Sunday, May 26, 2024

Marlowe (1969)

Marlowe is a 1969 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, with James Garner as Philip Marlowe. Stirling Silliphant wrote the screenplay and he obviously had the right credentials. It was directed by Paul Bogart, a guy with a very undistinguished career spent mainly in television.

What’s odd about Chandler is that there weren’t a huge number of adaptations of his novels back in the 40s but between 1969 and 1978 there were no less than four, varying wildly in both style and quality. They covered the spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous (I’m afraid I’m not a fan of Robert Altman’s eccentric The Long Goodbye).

The Little Sister just happens to be my favourite Chandler novel.

These later adaptations all faced one problem - whether to go for a period setting or whether to put Marlowe in a contemporary setting. The 1975 Farewell, My Lovely was the only one that went for a period setting and it’s the best of the four. The 1969 Marlowe goes for a contemporary setting so early on we have Marlowe encountering hippies. There’s plenty of late 60s California decadence as Marlowe finds himself encountering the world of television.

James Garner was a pretty obvious choice to play Marlowe. Obviously Robert Mitchum would have been better but Mitchum had to wait until 1975 by which time he had to play an ageing Marlowe (which he did to perfection). But Garner did have the charisma and the role was well within his range.

Philip Marlowe is working on a very trivial case. A small-town girl from Kansas, Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), wants her missing brother Orrin to be found. Marlowe has a lead but then there’s a corpse with an ice-pick in it and Marlowe isn’t keen on those kinds of cases so he wants to drop it.

Unfortunately there’s soon a second corpse, and a second ice-pick.

There are also some photographs, of the sort usually described as compromising. There’s obviously some blackmail going on. The photographs lead Marlowe to TV sitcom star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt). Marlowe figures she’s in a jam and would like to hire a private detective to get her out of the mess but she’s not interested.

Someone else wants Marlowe off the case and hires a king fu expert (played by Bruce Lee in an odd, out-of-place but amusing cameo) to persuade him to back off.

The ice picks worry Marlowe. Rubbing guys out in that manner is a trademark of big-time gangster Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wynant).

Marlowe has a lot of women to deal with in this case and they’re all probably lying to him and they’re all potentially dangerous. There’s Mavis, there’s her stripper best friend Dolores (Rita Moreno) and there’s Orfamay. The connections between these women may not be what they seem to be. None are played as conventional femmes fatales which is refreshing. Marlowe also has a gangster to worry about, and a doctor with a possibly dubious past. And there’s missing brother Orrin who was mixed up in something shady. There are half a dozen quite convincing murder suspects so it’s no wonder Marlowe is bewildered.

The tone is somewhat erratic. The opening scene with the hippies comes across as a desperate attempt to pander to a youth audience. Chandler was not really a writer of noir fiction (although a lot of people think he was) and the only Chandler adaptation that comes close to being genuinely film noir is the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler was however decidedly hardboiled (which is not the same thing) and Marlowe just doesn’t achieve that feel. In fact at times it seems like it’s trying to be tongue-in-cheek. Chandler could be very witty and amusing so that approach isn’t entirely wrong but this movie pushes it a bit too far.

We do have to address the question of plotting. There’s a popular perception that Chandler didn’t care about plotting. That simply isn’t true. Chandler saw himself as a writer of detective fiction and that’s a genre that requires a reasonably effective plot. Chandler put a lot of effort into his plots but they do tend to be very complicated and convoluted and sometimes confusing. That problem shows up in this movie as well. It’s not at all easy to keep track of what’s going on.

I don’t think that’s a major problem. Marlowe is supposed to be mystified and it doesn’t hurt if the audience is as well. As Marlowe slowly starts to make sense of the case we do as well, and we make the same wrong assumptions that Marlowe makes.

James Garner had huge success on television but was never a top-tier movie star. I suspect that’s because he made acting look easy. Critics like actors who make acting look hard. Critics also admire actors who seem to be having a miserable time. Critics are rather sad people. I’m quite OK with Garner’s easy-going performance here.

The other players are all pretty solid. Carroll O’Connor overacts less than usual as Homicide cop Lieutenant Christy French, who is (surprisingly) almost a nice guy. That’s something I like about this movie - the characters are not the stereotypes you’re expecting. Rita Moreno just about steals the picture with her very steamy strip-tease routine.

As director Paul Bogart does a perfectly competent job.

I have a few minor quibbles with Marlowe but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a very nice transfer. It would be nice to see this movie get a Blu-Ray release - it’s worthy of re-evaluation.

I’ve reviewed the two Robert Mitchum Marlowe movies, the superb Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and the much less successful but still rather interesting The Big Sleep (1978).

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