you into the story by making you feel like you are Chandler (which I assume was the point) the film makes you intensely and constantly aware that you are looking through a camera.

There are moments in this film that use the first person perspective thing properly. There is a car chase sequence, followed by a post-car-crash scramble to a telephone booth, that are surprisingly effective and taut, and where the first person perspective does actually draw you in. But most of the time, when it's just people standing around and talking, the film feels like nothing more than one of those stupid interactive DVD games, where the characters are all trying desperately to make you feel like you're "part of the action!"

And it all moves so slowly. Because there are no editing cheats to speed the movie up. Every scene is one long, uninterrupted take, and the editor can't just cut in the middle of some dialgoue and say, "well, we don't need this thirty seconds". And it's not just the dialogue scenes that aren't edited properly. Because it's all in first person perspective, we get so many agonsizingly pointless shots of Marlowe walking up stairs. Marlowe walking down a hallway. Marlowe openning a door, walking through the doorway, then closing the door behind him. And because these sorts of scenes were difficult to orchestrate from a technical standpoint, the film seems to think that they will be, somehow, inherently interesting to the audience. But no. They're just tedious.

Really the only thing that made this movie interesting for most of the running time was the fact that when you can't see Robert Montgomery's face, he actually sounds quite a bit like Alan Alda. So I just kept imagining Alan Alda as Marlowe. Now that would be a good movie. But then Marlowe would look into a mirror, and Robert Montgomery's face would pop up, and the whole effect was ruined.

If you feel the need to watch something that's shot entirely in first person perspective, go for the British sitcom Peep Show. It's all first person perspective, but there are five things that make it just so much better than The Lady in the Lake:
1. Though every shot is somebody's perspective, they aren't all the same person's perspective, which allows for things like editing, and also visual variation.
2. It's not only all first person perspective, but it also has a lot of first person narration, allowing for some pretty damn hilarious inner monologues.
3. A contemporary digital camera is much easier to handle than a 1940s film camera, meaning that the camera work feels like what the characters would actually see, rather than looking bizarrely staid.
4. It is really, really funny.
5. It's not someone's stupid vanity project.

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