Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir


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.

Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Farewell, My Lovely

A film critic once wrote of one of my recommendations, the 1998 retro-noir Twilight, that you might have to be over 35 to really enjoy it. That may also be true of this week’s film recommendation, a reverent revival of detective noir starring an old hand at the genre: 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely.

The plot is from a Raymond Chandler novel, so in some sense there is no point in explaining it because his books are more about language and character than storyline (indeed, it didn’t even bother him to realize that he himself didn’t know who committed one of the murders in The Big Sleep). But anyway, private eye Phillip Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy, a mountain of a man with rice pudding for brains (ex-heavyweight boxer Jack O’Halloran, perfectly cast in his acting debut). Moose lost track of his girlfriend Velma after he went to prison, and now that he is out he wants Marlowe’s help in tracking her down. But every time Marlowe starts to get close to locating her, there is a violent backlash against him, Moose or both. Powerful forces clearly don’t want Velma found, but who are they and what is their motive?

The most famous and lionized adaptation of Chandler’s novel was made in 1944 under the name Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell as Marlowe. I have written about how I never quite bought Powell’s transformation from pre-war light comedy/song and dance man to noir tough guy (His contemporary John Payne was more successful). In contrast, the star of the 1975 version, Robert Mitchum, was born for this kind of stuff.

As a world-weary, cynical, Phillip Marlowe, Mitchum carries the 1975 adaptation end to end with aplomb. Many movie tough guys tried to play the invulnerable hero in their autumn years and looked a bit silly or even embarrassing. Mitchum, in his mid-50s, is playing a guy in his mid-50s and he’s just not that tough anymore. Indeed, in this movie, he takes way more physical punishment from the bad guys than he can dish out.

Sylvia Miles received a supporting actress Oscar nomination for solid work here as a boozy floozy, but it just as well might have gone to little known Kate Murtagh for her ferocious performance as a tough-as-nails madam. It’s also fun to see John Ireland, so often the bad guy in the heyday of noir (see for example my recommendation of Railroaded!), playing the “one honest cop” role here. Charlotte Rampling makes a sultry, Bacall-esque femme fatale whose hair is the color of gold in old paintings and who gives a man a smile that he can feel in his pocket (Added fun for noir fans: her screen entrance mirrors Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity). Also look fast for a young Sylvester Stallone in a small part.

Director Dick Richards really took a chance in making this old story in the 1970s with no condescension or trendy upgrades. The whole look of the film is a throwback, particularly the almost Sepia Tone color scheme created by the set and costume designers and cinematographer John Alonzo (who also shot Chinatown). If this had been shot in black and white, it could have been released to praise in the 1940s or 1950s. Some critics found that tiresome and affected, but for me this retelling of the classic story is as honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style.