Immediately after reading Raymond Chandler’s splendid The Little Sister, I decided to revisit a 1969 adaptation of the book I remembered liking many years ago. I am happy to report that having read the source material made me appreciate the movie version even more than I did the first time through. Therefore I give you this film recommendation: Marlowe.
The plot: Orfamay Quest, a woman from the sticks who is less innocent and prudish than she at first seems (Sharon Farrell, very good here) comes to Los Angeles and hires private investigator Phillip Marlowe (James Garner) to find her brother Orrin. Meanwhile, in an ostensibly distinct plot thread which you know will get woven in because it’s Raymond Chandler, someone has taken some compromising photos of a vicious gangster (H.M. Wyant) with an alluring starlet (Gayle Hunnicutt, who as ever is nothing if not alluring). Meanwhile, the starlet’s fellow actress and friend Dolores Gonzales (Rita Moreno) tries to help Marlowe while also liking the look of him. The famous PI is soon enmeshed in a net of murder and intrigue.
The prolific and talented Stirling Siliphant had the most important job in this film, namely converting Chandler’s long, complicated, novel into an hour and a half of cinema. Siliphant did many things right by the famous author. He ditched all the opening exposition involved with Marlowe and Orfamay meeting (I am a big fan of this in movies) and started the movie with the first of the many murders, gripping the audience right off the bat. He also preserved much of Chandler’s terrific dialogue and simplified the plot without making the story less compelling.
Siliphant also added two elements of his own, one of which works and one of which doesn’t. What works is introducing American audiences to his friend and martial arts teacher Bruce Lee. When Lee unleashes his Jeet Kune Do in Marlowe’s office the results are both amazing, and, with a droll assist from Garner, very funny. What doesn’t work is giving Marlowe a stable, bland, girlfriend. This fish-with-a-bicycle move eliminates the sexual tensions and possibilities that are central to Marlowe’s character and the novel.
James Garner is well-cast as Marlowe, which no Rockford Files fan will be surprised to hear. Indeed, as Garner blearily answers a knock at his front door while dressed in his bathrobe, that trailer on the beach will come to your mind’s eye. Matching his on screen presence, charm, and sex appeal is Rita Moreno, who gets to show off both her acting and dancing chops.
Chandler’s work really belongs in the 1940s, so I tend to like period adaptations such as Farewell My Lovely a bit more than films like Marlowe that move him out of his natural era. But I greatly enjoyed Marlowe because it’s well acted and exciting, and has a plot structure that is agreeably easier to grasp than that of novel.
p.s. Two trivia notes on the incomparable Rita Moreno. She is among very few performers in the EGOT club (Won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award). She was close friends with Garner, and appeared in three episodes of The Rockford Files.
p.p.s. Director Paul Bogart and James Garner would work together again two years later on another film I commend to you: Skin Game.