On Not ‘Identifying’ with Philip Marlowe: Viewing Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake through Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters

Leah Anderst

The trailer for Robert Montgomery’s 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake tells its viewers that the film stars Montgomery and, “mysteriously,” them.

A few minutes into the film, Montgomery himself, playing private detective Philip Marlowe, echoes this: “You’ll see it just as I saw it. You’ll meet the people. You’ll find the clues. And maybe you’ll solve it quick and maybe you won’t. You think you will, eh? Ok. You’re smart. But let me give you a tip. You’ve got to watch ‘em. You’ve got to watch ‘em all the time because things happen when you least expect them.”

“You’ll see it just as I saw it.”

The film opens with Marlowe seated at a desk in his office facing the camera as it slowly approaches him while he speaks. He tells us of the case we are about to “see just as [he] saw it,” introducing us to its main players. This opening scene is one of only three or four very short moments in the film in which the viewer looks upon the protagonist “objectively,” that is to say with the camera facing him so that the viewer sees him from an external position. Lady in the Lake “mysteriously” stars the viewer as well because the film is shot with a “subjective” camera.

The film begins with an account of Philip Marlowe’s attempt at authorship. A seasoned but frustrated private detective, Marlowe writes a short, autobiographical story and submits it to a local magazine publisher, Derrace Kingsby. When he arrives at Kingsby’s offices on Christmas Eve to discuss the story, Marlowe is engaged by an assistant, Adrienne Fromsett, to locate Kingsby’s missing wife. Chrystal Kingsby has been missing for some time, and Kingsby recently received a Western Union wire from Chrystal telling him that she was on her way to Mexico to get a quick divorce and to marry Chris Lavery. Adrienne bumps into Lavery in Los Angeles shortly thereafter, and he claims to know nothing of Chrystal’s whereabouts or the wire she apparently sent from Texas. It is at this point that Marlowe enters the narrative.

Adrienne wishes to keep this search a secret from her boss and so insists on secrecy from the detective. Without telling Kingsby, Marlowe questions Chris Lavery, travels to Kingsby’s lake cabin where Chrystal was last seen, and gets mixed up with a corrupt police officer, Lieutenant DeGarmot, who, with his former mistress, plays an important role in the narrative. The mystery turns on the identity of a lady found drowned in Kingsby’s lake while Marlowe visits looking for clues pertaining to Chrystal’s disappearance. This lady is found wearing clothing belonging to Muriel Chess, the wife of Kingsby’s lake caretaker, and the missing Chrystal Kingsby becomes the primary murder suspect. Things are not as clear as they seem, though. Muriel goes by another name, Mildred Haviland, and before meeting her husband, she was DeGarmot’s mistress as well as the chief suspect in another murder case. By the film’s end, Marlowe single-handedly solves the mystery of the lady in the lake, forcing the true criminals to reveal themselves. In the film’s opening credits the “actress” listed as playing the role of Chrystal Kingsby is “Ellay Mort,” a name that, when pronounced, sounds like “Elle est morte,” French for “she is dead.” The lady in the lake is Chrystal Kingsby.

Montgomery’s film is chiefly remembered as an experiment in the continuous usage of the “point of view” shot. The camera stands in for Marlowe for much of the film’s duration. It moves about the film’s spaces in Marlowe’s place, his voice emerges from somewhere behind it when he speaks, smoke issues from just below the screen when he smokes, we glimpse his hands when they momentarily enter his frame of view on the peripheries of the image, and the film’s other characters look directly into the camera when they speak to him. Point of view shots and other “subjective” cinematic techniques typically draw the viewer into proximity, sympathy, and identification with a film’s principal character. The more a viewer is exposed to a character’s motivations, fears, and desires, the more she tends to identify with him whether a villain or a good guy. Lady in the Lake, however, famously resists just this viewer identification.

Adrienne Fromsett offers a drink.

