Private Dick Philip Marlowe tries his hand at writing, he spiritedly pleads: “If I should die before I live” and learns the hard way that life often imitates fiction. Robert Montgomery directs and stars as Chandler’s protagonist but fails to infuse Marlowe with the weariness of wandering down mean streets, and resorts to gimmicky cinematography to inculcate the audience as accomplice to this dangerous mystery.
Montgomery begins the film by directly addressing the audience, which immediately skews the structure: is this Marlowe or Montgomery speaking to us? The story is then split into three more chapters where Montgomery speaks to the camera, breaking the POV form to convey some important plot point…but it seems he is just vying for screen time. Montgomery’s prosaic delivery thuds with heavy handed wisecracks, losing all interest as the words seem to float from the ether; without reaction shots or close-ups, it becomes very difficult to empathize with Marlowe. This is filmed almost entirely indoors with the usual camera tricks of Marlowe looking into a mirror (to remind the audience we’re supposed to be in his gumshoes) and without any establishing shots for reference: it seems to go from one room to a door to the next room…and so on. Even the very nexus of the plot is conveyed through dialogue instead of some intriguing visual and soon the artifice becomes annoying.
There are a few interesting moments such as the car chase, where Marlowe keeps looking in the rear-view mirror at his adversary, and the crash as the camera is juggled and fades to black(out). But even this device is used two more time in fistfights and again the form subsumes the substance. Though the femme fatale’s revelation is a bit of a surprise, the convoluted scheme is a fraud that holds little mystery because Marlowe doesn't discover it…he is told. The frisson of solving a fatal crime, as danger lurks around every corner, is kept at camera’s focal length and the audience is too distanced to care. Ultimately, the film is an experiment that has potential but it becomes as cold as a bloated corpse in a frozen lake.
Final Grade: (C-)