Saturday, 30 April 2016

Lucy Before Lucy: Room Service

In May of 1955, a tiny piece of television history happened when Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx did their famous mirror routine in “Lucy and Harpo Marx.” (Episode titles weren’t a big deal on I Love Lucy.) For those of you who haven’t seen it, I suggest watching it right this second and then coming back for the rest of this post. For those of you who can’t watch it for some reason, it goes like this:

Lucy and Ethel have convinced their friend Caroline that they hobnob with celebs 24/7 in glamorous California. Caroline decides to come meet one for herself, only the whole thing is a lie, so there are no celebrities available to come visit. Luckily, Caroline is blind as a bat without her glasses. The solution is obvious – well, obvious to Lucy, regular humans would probably do something different. Caroline will “lose” her glasses, and Lucy will impersonate various celebrities to amuse her and keep the lies alive. One of the celebrities she chooses is Harpo Marx, who Ricky and Fred have asked to come over, and Harpo arrives just as Lucy is pretending to be him. In order to keep the hopeless charade going, she mimics his every move, pretending to be his reflection.

But that classic moment wasn’t the first time Lucy and Harpo had worked together.

I have to confess to not knowing too much about the Marx Brothers. There are only so many hours in a day, and I watch a lot of things. (I should probably choose to watch something other than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the next time I’m sad, though. Spread my wings a little.) What I do know is that it was unusual for the Marx Brothers to play characters that hadn’t been specifically written for them, but after 1933’s Duck Soup, Zeppo Marx stopped performing and began managing the act. He found a Broadway play called Room Service, and negotiated with RKO to purchase it for the Marx Brothers’ next project. This was some fancy footwork on Zeppo’s part because, at the time, the Brothers were under contract with MGM to make a picture a year.

The play was written by Allen Boretz and John Murray, and according to reliable sources like Wikipedia and IMDB, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. Also, one time, Jack Lemmon was in a 1953 revival and played the Groucho role. The things you can learn when you’re double checking release dates…

Lucy, somewhat disappointingly, has a straight role in the film. She plays the leading lady of Groucho’s new Broadway play, which may or may not exist, and she brings an eager young playwright to the hotel that Groucho lives and works out of to invest. Zaniness ensues.

But not quite as much zaniness as previous Marx Brothers outings. The larger-than-life, absurdist personalities that audiences had grown to love didn’t work for the pipe laying necessary in a more mainstream and subdued comedy, even if that comedy happened to be a hotel farce. It’s not a very potent mix, and with history’s hindsight, Lucy feels squandered in a thankless role.

Also, there’s a distinct note of ickiness going on by way of Ann Miller. When Ann Miller was 13 years old – 13 – she told the people hiring showgirls at the Black Cat Club in San Francisco that she was 18, and totally cool to work there, so they hired her because it was the 1930’s and nobody had time to double check things, a war was looming. A year or so later, she was discovered by Lucille Ball and RKO talent scout Benny Rubin, who she also told she was 18, and then she got a contract at RKO who also believed her to be not 14 years old at this point.

In this movie, which she made at age 15, we all get to watch her make out with her 30 year old love interest played by Frank Albertson, who probably didn’t know how old Ann Miller actually was because good god, Ann Miller, that was not okay! There are reasons for these age gates in society!

(It’s like Sullivan’s Travels. I don’t enjoy it, I just shake my head at Veronica Lake and wonder where the hell her parents were.)

Room Service is a disappointment for a few reasons, but it’s not the worst Marx Brothers movie. I’m told that one is called Go West. Still, it’s worth it to see Lucy forging the relationships with the male comics of the era before TV, creating a thread that would allow them all to last longer than they would’ve otherwise.

Lucille Ball was known for her work ethic and professionalism, even if she was a sometimes difficult personality because of a notorious lack of tact. But she was dogged in rehearsals, on time, and deeply committed to her material. 17 years after Room Service, this reputation brought Harpo Marx back to the studio at age 72, while he was recovering from a heart attack, and he and Lucy put smiles on countless people then and now, and for who knows how many generations to come.