Upon the film’s release, many reviewers bemoaned the heavy-handedness of the technique and focused on the failure of the film to produce a real sense of involvedness in its viewers. We don’t actually feel as though we are “in” the film as its trailer promises. A reviewer for the New York Times complained, “the principal character has to talk too much in this film. Indeed, he does most of the talking which is wrong in this technique. To be entirely ‘subjective,’ the camera character should not talk at all because that destroys the illusion of complete participation by the audience. What is said by this character – this un-seen, off-stage voice – may not be at all what the people in the audience are thinking or what they would say. As a consequence it takes on a sort of third-personality; it comes from another observer who is apparently standing right alongside of you.” [i] Later, film critics and theorists express similar concerns with the disconnect between the film’s apparent goals and its achievement. Jean Mitry writes, “the camera is leading me, guiding me; it conveys impressions not generated by me. Moreover, the feet climbing the stairs I can see in the frame of the image are not mine; the hand holding the banister is not mine. At no point am I able to recognize the image of my own body.” [ii] Lady in the Lake certainly fails to draw the viewer so completely into the drama as to produce the vertiginous virtual reality that this goal would seem to imply. Putting this impossibility aside, though, the film still fails to achieve what so many other narrative films do with ease: viewer identification with the protagonist.

Confronting Adrienne with a clue.

Marlowe rings a doorbell.

A detective thriller, this exemplar of post-WWII Hollywood film noir resists certain important features of the genre. Noir tends to convey a “mood of cynicism, darkness, and despair,” and “the protagonists are frequently unsympathetic antiheroes who pursue their base designs or simply drift aimlessly through sinister night worlds of the urban American jungle.” [iii] Cynicism is strong in Lady in the Lake. Besides our protagonist-detective, nearly every character with more than a few speaking lines nurses dark hidden motives. Mirroring this darkness, most of the film’s scenes take place at night in Los Angeles and its small fictional neighbor, Bay City. Marlowe indeed pursues his charge in “the urban American jungle.” In strong distinction from the film’s other characters, though, Marlowe himself is, remarkably, a good guy.  No “antihero,” Marlowe is one of only a few fictional private detectives who do not cheat their clients and who care for the truth for its own sake. That he is a writer in addition to being a private detective also creates sympathy for him. Marlowe is “hardboiled,” but he is also creative, sensitive, and morally upright.

Unlike Sam Spade, Marlowe’s counterpart in a few of Dashiell Hammett’s novels that include The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe’s goodness runs through the series of stories and novels that Chandler penned about him. Montgomery altered Chandler’s novel quite a bit, giving Adrienne a starring role whereas Chandler’s Kingsby hires Marlowe without any help from an assistant, but Montgomery retains the basic positive characteristics of Chandler’s character. Montgomery’s Marlowe even manages to reform the film’s “femme fatale.” Adrienne’s plan in hiring Marlowe to locate her boss’s missing wife is to marry the boss (and his wealth) after she forces his divorce. By the film’s end, Adrienne has fallen hopelessly in love with Marlowe and cares nothing for wealth if she can only be with her man. A cold and calculating working girl at the film’s beginning, by the end she is a warm, feminine homebody. Marlowe’s characteristics, his honesty and loyalty in particular, would seem to recommend him as a sympathetic character, a character with whom the viewer would readily identify. The film’s experiment in point of view, however, ends by confusing the viewer’s sympathy and identification. Why should this be? Where does the film err?

Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters presents a handy mechanism for the analysis of viewer identification with cinematic characters. Smith’s three-part “structure of sympathy” allows us to pinpoint where this film elicits and repels viewer identification.  Smith’s aim is to explore what we mean when we say that we “identify” with a film’s character(s). What exactly is happening when we use this imprecise term. In the introduction to his book he writes, “what are the various senses of the term ‘identification’, and how can they be developed into a systematic explanation of emotional response to fictional characters? I argue that we need to break the notion down into a number of more precisely defined concepts: recognition, alignment, and allegiance … together constituting what I term the structure of sympathy.” [iv] With Smith’s three concepts in mind, we can attempt to locate where Lady in the Lake goes afoul in its efforts to draw the viewer into identification with its protagonist detective.

