The Lady in the Alphabet Soup

Two Saturday nights ago, great mystery writers fared very poorly on Turner Classic Movies. At 9:00, as part of his “Noir Alley” series, Eddie Muller hosted a showing of Lady in the Lake from 1947. Two hours later they showed a 1965 movie entitled The Alphabet Murders.

The first is a film version of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake. The second claims to be based on an Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders.

The two movies are differently bad, although one is far worse than the other. Lady in the Lake at last tries to be good Chandler. It’s completely wrong-headed and is annoyingly tedious to watch, but one senses that Robert Montgomery, the movie’s director as well as its Phillip [sic] Marlowe, wanted to give the viewer the Chandler experience in a way that the film’s two most notable predecessors, Murder, My Sweet (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) did not.

Lady in the Lake depends on a gimmick. It doesn’t sound like a bad gimmick a priori, but it becomes incredibly tiresome long before the end of the movie. The gimmick is subjective photography: a few scenes aside in which Montgomery addresses the viewer directly from the comfort of Marlowe’s office, the entire movie is seen from Marlowe’s viewpoint.

Chandler’s novel is, of course, written in the first person, so the idea of seeing the case from Marlowe’s point of view seems like a potentially good idea. In practice, it’s a bad idea, as it places the other actors in an impossible situation. Audrey Totter has to play almost every single one of her scenes straight to the camera. (Montgomery had a chair made to be placed under the camera so that the actors could speak to him while he read his lines.) The results are stilted and awkward. When we finally get Totter in a scene with Leon Ames in which they talk to each other while Marlowe looks on, it comes as a blessed relief after forty-five minutes of watching the actors stare down the camera.

The subjective photography might have worked had the movie given us Marlowe, but, even with his gimmick (or, perhaps, because of it), Montgomery completely fails to deliver the detective. The genius of Philip Marlowe resides in his comments on the action rather than in his descriptions of the action itself. To get Chandler off the page and onto the screen, some means of transferring the dazzling twists and turns of Marlovian language has to be found. Murder, My Sweet, for example, achieves this by turning he movie into a flashback narrated by Marlowe, making it possible for the movie to be peppered by Marlovian voice-over narration spoken by Dick Powell.

Strangely for a movie so determined to present the world through Marlowe’s eyes, Lady in the Lake offers nothing of Marlowe’s commentary on the action. Because the movie depicts actions as Marlowe sees them, it only picks up Marlowe’s voice when he’s actually talking to other people. Because people don’t walk around talking to themselves while manipulating the English language brilliantly, the viewer gets nothing of Marlowe’s inner linguistic life.

That sucks all the life out of the enterprise.

Robert Montgomery isn’t a bad choice for a film Philip Marlowe (or, as the movie persists in spelling it, Phillip Marlowe.) True, his gold-standard handsomeness of the 1930s had faded considerably by 1947 (although he was only all of 43), so Montgomery’s Marlowe isn’t as good-looking as Chandler’s hero makes a point of telling us he is. Montgomery nonetheless remains at least reasonably handsome, and his height and build are close enough to the 6’ and 190 pounds of Chandler’s hero. Montgomery had also demonstrated the ability to play urbane and witty (all those 1930s comedies at MGM) as well as tough (his boxer Joe Pendelton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan), two key ingredients for a lone-wolf private eye who speaks English with flawless grammar and comes up with phrases like “he had a face like a collapsed lung” (The Long Goodbye) and “she was…about as easy to get as a haircut” (The Little Sister).

Marlowe is as witty as he is tough, but, despite Montgomery’s extensive experience in comedy, the actor shows no sense of humor from his position behind the camera. Marlowe attended college for a while: he’s not another of the seemingly illiterate tough cops with whom he clashes in every one of his adventures. He doesn’t speak the same as they, and, yet, in Lady in the Lake, Montgomery plays (and, more importantly voices) Marlowe the way he played a boxer in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. He uses the same “tough” accent, but, alas, communicates none of the charm and humor that make his performance in the last-named movie so delightful.

Lady in the Lake suffers from a slew of other problems. For some reason – possibly budget constraints – all the scenes at Little Fawn Lake (that’s the lake with the lady in it) are omitted. The all-important events up at the lake are merely narrated by Montgomery during one of the breaks in which he addresses the audience directly. The action of the book ends at the lake; because there’s no lake, Montgomery has to let Chandler’s last nine chapters fall by the wayside. Never mind that they include the final clue Marlowe must have to finish unraveling the mystery.

A further problem is one Hollywood created for itself in practically all the movies based on Marlowe novels: the need to create a romance for the detective. Chandler wrote at one point that a detective should never get married. Although Marlowe is capable of heated flirtation with women (and occasionally with men, but that’s another story), his creator never grants him anything that can seen as an actual romance. Even when Marlowe finally does get to have sex at the end of The Long Goodbye, the encounter is a case of two lonely ships passing in the night.

