Ladies in lakes or pools

Dames. They're just shifty. Especially if they're beautiful. Can't trust them in a noir. Not even once. When are fellows gonna learn that? Well, hopefully never. Wouldn't be any noirs if they did, would there?

Been watching a lot of noirs lately. They're pretty good even when they're pretty bad.

Hadn't seen Lady in the Lake, curiously enough. It's one of the earlier Marlowe movies (made in 1947, only a few years after the novel was published) with Robert Montgomery as the director and also, alas and alack, as our hero. Despite that it isn't altogether a worthless movie.

What makes it quite interesting is the direction. Or, actually, the camera work. We see everything through the eyes of Marlowe. The camera is the hero, as it were. Now this idea occurred to Welles also before he made his Citizen Kane. His original idea was to make Conrad's Heart of Darkness precisely that way, have the camera see everything Marlow saw, have the camera be Marlow. Then he abandoned the idea. Don't quite know why. But, having seen Montgomery's Lady in the Lake I have a pretty good idea.

For one thing the camera is far too static. When Marlowe is supposed to turn his head the camera turns - extremely clumsily. Secondly the other actors have to act to the camera the whole time - and do it very stiltedly. The camera doesn't react. It gives no feedback. It doesn't inspire the actors to new heights. And it shows. Everything's pretty wooden. Thirdly the shoots are all like it was theatre. Very static. There's never any life in the shots, Marlowe's pretty much just looking at the other actors as they speak or "act". It quickly becomes a bore.

As for the script, I'm not entirely wild about what they've done to the book. There's a romantic love interested that's quite unnecessary. (Even though it's not bad as such, it just doesn't belong.) And the action is all pretty much indoors. I mean, the títle of the book (and the film!) is Lady in the Lake, and Marlowe doesn't even go up to the lake! He just tells us about it in one of the really clumsy voice-overs the film has to revert to in order to avoid any difficult outdoor shots. Filming up at the cabin would have been utterly impossible. (Thus making the entire premise of the movie slightly questionable.)

Still, a very brave experiment. Got to give them credit for that. I have a gut feeling that Welles pulled the plug on his Heart of Darkness because he realised that it just wasn't a viable project. Interesting idea but couldn't be done. Montgomery probably went ahead because he wasn't savvy enough to realise that.

The dames aren't as bad as they could be, or, indeed, as they rightfully should be. The murderess is only seen in two shortish scenes and the other skirt turns out not to be nearly as nasty as she at first appears. So Marlowe has a soppy, wholly gratuitous and quite boring romance with her. Miss Wonderly she ain't, despite a promising start. But neither is Montgomery Bogart. He isn't even Dick Powell (who's best remembered for his musicals), and that's really saying something.

Otto Preminger's Whirlpool (1949) stars Gene Tierney as a wealthy socialite with deep and serious psychological problems. Preminger and Tierney - now there's a splendid combo if ever there was one, as anyone who's seen Laura can attest to. Whirlpool is nowhere nearly as good as that, but it isn't a bad little number as noirs go. Script by Ben Hecht, which always helps.

And Gene Tierney ain't half bad either. No great surprise there.

The villain of the piece, a delightfully smooth and suave José Ferrer (shortly before he became Cyrano, by the way) in whose mouth even butter wouldn't melt, sees to it that Tierney doesn't get prosecuted for a spot of shoplifting she's done. Scandal is avoided but now Tierney's at the mercy of Ferrer. She believes he's trying to blackmail her and writes him a cheque. He plays it very gently, destroys the cheque and hands her the evidence that proves her guilt. He only wants to help her, he says. She wants to believe him. He then hypnotizes her so that she overcomes her sleeping disorder. Then he hypnotizes her some more and frames her for a murder he commits.

The latter part of the movie doesn't quite hold up, doesn't deliver what the first part promises, and the ending's just too easy and far from convincing. It all becomes a muddle, really. Slightly rewritten this might have made a pretty good episode of Columbo. Funny thing is, Ferrer did later appear in an episode of Columbo. Played the villain, obviously.

Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947) may be one of Welles' best movies. I like the mood, the imagery, the settings. The story isn't much to write home about but one hardly notices. Or cares. It just doesn't matter. Rita Hayworth is about as beautiful as she's ever been and she is the movie. No question about that.

Nice as well to see a lot of familiar faces from the Mercury era, a lot of them having worked with Welles even in the old radio days. Which makes for a tight cast working together like clockwork.

The final scene with the mirrors is considered a classic. To me it's slightly tacky and far from being genius. It works but is scarcely as profound as the diehard Wellesians would have it. But. It is memorable. It is what everyone remembers about the movie. So I may well be wrong.

Finally there's Detour (1945), a minor cult classic by Edgar G. Ulmer. Here's another one I'd managed to avoid for far too long. Detour is a tight and nasty little shocker, a veritable short story of a movie, only about an hour long. I'd love to say there's not an ounce of fat anywhere in the movie. Truthfully, I'd cut several early scenes as they really don't add anything to the movie and just hold up the action.

Tom Neal plays a New York pianist who's off to L.A. to see his girlfriend. He's short on money so he hitchhikes. One of the drivers goes and dies on him in shady circumstances. Neal figures the cops are going to pin the death on him, so he ditches the body and takes the driver's identity.

On the way he picks up a girl, the aptly named Ann Savage. Big mistake. Turns out the savage Savage recognises the car and knows Neal isn't who he's pretending to be. She starts putting the screws on him. She's as hard as nails and knows there's some way money might be made out of this. Maybe they should sell the car when they get to L.A.

They try to do that. Then Savage discovers something.

She finds out that the driver's father is a rich man and he's on his deathbed. The driver left home in his teens so nobody knows what he looks like today. Neal could pretend to be him and collect - collect big. They'd both be set for life. Neal doesn't want to do that. She pleads with him. He utterly refuses. But Savage has a hold over him, she can spill the beans to the cops - there's no way Neal could convince anyone he didn't kill the driver. Not after he stole his car and identity. Nobody would ever believe him. Not the way Savage would tell it.

They go to their hotel room. They drink. The bicker and argue. Savage makes a pass at Neal. Neal shoots her down. She doesn't much like that. She locks herself in the bedroom to sulk. Neal tries to phone his girlfriend. Savage hears and threatens to call the cops. She snatches the phone and again locks herself in the bedroom. Neal tries to stop her by pulling on the cord.

He accidentally strangles her with the phone cord. Now he really is a murderer. He makes his getaway but knows the game's up. The movie closes with the cops picking him up. He makes no effort to try to escape. What's the use. He never gets a break.

A great little film. Would have been a lot better with a more polished and balanced script but the studio, the tiny PRC, didn't believe in wasting money on foolish things like that. Ulmer did a great job with what little resources he had. Savage is outstanding. The way her mood swings, the way she reacts, the way she spits out her sneering lines, the way she manipulates poor Neal. Savage in Detour is the quintessential film noir dame. What makes the performance so shattering is that it's so real, so believable, so true. This is a real woman. And all the more lethal for it.

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