“Recognition describes the spectator’s construction of character: the perception of a set of textual elements, in film typically cohering around the image of a body, as an individuated and continuous human agent.” [v] Though he is “off screen” physically, viewer “recognition” of Marlowe is certain. The film provides many “textual” clues of this character: his shadow, his hands, his cigarette smoke, and, of course, his voice. However, from these textual clues, can his physical presence be one of a “continuous human agent”? Throughout much of the film, Marlowe’s person is presented piecemeal. We see his hands, but not his arms or his shoulders. We see smoke, but not his mouth puffing on a cigarette. We hear his words, but we don’t see his face as he speaks. The film only allows us very few and very short views of Marlowe’s complete person. “As a living, active human being,” Mitry writes, “he does not exist for us. We are therefore incapable of objectifying the sensations we feel and know we feel entirely through an intermediary. What we are supposed to accept as a ‘subjective experience’ thereby dissolves into a vague and indistinct ‘nonself.’” [vi] Like the mystery he will eventually solve, Marlowe’s person is, for much of the film, a small collection of “clues,” pieces that do not create a satisfying whole.

“Recognition”: Marlowe’s shadow at left.

“Recognition”: Marlowe’s hands.

Related to Smith’s “recognition” is Laura Mulvey’s much cited essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey describes “…two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation. The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like.” [vii] Smith’s “recognition” bears similarities to Mulvey’s “fascination with and recognition of his like.” Both depend upon the viewer’s frequent and generally complete apprehension of a film’s character. Montgomery’s film provides us with ample opportunity to gaze upon Adrienne, the film’s object of “scopophilic” pleasure, but it provides very limited occasion for the viewer’s “identification … [with] his like,” with the person of Philip Marlowe. Indeed, this viewer “recognized” the persons of Adrienne and DeGarmot, the film’s corrupt cop, to a much greater extent than the protagonist, even to the point of “identifying” with them.

Although rare, there are a few key scenes in this film that show Marlowe’s full person, scenes where we “recognize” him and watch him interact with Adrienne. These scenes rely on mirrors positioned prominently in the film’s mise-en-scene, and they allow the viewer to catch glimpses of Marlowe’s physiognomy. Something of a visual novelty, Marlowe’s face and body immediately draw our attention in these scenes. The film’s formal peculiarity, however, causes our gaze to alternate confusedly between Marlowe and Adrienne.

Marlowe meets Adrienne for the first time when he comes to Kingsby’s offices in response to her letter. She wishes to speak with him about the story he submitted for publication. During their conversation, Marlowe quickly realizes that she hopes to employ his detective skills while leaving his writing as an afterthought, and he begins to take her down from the position of power she occupies. Late in their verbal altercation, he says, “Your lipstick’s on crooked,” and, with a look of dismayed humiliation, she walks to the mirror on the wall of her office. We suddenly see Marlowe who looks at Adrienne while she looks at him. Her lipstick is perfect.

Marlowe’s person, in a mirror.

Followed by a return to looking at Adrienne.

We are meant to understand that over the eight seconds or so of this shot (above left), these two characters look at each other. Because she looks into the camera, however, it appears that only he looks at her as he says, “Vain female, aren’t you.” With their two visions “pointing” in different directions, the viewer is at a loss here, and, strangely, Marlowe’s (and the camera’s) turn away from the mirror back to Adrienne (above right) is a comforting return to the film’s unusual normalcy. Through mirrors we will look upon Marlowe’s person a few more times over the course of the film, and the effect remains quite similar. Rather than hardening viewer “recognition” of the film’s protagonist, these scenes tend to upset the gaze. Of Smith’s “structure of sympathy,” then, “recognition” is partially unfulfilled in Montgomery’s film.

