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.

Blogs on Film

Making Good Movies on the Cheap

The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make a good movie pretty cheaply. And I admire the people who are inventive and unpretentious enough to go for it on a low budget, like the subjects of the documentary American Movie (which I recommended here) or Robert Rodriguez, who penned the Rosetta Stone of such filmmakers: Rebel Without a Crew.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Trailer) - YouTube

For example, I recently watched X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, one of Roger Corman’s many low budget horror/sci-fi films. He used a common strategy for such films, which is to cast someone who used to be an A-list star but whose career is waning enough that he will take a smaller check. In this case it was Ray Milland, who clearly didn’t think the film was beneath him and turned in a good performance. The sets are spare, the actors are few and other than Milland, unknown. But it’s completely watchable and engaging. It doesn’t try to be a blockbuster extravaganza life-changing piece of cinema. Rather, it tries to entertain for 79 minutes and it does, on what is clearly a modest budget.

A film that is an even bigger triumph of low budget movie making is Rocky. Yes, Rocky, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, spawned a billion-dollar film franchise and was a world-wide hit, was a low budget film. Burgess Meredith was in the Ray Milland position; something of a name in the past but now affordable. All those shots of Rocky running around Philadelphia were an economy, using the new Steadicam technology to generate emotional momentum without having to build sets or hire extras (Mostly it’s ordinary Philadelphians volunteering to do cameos). The romantic ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian was supposed to happen with many skaters and a crowd, but they couldn’t afford that so they set the scene instead at a time when the rink is closed.

And the climactic sequence is a work of genius in inexpensive film production. Before the final fight, Stallone’s shorts didn’t match the banner image of Rocky and his robe was the wrong size, but they couldn’t afford to switch props so they simply rewrote the script to have Rocky comment on the errors and make him that much more pathetic. During the fight itself (embedded below), the arena is dark because it was mostly empty — they had run out of budget for extras. Stallone’s dad is the guy ringing the bell for rounds and other friends and family pitched in as extras to stretch the dollars. They could not afford many re-shoots so if you watch carefully you will see that the people watching the fight were moving around to give the impression of a full arena (you can also see the Steadicam in some of the overhead shots and that some the key punches actually miss — a “rib shot” to the hip for example).

With such a sparsely populated set, it was impossible to portray a big crowd reaction. So what did director John Avildsen do? When Rocky first decks Apollo Creed, Avildsen cannily cuts to the neighborhood bar, so that a small number of actors can give the audience a scene of excited, cheering people packed in close and rooting for Rocky.

Inspired, resourceful work by everyone involved, on what was then a slender budget of about a million dollars. And note to Hollywood, it returned an over 200 to 1 profit so it isn’t true that you can’t make money in Hollywood without a gazillion dollar production behind you.