So if you hear somebody complaining that Room Service isn’t as good as Duck Soup, tell them that it doesn’t have to be, because it brought Lucy and Harpo together. Then dump a milkshake down their pants or something.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Pete's Dragon (1977)

Ah, Pete’s Dragon.

With the trailer for the new version dropping, I figured this was as good a time as any to revisit the 1977 original.

The story behind this story starts with Mary Poppins and its massive box office success. Well, actually, it starts with Walt Disney and Song of the South, the first Disney film to blend animated characters into live-action sequences. Walt Disney was kind of enamoured with the process and not-so-subtly hinted to the guys working on Mary Poppins that he would like to see it incorporated somehow, so we got the famous Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins “Jolly Holiday” thing.

Never ones to show dignity and restraint, the good people at Disney were soon to follow up with animation/live-action combos Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971, and Pete’s Dragon in 1977. It’s easy to forget now that in the 1960’s and especially in the 1970’s, Disney’s animation department wasn’t doing so hot in terms of critical acclaim and ticket sales. The era of Cinderella was well over, and the big money makers were things like The Apple Dumpling Gang and The Love Bug. Introducing animation into the more financially viable live action films was a way to keep the animation department active and more profitable than it would have been had it just been turning out The Aristocats and Robin Hood.

And it wasn’t a bad idea. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was cute, modestly successful, and the animated sequence where a kingdom of talking animals has a violent rugby match is the actual best. Pete’s Dragon came at the tail end of the trend, after Walt Disney’s death, and it’s a solid effort, but it probably would’ve stayed a dusty relic in the Disney Vault if dragons weren’t on trend right now.

The main focus is on Pete, played by popular child actor Sean Marshall. Marshall was in episodes of Emergency!, The Carol Burnett Show, Kung Fu, Little House on the Prairie, and had major roles in The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove and The Fitzpatricks.

Pete’s an orphan because the movie is about belonging, and at the start of things he’s in something of a jam. The Gogans, a family of sinister hillbillies led by a marvellously over-the-top Shelley Winters, purchase him and force him to squeeze into narrow mineshafts to dig for gold. (Disney also released The Rescuers in 1977, in which an orphan is kidnapped and forced to squeeze into narrow caverns to look for pirate treasure. The Rescuers is by far the superior telling. And also has Bob Newhart as a talking mouse, which is an unbeatable trump card.)

Pete’s situation with the Gogans looks hopeless, until his best friend Elliot interferes.

Elliot is a dragon that somehow (it’s never explained) Pete has encountered and become very fond of. Elliot’s the sole animated character, having been designed by longtime Disney artist Ken Anderson, and brought to life by a team led by Don Bluth. As far as cartoon dragon pedigrees go, that’s like a fancy show dog.

Elliot’s voice was provided by Charlie Callas, though he doesn’t really talk. He mostly makes noises like Bing Crosby after a head injury. His main song is called “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)” because he basically goes “bo bop doo bo do” all the time instead of using words.

The effects used to make Elliot seem like a real physical presence are on-point. Early on, when we get our first glimpse of him, Pete runs up his tail to sit on his tummy, and it’s flawless. It’s just as convincing as any motion capture wonders we have today. The trouble is, though, that Elliot’s colour scheme makes him look totally separated from his environment. In Mary Poppins and Bedknobs, the live-action characters were in colour-saturated or animated environments when they encountered cartoon figures, but here it’s Elliot who needs to blend in to the muted browns and blues of the town of Passamaquoddy. With his lime green body and his vibrant pink-purple hair and wings, he stands out. A lot.

The good news is that for most of the story, Elliot is invisible because of his dragon magic. For these sequences, Disney recreates effects like those used for the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet. Disney had loaned out animators to work on the 1956 MGM film, and they’d brought back a few ideas. The footprints-and-sound combo works extremely well. It probably would have been more interesting, visually and thematically, if the audience never saw the dragon.

Pete makes his way from the woodland wilds into the quiet seaside town of Passamaquoddy, where Jim Backus is the pompous mayor and the school system really needs an overhaul. While sheltering in a cave, Pete is discovered by Nora – the capable lighthouse keeper who lost her fiancé at sea. Nora is played by 70’s legend Helen Reddy.

