Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake is a 1947 American film noir that marked the directorial debut of Robert Montgomery, who also stars in the film. The picture also features Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan, Tom Tully, Leon Ames and Jayne Meadows. The murder mystery was an adaptation of the 1943 Raymond Chandler novel The Lady in the Lake. The film was Montgomery's last for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), after eighteen years with the studio.

Lady in the Lake
Directed byRobert Montgomery
Produced byGeorge Haight
Screenplay bySteve Fisher
Based onThe Lady in the Lake
1943 novel
by Raymond Chandler
StarringRobert Montgomery
Narrated byRobert Montgomery
Music byDavid Snell
CinematographyPaul Vogel
Edited byGene Ruggiero
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • January 23, 1947 (1947-01-23) (US)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,657,000[1]

Montgomery's ambition was to create a cinematic version of the first-person narrative style of Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels.[notes 1] With the exception of a couple of times when Montgomery (in character) addresses the audience directly, the entire film is shot from the viewpoint of the central character. The audience sees only what he does. MGM promoted the film with the claim that it was the first of its kind and the most revolutionary style of film since the introduction of the talkies. The movie was also unusual for having virtually no instrumental soundtrack, the music in the film being instead provided by a wordless vocal chorus.

The film did not use Raymond Chandler's own 195-page screenplay adaptation dated July 5, 1945 which he wrote for MGM, but instead used a 125-page version written by Steve Fisher, which was filmed two years later.[2] The film's script changes the novel's midsummer setting to Christmastime, frequently using holiday themes as an ironic counterpoint to the grim aspects of the story. The opening credits are shown on a series of Christmas cards, which turn out to be concealing a gun.


Tired of the low pay of his profession, hard-boiled Los Angeles private detective Phillip Marlowe submits a murder story to Kingsby Publications. He is invited to the publisher's offices to discuss his work, but soon realizes it is merely a ploy. A few days before Christmas, publishing executive Adrienne Fromsett hires him to locate Chrystal Kingsby, the wife of her boss, Derace Kingsby. One month earlier, Kingsby’s wife had sent her husband a telegram saying she was heading to Mexico to divorce him and marry a man named Chris Lavery. But, according to Fromsett, Lavery says he has not seen Chrystal for two months, and the telegram appears to be fake. It becomes obvious to Marlowe that Fromsett wants her boss for herself for his money, as she later admits.

Marlowe goes to see Lavery, who claims to know nothing about any trip to Mexico. Lavery, however, says that Mrs. Kingsby was a beautiful woman before revising it to "is." He sucker-punches the detective, and Marlowe wakes up in jail. He is questioned by Captain Kane (Tom Tuilly) and a belligerent Lieutenant DeGarmot. Marlowe refuses to divulge anything, and Kane releases him.

Marlowe learns that a woman's body has been recovered from a lake on which Kingsby owns property, and that Kingsby's caretaker, Mr. Chess, was charged with the murder of his wife Muriel. Fromsett suspects that Chrystal is the real killer, as she and Muriel hated each other. Little Fawn Lake was also where Chrystal was last seen. Marlowe learns that Muriel was an alias for a woman named Mildred Haviland and that she was hiding from a tough cop, whose description fits DeGarmot.

Marlowe goes to see Lavery again. Inside the unlocked house, he encounters Lavery's landlady, Mrs. Falbrook, holding a gun she claims to have just found. Upstairs, he finds Lavery dead, shot several times. He also finds a handkerchief with the monogram "A F".

Before calling the police, Marlowe goes to the publishing house to confront Fromsett, interrupting a Christmas party. In private, she denies killing Lavery. Kingsby, learning that Fromsett had hired Marlowe to find Chrystal, tells her theirs will be strictly a business relationship from now on. A furious Fromsett fires the private eye, but Kingsby immediately hires him to find his wife.

Marlowe informs the police of Lavery's death. At the scene, he suggests that Muriel was hiding from DeGarmot. DeGarmont slaps Marlowe, and the two men scuffle. Kane takes Marlowe into custody, releasing him only out of Christmas spirit.

Marlowe obtains more information on Muriel from a newspaper contact. She had been a suspect in the suspicious death of her previous employer's wife. The investigating detective, DeGarmot, ruled that death a suicide; the victim's parents strongly disagreed. Marlowe finds the parents have been intimidated into silence. His car is then run off the road by DeGarmot. Regaining consciousness after the crash, Marlowe gets to a pay phone and calls Fromsett for help. She takes him to her apartment, where she claims that she has fallen in love with him. They spend Christmas Day together while he recovers from his injuries.

Kingsby receives a telegram from his wife, asking for money and, unable to find Marlow, goes to Fromsett's apartment to ask her if she has seen the detective. Marlowe agrees to give Kingsby's money to Chrystal, as Kingsby is being followed by police detectives. Placing his trust in Fromsett, Marlowe instructs her to have the police trail him, following a trail of rice he will leave.

