Thursday, January 17, 2013
The Brasher Doubloon (1947)
The Brasher Doubloon (released in the UK as The High Window) is one of the least known of all Hollywood Raymond Chandler adaptations, and until its recent release as part of the 20th Century-Fox Cinema Archive series it was for many years one of the least seen.
This 1947 film was based on the third of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, The High Window, with George Montgomery as Marlowe. Apparently Dana Andrews, Fred MacMurray and Victor Mature were all considered for the role. Whether Fox made the right decision in casting Montgomery is a matter we will consider further. With John Brahm as director the movie certainly had potential, and whether it lived up to that potential is another matter for further consideration.
The opening sequence is certainly promising. We see Marlowe arrive at a Los Angeles mansion while the voiceover tells us how much he dislikes the hot summer winds. The sound of those winds will be a recurring feature of the movie. The usual way of capturing a noir atmosphere is to emphasise night scenes and shadows, but this is not Brahm’s approach. He uses heat and those dry winds to create a stifling atmosphere and it works rather well.
The movie shows even more promise when we are introduced to Marlowe’s client, the formidable Mrs Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates). She ostentatiously refuses to offer Marlowe a drink and clearly expects a private detective to behave like one of the servants. Marlowe is not impressed and is about to turn the case down, but he is persuaded by Mrs Murdock’s secretary Merle Davis (Nancy Guild) to change his mind. The fact that Merle Davis is a very attractive young woman may have had something to do with Marlowe’s change of heart.
Mrs Murdock has been the victim of a robbery. Only one item was taken, a very rare and very valuable coin known as the Brasher Doubloon. Mrs Murdock knows who has stolen it, and the audience can make a pretty shrewd guess as to the culprit’s identity as well. Mrs Murdock does not want to press charges. She just wants the coin back.
Of course the case turns out to involve much more than a stolen coin. There is also the blackmail angle, blackmail that centres on film footage of Mrs Murdock’s husband being pushed out of a high window (hence the title of the original novel). Marlowe will encounter a colourful cast of shady characters and heavies during the course of the investigation.
John Brahm does a fine job as director. He uses lots of high-angle and low-angle shots but he doesn’t overuse them. They serve to give the movie an off-kilter feel that meshes perfectly with the off-kilter world of Mrs Murdock’s strange little household. There’s some excellent use of location shooting - this is very much a movie that captures the feel of the 1930/1940s Los Angeles of film noir.
Nancy Guild was being pushed very hard by Fox at the time, perhaps too hard. She was thrust into leading roles that she didn’t really have the experience to carry off successfully. She always seems ill at ease, but since Merle Davis is obviously a disturbed and very anxious young woman Guild’s nervousness actually enhances her characterisation. A more experienced actress might have been tempted to try to turn the character into a stock femme fatale. And Guild certainly had the looks required by a film noir actress.
Florence Bates is a delight and the supporting cast is very strong with Fritz Kortner being particularly good. Conrad Janis is effective as Mrs Murdock’s very creepy and very arrogant spoilt brat of a son, Leslie Murdock.
A Philip Marlowe movie obviously stands or falls on the performance of the actor playing Marlowe. Whether you enjoy George Montgomery’s performance or not depends on what you’re expecting. He makes an excellent private eye but he isn’t the right actor to play this particular private eye. He’s too young, too smooth, too confident and too optimistic. It’s an amusing performance and Montgomery certainly knows how to deliver hardboiled dialogue, but Marlowe needs to be a much more world-weary character. He needs to be a man who is much more beaten down by the sleaze and corruption of the world of the private detective. If you treat this movie as simply a private eye movie then Montgomery is extremely good but if it’s Marlowe you wanted you’re likely to be disappointed.
The movie itself is entertaining enough judged on its own merits and apart from the miscasting of Montgomery it’s a very good movie. Recommended, although Marlowe purists may have problems with it.
The 20th Century-Fox Cinema Archive DVD-R boasts a very handsome transfer.