Largely undiscussed today, Helen Reddy was a huge deal on what used to be called the Adult Contemporary charts, with hits like “I Am Woman”, “Delta Dawn”, and “Candle in the Water.” The latter was written specifically for this film, and was supposed to be the only song, but it was so successful, everybody decided to turn the whole thing into a musical and extend the runtime to two hours. “Candle in the Water” was nominated for an Academy Award when all was said and done (though it lost to “You Light up My Life” because the Academy is terrible at voting).

The songs, while mostly catchy, slow down the plotline to a snail’s pace, and it’s forty minutes of Pete fitting in and Elliot causing trouble before we get to the actual plot and meet our villains.

Dr. Terminus and Hoagy. The best part of the movie.

Jim Dale is the swindling medicine showman who sets up in Passamaquoddy with his faithful shill, Hoagy, played by Red Buttons. Together, they get the two best non-Candle songs, and also hit every joke and line with an unexpected edginess that holds up extremely well.

One night, Hoagy winds up drinking with Nora’s father, Lampie (Mickey Rooney), and the two of them stumble into Elliot’s cave while the dragon is visible. Terrified, Hoagy runs back to the caravan and tells his boss what he saw.

Dr. Terminus hatches a plan that I find slightly disturbing as an adult, but didn’t mind at all as a kid. He’s going to capture Elliot, kill him, and cut him up into dragon pieces to use in his medicines. There’s a song about it. It’s so catchy it’s wrong. You’ll be singing about dismembering dragons while you do the dishes.

Working with the Gogans – who want to recover Pete without dragon interference – Terminus and Hoagy soon have the whole town behind them, and things don’t look too rosy for Elliot.

I’m confident that none of this will be in the new film. In fact, from the little information that’s available and what we’ve seen in the trailer, I’m pretty sure we’re getting an environmental message about a sawmill. I think modern kids can handle dragon organ-harvesting, and it has shades of animal activism (not at all discussed in the original) so it could’ve worked.

The strangest thing about the update is setting it in modern times. The original, I should have mentioned at some earlier point, all takes place in the early 1900’s. The new film takes place today. It might hurt the fabulous qualities of the long-ago dragon, or it might make the whole thing feel like an anemic Miyazaki effort. Placing it in the PNW and adding the feral child angle probably won’t help if it skews Princess Mononoke

The 1977 version of Pete’s Dragon is a watchable flick with some strange story choices, a solid cast (including a non-annoying child actor), and a few bumps in the road in terms of the dragon’s appearance. So as long as the new one lives up to that, then as a fan of the original, I say well done.

I probably won’t end up preferring it, though, because it won’t have snake oil salesmen in it, and those are important to me.

Pete's Dragon Trailer (2016)

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Bonanza 01x05 Enter Mark Twain

I’m tired of dead fiancés and pointless wars on Bonanza! It’s high time we had a fun episode, and a fun episode we shall now have!

For a refreshing change of pace, we start with a man walking down the streets of Virginia City, instead of riding up to a location on a horse. It’s been awhile since our man’s cleaned himself up, but he speaks articulately when he stops to ask the sheriff for directions.

Behind them, laugher echoes from the Bucket of Blood as Little Joe flies backwards through the doors and lands on the street. The mysterious stranger helps Little Joe up, and watches as Joe wordlessly charges back into the saloon to finish whatever fight he was in the middle of. The stranger asks the sheriff if Little Joe might need any help, but the sheriff is like: “Him? No.”

Little Joe gets punched out of the saloon again, but this time the stranger bounces him back in before he can hit the ground. Again, Joe just silently returns to the fray. It sounds like things are starting to get rough.

The stranger asks if the sheriff, as the local avatar of justice, might want to go in there and maybe stop the violence. A familiar figure in a ten gallon hat passes in the background behind them and goes straight into the Bucket of Blood. The sheriff says that these things always have a way of quieting themselves down.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Man in the White Suit

In 1946, people in Britain wanted a chuckle. You could hardly blame them, entertainment had been basically cancelled during the war years, and small delights were still being rationed. The celebratory consumerism going on in America wasn’t happening in British homes. Buildings were still being repaired, families were still buckling down. Victory feels different when you’ve been fighting on your own soil.