The woman Marlowe meets turns out to be Mildred Haviland, alias the "landlord" Mrs. Falbrook, alias Muriel. She killed Chrystal the "lady in the lake" of the title in addition to her former employer's wife and Lavery. DeGarmot was in love with Haviland and helped her cover up the first murder. Then she fled from him and married Chess.

Haviland pulls a gun on Marlowe in her apartment. DeGarmot tracks them down, having overheard Fromsett speaking to Captain Kane and following Marlowe's trail of rice. He plans to kill them both with Haviland's gun and stage it to look like she and Marlowe shot each other. DeGarmot then shoots a pleading Mildred several times. Kane arrives just in time to gun down his own crooked cop.

In an epilogue, Marlowe and Fromsett decide to leave for New York City to start a new life together.


The "actress" credited as playing Chrystal Kingsby, "Ellay Mort", is an inside joke, as the character is never seen in the film. The name is a homonym of the French "elle est morte", meaning "she is dead".[3]


Making Lady in the Lake was Robert Mongtomery's idea. He had stood in as director for John Ford on They Were Expendable when Ford got sick, and he wanted to direct again. He convinced MGM to buy the rights to Chandler's latest novel, The Lady in the Lake, for which the studio paid a reported $35,000.[4] Since Chandler had co-written the screenplay for Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder, for which he received an Academy Awards nomination, and then had received another nomination for his script for The Blue Dahlia, Montgomery wanted Chandler to write the screenplay for Lady in the Lake. This resulted in the 195-page screenplay which has been called "remarkably bad". Montgomery then brought in Steve Fisher to completely re-write the screenplay. (Chandler and Fisher had both been writers for Black Mask magazine in the 1930s.) Fisher made major changes, such as re-setting the time of the film to the Christmas holiday, and dropping all the scenes which took place at the lake. Chandler objected to these changes, and was insulted that another writer was changing his story, but he still insisted that he be given a screenplay credit, until he saw the final result, when he demanded that his name be removed from the film.[5]

Montgomery tried a technique that had often been talked about in Hollywood but never used in a major film: he used the camera as the protagonist of the film. Other characters talk directly to the camera. The voice of Marlowe is that of Montgomery, but his face is shown only in reflections. Montgomery had gotten the idea from Delmer Daves, who wanted to use it for the first part of Dark Passage, and did so after Warner Bros. dropped their objections to it. MGM also objected to Montgomery's choice, since it meant that the star of the film would only be seen infrequently, and they insisted that Montgomery film a prologue where Marlowe, in his office, explains what was happening; the scene was returned to briefly several times during the film, and at the end.[5] Various techniques had to be devised to make the subjective camera look realistic. For instance, in order to simulate the protagonist walking, John Arnold, executive head of photography at MGM, developed a new kind of camera dolly, with four independent wheels, allowing the dolly to walk through doors and up stairs.[6] A seat was also attached to the front of the dolly for Montgomery to sit in, so that the actors could see and play off of him as filming took place. For the fight scenes, Paul Vogel, the director of photography, used a modified Eyemo camera with a flexible shoulder harness.[3]

Reviews of the film were not appreciative of the new approach. Most critics gave the director credit for trying an experimental technique but felt that it was a "gimmick", and that the experiment had been a failure.[7][3]

Box office

According to MGM records the film earned $1,812,000 in the US and Canada and $845,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $598,000.[1][8]

Critical response

Author and film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film two and a half out of four stars, commending its first person perspective storytelling, but criticized its confusing plot and dated presentation.[9]

Radio adaptation

Lux Radio Theater presented a 60-minute radio adaptation of the movie on February 9, 1948, with Montgomery and Totter reprising their roles.[10] A recording of the production is available as a streaming audio.[11]


Informational notes

  1. In the film, Marlowe's name is spelled "Phillip" with two "L"s in the opening credits as well as on his detective license.


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. MacShane, Frank (1976). The Life of Raymond Chandler (1st ed.). New York: E.P. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-14552-4.
  3. Muller, Eddie (March 23, 2019) Outro to the Turner Classic Movie showing of Lady in the Lake
  4. Staff (February 21, 1945) "Screen News: Oberon and Corvin Will Star at Universal" The New York Times p.12
  5. Muller, Eddie (March 23, 2019) Intro to the Turner Classic Movie showing of Lady in the Lake
  6. Lightman, Herb A. (November 1946). "M-G-M Pioneers With Subjective Feature". American Cinematographer. p. 400. Retrieved October 1, 2018.
  7. Staff (January 24, 1947). "Lady in the Lake". The New York Times. Retrieved July 16, 2013. In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen the novelty begins to wear thin
  8. "Top Grossers of 1947", Variety, 7 January 1948 p 63
  9. Maitlin, Leonard; Green, Spencer & Edelman, Rob (January 2010). Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide. Plume. p. 357. ISBN 978-0-452-29577-3.
  10. Podomatic Inc.
  11. Lady in the Lake
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