THE LADY IN THE LAKE is the second of three Philip Marlowe adventures in the series. In this, Marlowe is called to the office of a magazine editor (Audrey Totter) that has decided to publish a story Marlowe wrote based on an actual case. Instead, she offers him $500 to find her boss (Leon Ames)'s wife, who has run off, ostensibly with a gold-digging gigolo. Totter wants the boss to divorce, but when he refuses, she calls off the search. Secretly, Ames re-hires Marlowe to find the wife and what transpires is a convoluted mystery of murder, betrayal, and ambivalent attraction.
It's hard to separate this film from its gimmick: Most of the narrative is shot in first-person perspective, following Marlowe's investigation. That being said, there is little that can be done to more evoke the oneiric than this type of camera placement. The camera floats through space, tilting and panning at the whim of a character within the film. You are in the place of the character, but have no control over the movement, as you often find yourself in a dream.
The lighting is downplayed in this film, presumably not to pile too much onto the viewer at the same time. But the expressionist lighting may have been more in keeping with this first-person narrative, as it would have been a direct expression of how this character sees the world, as opposed to an intimation of it. Audrey Totter, so wonderful in THE SET-UP is the erotic quotient of the film, but here she expresses herself in repeated eye expansion and retraction. What is lost in this relationship is seeing how Marlowe reacts to her, giving us a clue as to how he actually feels. Given his sardonic dialogue and lack of facial expressions, I was always under the impression that he was playing Totter for his own purposes, but they end up going on a New York vacation together, suggesting there was something there that didn't translate to the screen.
There's enough violence, on-screen and implied, to qualify for the cruelty signpost, and the double-crossings, double-dealings and switched identities qualify for the strange and ambivalent. This novel has never been adapted to the screen again, and I think it would be interesting to compare, since this film is such an experiment. What are the advantages and disadvantages, once you get past the novelty?
Next (and finally): The Big Sleep