Over at Ealing Studios – the oldest continuously working film studio in the world – the business had been kept alive with documentaries, propaganda driven war films, and the odd symbolism-drenched thriller or two. But it was time to get back to something light and cheerful. A well-earned bit of jolliness.

So, Ealing went to work on Hue and Cry. It was the first instalment of a group of films that are known as the Ealing Comedies. But instead of being an actual comedy, the film is more like a gangster story for kids. Like that Disney one where everyone in Oliver Twist is dogs. (Lest we somehow wind up with angry British film historians over here, Hue and Cry not only isn’t a comedy, per say, it also isn’t the very first comedy produced by Ealing. But its financial success did kick off the new era, and it’s a great way to wrap your head around the change because of its mishmash of genres.) Hue and Cry is well worth watching for its location filming in a bombed out London, and it was well-received by audiences.

The big brains at Ealing kept going with the new model, picking up speed with a collection of beloved classics: The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit among them. A keen-eyed reader might notice that these feature Ealing regular Alec Guinness, and it’s fun to note for all of us who first saw him in Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia, or even Smiley’s People, that Alec Guinness started his career as a comedic leading man.

In 1951’s The Man in the White Suit, he stars as Sidney Stratton, a young scientist who puts his foot in it when he devotes himself to inventing a fabric that will never stain or wear out. Along the way, he falls in love with the more beautiful but less interesting of two women in his life, and falls afoul of both Big Textile and the unions. Big Textile doesn’t want to sell a product it can never replace, and the unions don’t want people to lose jobs as the demand for labour falls off once the everlasting fabric starts hitting the market.

It’s sci-fi satire at its best, with a simple “what if” premise and believably outlandish human responses.

Sidney, for his part, is completely oblivious to all the social upheaval his breakthrough will bring. There’s a point towards the end where his kindly old landlady chides scientists for never leaving “well enough alone.” She takes in washing for extra money, and if clothes never need washing, what’s she supposed to do then?

You think that this might be a turning point for Sid, but it soon becomes obvious that he actually hasn’t learned a lesson from all this. Nobody has. Nobody is better or wiser, they all just keep going until next time. It’s a great ending, unless you prefer a big finish wrapped up in ribbon and a white wedding. Which is perfectly fine to prefer, but in that case you’ll probably hate this movie.

Visually, it’s super bright. It’s light and airy and full of daylight splendor, which feels really unique and bold when you’re dealing with a crazy inventor. The laboratory is a friendly, open space, the loading docks are full of sunshine, even the offices of bitter men of means are cheerful to look at.
Sidney’s fabric is startlingly white – it can’t stain, but that also means it can’t be dyed – and it glows in the dark a little bit because it’s slightly radioactive. He has a suit made from it, and at first his wealthy girlfriend laughs at how overwhelming it looks, but then tells him that the glow of it makes him look like “a knight in shining armour.”

The suit’s glow is part of the charm of the final moments of the film, which find Sidney hunted through the streets of a northern industrial town in the dead of night, trying to get on the train to Manchester to protect his revolutionary fabric. Even the night scenes are bright, by the way, and not just because the suit acts like a flashlight, but because they’re not full of expressionist shadows or narrow alleyways. They use big pieces of sky and open roads between short, stout buildings.

Factory furnaces loom in the background, but not like oppressive towers of Sauron, or belching symbols of corruption you might see in a film noir. They’re simply the heart of the town. Everyone’s lives revolve around the textile mill, and the textile mill is always present.

On the side of Big Textile are Hammer Horror regular Michael Gough, and ubiquitous character actor Cecil Parker. Gough is the young man on the make, Parker the father of Sidney’s love interest and owner of the mill. Joanne Greenwood is Daphne, the leading lady, and she has the same problem all Joanne Greenwood characters have: a total lack of relatability. This time around, she’s brimming with her usual cold blonde sexuality, but there’s also a manipulative quality to her interactions with Sidney that makes her seem out of touch with the story at hand. And she’s absurdly wealthy, calling her father “daddy” and pronouncing it “deddy” with her ear-splittingly upper crust accent, not helping matters in the empathy department.

