BBC Radio 4, 12 February 2011
Another in the latest cycle of Radio 4 Chandler adaptations, involving false
identities, murder, deceit, red herrings and Marlowe (Toby Stephens) operating as the moral centre in a corrupt Los Angeles
world. Although Marlowe eventually solves the case, he derives no pleasure in doing so; his employer Derace Kingsley (Sam
Dale) is more concerned with sustaining social prestige rather than doing the right thing, while everyone Marlowe encounters
seems preoccupied with themselves.
Stephens seemed more at home as Marlowe than in The Big Sleep: maybe this
had something to do with a more plausible accent (more California than Camberley); or perhaps this was due to the actor's
capacity to communicate a sense of world-weary cynicism appropriate to Clairew Grove's production. Or perhaps Stephens seemed
more convincing because The Lady in The Lake (unlike The Big Sleep) has not exerted such a grasp on the
public imagination since the novel first appeared. The Big Sleep will forever be associated with Bogart; while The
Lady of the Lake has been filmed with Robert Montgomery as Marlowe, the action is shot entirely from the detective's
point of view. We only see his face on one occasion, as reflected in the lake. Hence The Lady in the Lake allows
more scope for contemporary actors to put their personal stamp on the role of Marlowe.
Whatever the explanation, we warmed to Stephens' Marlowe as he overcame a series
of obstacles, with his enemies regularly holding him at gunpoint: why couldn't they find more imaginative ways of apprehending
him? But perhaps this was the most inevitable outcome of an amoral Los Angeles world.
To be honest, the supporting cast was a trifle colourless: sometimes the American
accents wavered slightly, and on other occasions it seemed that the characterizations were straight out of the Hollywood manual
of film noir stereotypes - the heavy, the femme fatale, the harassed business person, the snobbish secretary
with a shady past. But perhaps this weakness is due to the book rather than to Wyatt's script: whereas Chandler's plot contains
fewer loose ends than The Big Sleep, it still appears somewhat contrived.
Although ostensibly set in the late 1930s, Grove's production lacked a sense of historical
context - perhaps some more suggestive sound-effects (the screech of tyres on a road, the throb of black sedans, the cheap
music of a seedy bar) would have come in useful. I realize that this suggestion might seem pedantic, but Chandler's novels
are extremely culture-specific. When Michael Winner moved The Big Sleep to suburban London in the late 1970s, the
story seemed creaky and contrived.
Nonetheless I have to admit that I enjoyed Grove's production; it was first and foremost
a rattling good yarn.