Lady in the Lake & Dark Passage

I saw Lady in the Lake last night, a noir based on the Raymond Chandler novel. I rented it because I saw Dark Passage for the first time a few months ago and thought the use of first person camera work in it was fantastic. Both of these movies use the camera as the main character and the audience sees what he sees, as he sees it. It’s the kind of gimmick I’m a sucker for, because it provides that little special twist that makes a genre movie suddenly feel surprising and new.

Dark Passage was released several months after Lady in the Lake, in the same year, 1947, after Robert Montgomery first pioneered the technique. Unfortunately, Lady in the Lake is clearly the inferior of the two, even though it commits more fully to the technique by adopting it for almost the entire length and was the first to use it. Most importantly, the difference in acting quality and style is dramatic. Admittedly, Bogart and Bacall would be stiff competition for anybody, but the acting in Lady in the Lake drowns on its own merits. Montgomery’s Marlowe is decent enough considering we do not see his face for a good 90% of the film, but Audrey Totter’s Ms. Fromsett is one of the most affected, jumpy, unlikeable performances I’ve ever seen. Just check out this still:

Shooting in the first person means that the actors have to direct their performances straight at the camera and not only do an effective job of portraying their own characters, but also somehow evoke the reactions of the other character they are speaking to. A real dose of nuance and subtlety is required to really pull this off and the hammy, overacted performance of Totter demolishes your ability to sympathize with her at all. This is a serious problem for the movie considering that Totter is supposed to have a significant amount of romantic tension with Montgomery. While the character of Adrianne Fromsett is certainly intended to be ambiguous and not quite trust-worthy, there also has to be something genuinely and obviously alluring about her. The combination of Marlowe’s frosty dialogue giving away little of his true feelings and Totter’s definition-of-harpie performance, adds up to a love story that literally comes out of nowhere. And the romantic subplot is a big enough distraction from the murders which should be the rightful focus of the film, that it basically ruins the whole movie.

In contrast, Dark Passage is a dynamite little noir where everything works just right and the real potential of this unusual camera technique is fully realized. The movie begins with Bogart daringly escaping from prison, getting involved in a violent scuffle, and then having the unbelievably good fortune of getting picked up by Bacall. Daves uses the first-person camera in these scenes to create the same kind of effect we see so commonly now in IMAX movies; it’s like when they put the camera on a roller coaster and your brain is tricked into feeling just like you’re on the ride. The technique must have been mind-blowing for audiences when it first came out and it’s still pretty thrilling.

Daves also understood that since the first-person camera could make the audience feel like they were actually experiencing all of this, there was not the usual need for the audience to identify with the character’s personality or motives. We have no context for Bogart’s character when the movie begins. For all we know, the person whose eyes we see through is a dangerous and evil man and we are committing criminal acts right along with him. But we identify with him because we have to, we literally see through his perspective. This is especially brilliant because of the nature of the noir genre, which is built so heavily around anti-heroes. James M. Cain’s novels are all about playing off the reader’s natural voyeurism and getting you to be sympathetic to the criminals in his books, even if you don’t entirely forgive them. He draws you into an understanding that there is no easy barrier between those who are innocent and those who are guilty. The victims of the murders are almost always unlikeable and the murderers themselves often become entangled in circumstances that they are incapable of resisting.

In Dark Passage, Daves uses the camera to play off the audience’s voyeuristic fascination with crime and refuses to allow the audience to separate themselves from the character in the usual way. The fact that you have such an instant identification with the main character without the usual acting or dialogue clues that he’s really a good guy, challenges the ethical myth that there is a clean line between good people and bad people, us and them. There is a mingled horror and pleasure in taking on the perspective of someone beating another person and you feel the terror of being captured by the police in an extremely visceral way. To me, the moral ambiguity noir creates is the whole essence and appeal of the genre and this is an example of it at it’s best.

Next, Lauren Bacall, isn’t necessarily the most subtle actress of all time, but her chemistry with Bogart is legendary and she uses the first-person camera work in Dark Passage all to her advantage. When she looks at the audience straight on with that devastating sharpness of hers, it’s hard to look away. Indeed, having someone as smoldering and sexy as Bacall looking straight at you and taking care of you is at least as emotionally affecting as feeling like you’re punching someone in the face. There is zero need to see Bogart’s face to know how he must be feeling about Bacall in the film; the audience feels the same way. Admittedly, her character does not have the mingling of good and bad character traits of Totter’s and lacks some complexity, but her motivation for helping this escaped convict is enough of a mystery early in the film to create the necessary tension.

Daves’ other inventive and effective choice is to switch out of the first person camera work after Bogart gets plastic surgery. As Bogart’s face is changed, the audience is pushed out of their ability to have an immediate identification with his character and see as he sees. Suddenly, we are outside and can look to the character’s expression and mannerisms and read the subtler cues underneath the lines he delivers. Yet, since we are aware that the face we see is a false reconstruction, a mask designed to hide the true identity and age of Bogart’s character, our ability to make the kinds of straightforward, basic judgments movies normally encourage remains uncertain.

After the forced, visceral identification of the audience with the violent, criminal main character in the first half of the movie, we are forced outside the character, through the camera work and our knowledge of his facial reconstruction, after we are more reassured of his innocence and goodness. This means a certain sense of unease remains, even when our doubts about the character should be resolved. Having these two mirrored halves in the film is an amazingly masterful way to directly challenge the quick moral assumptions we make on a daily basis. In a very literal way, it undermines the audience’s basic confidence that we know who a person is and what their experience is just by looking at them.

At the time it came out, Dark Passage was a tremendous box office failure- ironically due to the fact that you don’t actually see Bogart’s face for the whole first half of the movie. Sadly, this has obscured what a classic this movie should be. It is certainly one of the most intriguing, complex, and genuinely entertaining noir films I’ve ever seen.

-Vicky Vengeance


1 Response to “Lady in the Lake & Dark Passage”

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