Representing the unions is Vida Hope as Birtha. She’s not as seductive as Daphne, but Birtha seems to recognize more of who Sidney is rather than who he wants to be, and her perspective of wanting to do what’s best for everyone collides hilariously with Sidney’s idea of the same subject. She ends up locking him in a basement apartment in a solid bit of physical comedy. Her bossiness and warm heart are an interesting counterpoint to a flighty scientist, but we wind up going with the traditional fantasy rich girl instead. 

Supporting Birtha in representing the working class are Patric Doonan as your typical blue collar type, and Edie Martin in a wonderful turn as the landlady of the boarding house where Sidney and Birtha live.

All three groups – scientist, workers, factory owners – are as wrong as they are right, of course. Sidney’s dream of inventing a fabric that will save the average person money over time, with its implications for durability in other textile categories like ship’s sails and reusable bags, is as noble as his lack of understanding the major flaw is short-sighted. The world isn’t set up for his invention just yet. And while Birtha and the workers certainly deserve to have reliable jobs, the entire working class would benefit from durable, long-lasting clothes that they almost never have to replace. The factory owners are failing to see how human nature and the fashion industry will ensure demand for their high-priced product, and that monopolizing the ever-lasting fibre might be the best thing ever.

So which group is right? Is Sidney's improvement the next logical step, and society will have to adjust whether it wants to or not? Are jobs today more important that lower expenses tomorrow? Should business owners have the right to slow development of new innovations in order to better prepare themselves for the impact of competing products?

The Man in the White Suit doesn’t look like American science fiction from the early 50’s, and it doesn’t feel like it either. But then, it doesn’t feel like what we’ve come to associate with British sci-fi either. In 1955, just four years later, Ealing Studios would belong to the BBC and become the home of the Quatermass series and the original run of Doctor Who. The aliens arrived, and the small near-future stories of how to wrangle technological changes fell to the wayside.

But maybe they shouldn't have, because the questions they ask are ones we're still trying to answer today.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Twilight Zone 01x21: Mirror Image

This is one of the more understated episodes of The Twilight Zone, especially of the ones that were penned by Rod Serling. There’s no grand soapbox moment at the end where twist and narration combine to tell you what’s what, and maybe that’s why it’s so effective and timeless.

Sometimes on TZ, the morality got in the way of the story. Sometimes the brilliant twist closed too many doors. In “Mirror Image” the point is in the wondering, and it’s that wondering that wakes people up at 2:05 in the morning, just to listen to the wind and make sure that they’re still who they think they are.

And there’s a tremendous cast! Our leading lady is Vera Miles, enigmatic and cool as always. She’s probably best remembered today for her supporting role in Psycho (even though she crushed it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Plus, we’ve got TV legend Martin Milner, who somehow hasn’t been in a recap yet, which makes me think I’ve been falling down on the job.

The episode opens with a dark and stormy night. Lightning cracks across a deluging sky. But it’s not the couple who finds the bridge washed out, or the once-wealthy residents of a Gothic manor house we’re concerning ourselves with. It’s a young woman – Millicent Barnes, played by Miles – waiting in a dreary bus depot in upstate New York.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Ghost Story/Circle of Fear 01x06: Alter-Ego

1972’s Ghost Story is a complicated show.  

For the first thirteen episodes, it’s what I like to think of as “relaxedly paranormal” – there’s not a lot of blood or trauma, and the endings are usually more depressing than ironic. And there are framing segments featuring Sebastian Cabot as your host Winston Essex, a mysterious author who lives in a great big mansion full of weirdos who come to be his guests and tell him spooky stories.

Then, all of a sudden, Sebastian Cabot is gone. The show’s title is changed to Circle of Fear, and the promotional materials insist that there’s less emphasis on the supernatural. Just things like cursed wooden horses, a satanic office cult, more ghosts than ever before, and some elemental demons trapped in glasswork. Straightforward, scary situations anybody could find themselves in.