“Alignment describes the process by which spectators are placed in relation to characters in terms of access to their actions, and to what they know and feel. The concept is akin to the literary notion of ‘focalization’, Gerard Genette’s term for the way in which narratives may feed story information to the reader through the ‘lens’ of a particular character, though ‘identification’ is more commonly appealed to (…) I propose two interlocking functions, spatio-temporal attachment and subjective access, cognate with the concepts of narrational range and depth…” [viii] We find an important hitch in viewer identification with Marlowe within Smith’s “alignment.” The viewer’s “spatio-temporal alignment” with Marlowe is constant and extreme. On the other hand, the viewer’s “subjective access” to Marlowe’s psyche, the second, and arguably the more important, aspect of “alignment,” is curiously missing in this film. Though we hear all of Marlowe’s words, and though many of his words are indicative of his thinking, we do not know Marlowe’s mind. We do not have access to his unvoiced judgments, desires, suspicions, or regrets. It is just this information that would allow us to form an emotional bond with this character. For this viewer at least, Marlowe’s affection for Adrienne Fromsett came as a surprise. His words and his behavior toward her gave little sense of his predilection. Even his cryptic response to her very early statement, “you would be a fool to fall in love with me, Marlowe,” didn’t clue me in. [ix] Marlowe’s nascent sense of the mystery’s end also eludes the first-time viewer. We see the film’s events and scenes through his eyes, but unlike him, we are unable to fit the clues together into the whole that they will become in the film’s final few minutes.

“AF” at the crime scene.

Falling in love with Adrienne.

“Allegiance pertains to the moral evaluation of characters by the spectator. Here we are perhaps closest to what is meant by ‘identification’ in everyday usage.” [x] Trickier to pinpoint than “recognition” and “alignment,” we can nonetheless see where this film attempts to bring the viewer into “moral” sympathy with Marlowe. Just two examples: Marlowe writes a story about his experience, and Adrienne describes this story as “emotional” and “full of heart.” This aspect of Marlowe’s character – an aspect added to Chandler’s novel by Montgomery – reveals a level of introspection that conflicts with the typical noir detective. Marlowe’s suspicion of Adrienne’s motives also draws the viewer into “allegiance” with him. When he suspects her of double-dealing and of being cold and calculating, he bases his suspicions on evidence that we see through his eyes, so that she appears as such to the viewer also. Perhaps even more compelling than these two examples is the contrast Marlowe presents with DeGarmot, the thuggish, corrupt cop whom he strives to capture in the act. The film asks for the viewer’s “allegiance” to Marlowe very early on. In the opening scene, he explains his motivations for writing his short story, and he draws on his experiences with unseemly characters of whom he disapproves. After this scene, we watch the film, and we feel that Marlowe, out of all of these sneaky characters, is right. He is the good guy, the one to emulate. However, saying this does not capture the experience of watching this film.  This does not guarantee “identification” with Marlowe.

In terms of “allegiance,” many noir narratives resist viewer identification with characters. If, in addition to the main actors in a mystery, a film’s detective is also a bad guy, an “anti-hero,” a double-crossing private dick who seeks to exploit the trouble in which his underworld clients find themselves, there will likely be few with whom to “identify.”

Lady in the Lake, however, gives its viewer Philip Marlowe, the likeable if sometimes rough-around-the-edges detective who would rather be a writer. He convinces Adrienne to value love and truth over money and power, and he is more trustworthy than the police. The film places the viewer in the situation of seeing the story world as the protagonist sees it, but this stylistic experiment in point of view systematically excludes Marlowe’s person from the screen and his thoughts from the soundtrack. We may see the story world through his eyes, but we do not perceive it with Marlowe’s judgments or intuitions. With only very rare glimpses of his person and without “subjective access” to his mind, Philip Marlowe, though largely a sympathetic “nice guy,” remains an opaque character who resists our identification.


Leah Anderst is a Visiting Instructor of Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2010, and she is currently a fellow at the Graduate Center’s Writers’ Institute.


[i] Bosley Crowther – New York Times, Feb, 9, 1947.

[ii] Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Translated by Christopher King. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. (p. 210)

[iii] Cook, David. A History of Narrative Cinema. 3rd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. (pp. 449-450).

[iv] Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction Emotion and the Cinema (1995) quotations and page numbers are taken from The Philosophy of Film, Wartenberg and Curran, eds. (p. 160)

[v] Ibid. 161.

[vi]Mitry, 210-211.

[vii] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Editors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. (p. 712)

[viii] Ibid. p. 162.

[ix] Marlowe’s response to Adrienne: “Let me get this straight, I’m not to visit Chris Lavery, and I’m not to fall in love with you.”

[x] Smith, p. 162.

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