Hollywood audiences want romance with their detective stories even today; that was certainly the case in the 1940s. Marlowe needed a girlfriend to kiss at the end of the movie, and thus was Dick Powell was paired with Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet and Humphrey Bogart was given Lauren Bacall (whom else?) in The Big Sleep. In Lady in the Lake, Montgomery gets paired off with the Totter character, Miss Fromsett. The problem there is that Miss Fromsett already has a boyfriend, Derace Kingsley (the Ames character.) In the book, we’re left to assume that Miss Fromsett’s liaison with Kingsley will continue. As someone decided that the movie had to end with Miss Fromsett and Marlowe going off together, the romance between Miss Fromsett and Kingsley is brought to an abrupt and clumsy end halfway through the movie.

In the book, Kingsley is a far more important character than his secretary. He’s arguably the novel’s protagonist. Kinglsey’s powerful personality and imposing physique are nowhere to be seen in the movie, however. There is something of the scared mouse to Ames’ portrayal that fades into nothingness. A further important difference: in the book, Kingsley is responsible for hiring Marlowe in the first place. Miss Fromsett does the honors in the movie, and therefore sees to it that things start not to make sense only minutes into the picture.

The less said about the painful idea of turning Marlowe into a would-be pulp writer, the better. The cosmetics company over which Kingsley rules in the book is inexplicably turned into a publishing venture in the movie, and, in a very strange scene, Miss Fromsett pleads with Marlowe to give up detecting and become a writer. It’s so wrong, I don’t know where to begin. Suffice it to say that Chandler is the writer in the family, not Marlowe.

The rest of the cast is largely weak. Totter goes through her paces as best she can and with the best of intentions, but we tire of looking straight at her very quickly.  While he is unquestionably a fine actor, Lloyd Nolan is by no stretch of the imagination a big, tough, mean and dirty cop. He just isn’t Lieutenant Degarmo. One of the few bright spots in the movie is Dick Simmons as gigolo Chris Lavery, except for the foolish Southern accent he is made to use. In the movie’s other key female role, Jayne Meadows is just anonymous.

The movie is almost painful to get through. The subjective camera technique gets on the nerves very quickly, so quickly that I’m not sure the movie can be ranked as a noble experiment in daring new camera technique. (Those honors were stolen the same year by Dark Passage anyway.) For his part, Chandler wrote that “the camera eye technique in Lady in the Lake is old stuff. Every young writer or director has wanted to try it.” The whole thing just doesn’t work, either as a translation of Chandler to the screen or as a movie in its own right.

However bad Lady in the Lake is, it’s a masterpiece compared to the train wreck that is The Alphabet Murders. Made by the same people responsible for the series of Miss Marple travesties starring Margaret Rutherford in the early 1960s, this awfulness gives us Tony Randall as an impossibly bad Poirot. It’s one of those performances that make you say “it’s wrong already” before the actor even opens his mouth. Even more unbearable is the bizarre casting of Robert Morley as Captain Hastings, the narrator of so many early Poirot novels and short stories. I’ve always imagined Hastings to be at least somewhat dashing; the Hastings of The Alphabet Murders is a pudgy buffoon. Despite his patent incompetence, he has also somehow managed to join the Secret Service. Morley gives us a figure of even lower comedy than Randall’s Poirot.

In reality, one shouldn’t even bother trying to view The Alphabet Murders as an attempt to translate one of Mrs. Christie’s novels to the screen. Although The ABC Murders is one of the author’s finest creations, nothing of the novel’s plot makes it into the movie beyond the device of having people murdered in alphabetical order. Mrs. Christie – no fan of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies – must have been appalled. In fact, she did stop the initial production of The Alphabet Murders, in which (Heaven help us!) Zero Mostel was to have played a visibly sexually active Poirot.

Perhaps the moral of this particular story is that The Lady in the Lake and The ABC Murders belong on the page, not on the screen. Although there are a few Chandler movies that are watchable (stay tuned for a post about Murder, My Sweet), and the Sidney Lumet Murder on the Orient Express remains one of my favorite movies of all time, both Chandler and Christie are authors who are at their best as authors. They are both a joy to read. While this is so obviously the case with Chandler and Marlowe’s uniquely brilliant handling of the English language, it is also true of Mrs. Christie, however much simpler her prose style may be. She remains one of the greatest storytellers in the history of world literature, and one’s time would be far better spent with The ABC Murders than watching the dreadful mess that is The Alphabet Murders. The 90 minutes wasted watching the movie could be far better invested in starting a book that can be finished in the space of a restful evening.

Buy the books. You’ll have a far better time.


1 response to The Lady in the Alphabet Soup

  1. Raffi Depoyan says:

    Keep the articles coming Mark. Always look forward to reading them. Miss you dude. Come have a smoke sometime or come on by for a haircut.

    Sent from my iPhone



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