Producer William Castle – responsible for some of the most fun you can have with Vincent Price – had decided that a change was needed. While he’d patterned the host segments on his idol Alfred Hitchcock, he quickly had second thoughts. The radical changes to the genre brought about by Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 were trickling into television, and nobody could make up their mind what that would look like.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Down These Mean Streets, A Camera Rolls

There’s some buzz surrounding the gimmick for Hardcore Henry, an action flick that captures the first person chaos of the video game experience. But it’s not the first movie to make a go of what the kids call “subjective camera.” It’s generally agreed on that there were two major moments for the technique in American film, and both of them happened in those heady days of black and white.

In 1931, director Rouben Mamoulian experimented with first person during the opening sequence for his remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mamoulian was something of a genius, and fond of pushing the limits. (It worked out great until his career ended with back-to-back firings off of Porgy and Bess and then Cleopatra. Being a genius is a messy business.)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starts with leading man Fredric March’s shadow cast on sheet music as we watch his hands play the organ. When the doctor’s butler enters, the camera-as-your-eyes swerves to look at him, then quickly returns to the hands. This swerving motion doesn’t have anything in common with how a human head turns, so it’s a really disorienting sequence.

Dr. Jekyll moves to the hallway mirror next, where we first see him through his own eyes as he looks at his reflection and puts on his hat and cloak. We stay in his perspective for a few minutes, but not the whole movie. That’s a relief, because there’s a sluggishness to the forward motion of the camera. Dr. Jekyll seems to be taking very careful steps as he slowly, slowly makes his way out of the house.

(Jsyk, the rest of the movie is fantastic. Once you get to feast your eyes on March’s performance, it’s one for the ages.)

The decision to use first person does add an intriguing element to the story of Dr. Jekyll. Are we, the audience, supposed to feel as vulnerable as he is to his darker nature? Or are we trapped in Jekyll’s vision of the world – that there is bad within everyone – whether we think it’s true or not?

For me, as somebody who doesn’t see anything like Fredric March when I look in my hallway mirror, it makes the character curiously hollow. There isn’t anything inside Jekyll. It’s almost as though Hyde becomes inevitable, potion or not, simply because he’s the one who desires existence.

Henry Jekyll isn’t a relatable man, he’s a man eager to be possessed by anything that’s willing to take up residence behind his eyes.

It makes the film more eerie than tragic, and even though it’s a bumpy start, it sets the audience thinking about what they know about the story they’re about to see and what they might not have thought of. For an adaptation of a book that had already been successfully brought to the screen once before, it’s a refreshing idea.

By the by, the earlier version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was made in 1920, starred John Barrymore, was directed by John S. Roberston, and features its own quick moment of subjective camera in its opening sequence. Dr. Jekyll is at his microscope, and as he looks through we’re treated to an image of what he’s looking at on his slide. Nowadays, that’s not such a big deal, but for 1920, that was some ingenious filmmaking.

Rouben Mamoulian said many times that his interest wasn’t in creating realism in his films, but what he called “visual poetry.” In that sense, the ominous strangeness of his opening sequence is a success. It really does feel like the personal, mysterious pull of a poem with no particular meaning.

From Robert Louis Stevenson to Raymond Chandler and 1947’s The Lady in the Lake, and the first full-length film done in subjective camera. And it was directed by none other than the father of Elizabeth “Samantha Stephens” Montgomery! He wasn’t trying for poetry, though. He was trying to capture the experience of sharing a narrator’s memories – which is a substantially more elusive goal, and sounds kind of bonkers.

Robert Montgomery had been a cheerful rom-com star in the 30’s, had gone to war, and come home wanting to make a shift in his career. In 1945, he gave a haunting turn as a PT boat commander in John Ford’s They Were Expendable. During the shoot, Ford broke his leg, and asked Montgomery to take over while he was recovering. It went extremely well, and led to Montgomery’s brief career as a director.

He started with an adaptation of The Lady in the Lake, the fourth of Chandler’s novels featuring private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe had made it to the screen before, in The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart, and again in Farewell, My Lovely with Dick Powell. General consensus was that while the films were satisfying in their own right, they were disappointing adaptations. They lacked the feeling of the novels.

Montgomery’s solution was daring, and also a total mess. Marlowe’s strength as a first person narrator, he thought, could be captured with a film from his perspective. Like his physical perspective. Unfortunately, this totally misses the mark, because the best part about being in Marlowe’s head was his wry observations and insightful descriptions, which is why previous films had leaned heavily on narration.

Just prior to release, two breaks were inserted into Lady in the Lake where Montgomery-as-Marlowe sat at his desk and explained pieces of the story that couldn’t be captured with the limitations on the camera. This was a major warning sign that the film wasn’t going to work.

But, of course, that didn’t stop MGM hyping the crap out of it as the first movie starring… YOU! Like it was some choose your own adventure book where you got to solve a really boring murder.

There are a lot of unique choices in The Lady in the Lake, including eschewing conventional orchestration for a choir (the movie takes place at Christmas, and employs something between a Greek chorus and office carollers), and attempting long, hyper-real sequences. It’s these unblinking shots that create the most problems. They force you to notice the theatricality of leading lady Audrey Totter, who can’t really get up close and personal with Marlowe if he’s a camera that’s far away enough to capture her costume and all the nifty lighting tricks that are setting the noir mood.

Totter, along with Leon Ames and Dick Simmons, is stuck as a talking head with limited range of motion and emotion. Instead of being visually interesting, it makes the scenes with other characters dull and repetitive. And it's not like these were bad actors who weren't trying. The deck was really stacked against them.

The sluggishness that plagued Mamoulian wasn’t solved by Montgomery, either. Marlowe lumbers, vision too high, hands out of place, until it becomes a way better movie if you just imagine that you’re not a private detective at all, you’re Lurch from The Addams Family, and that’s why everyone is standing so far away from you.

When Marlowe stands by mirrors – three times to let us get a look at our leading man – it feels like his eyes are in the wrong spot. Less like the fascinating twist of character we suddenly experience with Dr. Jekyll, and more like the audience is actually his invisible best friend. Or possibly an imp riding on his shoulder.

There’s one sequence that works wonderfully, though.

Marlowe is making his second visit to a gigolo named Chris Lavery when he finds the front door unlocked. The steady, careful motions that make the camera’s view unnatural in other moments gives us a chance to notice all the little things that are strange and wrong.

Lampshades askew. Two empty glasses on a living room table. An unmade bed late in the day. The choir starts to vocalize softly. Ominously. Somewhere, a faucet is running. Marlowe finds that the tap is turned on in the upstairs bathroom. He swings the door open wider, and there are cracks and holes in the glass of the shower. Five of them.

Two bullets are lodged in the tiles.

The rest are lodged in Chris Lavery.

The predictability of the discovery is what creates the suspense. We – the audience, Marlowe, anybody tuning in by chance – all know that Lavery is dead. We know it as soon as the camera takes us into the house. But we all have to look at him, to confirm his death, in order to proceed.

There’s no watching someone’s horrified expression, there’s no hearing it from a secondary character. There’s just the dead man, and our obligation to the story to see him.

Ultimately, in both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Lady in the Lake, it’s the unnaturalness that does the most harm. Everybody watching a movie knows how it feels to be behind a set of eyeballs, even if we don’t consciously think of it. So all the little falsehoods that don’t seem wrong or out of place when we’re thinking of the movie as a movie are glaringly weird when we’re thinking of the movie as the physical view of a single character.

Since Lady in the Lake, FPS games and RPGs like Skyrim and Fallout have ironed out a good deal of how we expect first person to be blocked. Hardcore Henry will no doubt be benefitting from this progress more than it’ll owe any debt to Robert Montgomery. But games have something that films lack – the anticipation of a choice. You choose to how respond in the dialogue wheel or whether or not you want to cast a spell or hide from that attacking dragon. That’s what makes them immersive.

So while Hardcore Henry has probably overcome the Lurch-cam and the Zoolanderesque inability of its predecessors to turn left, it has a whole new stack of problems to contend with. Mainly a target audience that’s going to get bored with someone else calling all the shots.

One day, subjective camera might be legitimized the way 3D has. But until then, it’s just the latest Smell-O-Vision.