Starring James Garner, Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O’Connor, Rita Moreno, Sharon Farrell, and William Daniels
My rating: ★★★ stars
Fun, intriguing, fast-paced mystery based on Raymond Chandler novel.
By 1969, the classic era of films noir was long over. Marlowe adapts a hardboiled novel of the same type that often provided the source material for those classic crime films of the 1940s and 1950s, Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, but updates it to the era of free love and color films. With much of the action taking place during the day in the bright sunshine of southern California, Marlowe doesn’t look much like the films noir previous decades.
However, to Marlowe’s credit, it doesn’t try to imitate earlier films. It takes a fresher approach. The film uses color to show the contrast between the vibrant world of the wealthy and the dingy surroundings where Marlowe plies his trade. The fantastic title sequence reflects the new freedom from censorship that came to Hollywood in the late 1960s. It features a racy encounter between two unidentified people as, unbeknownst to them, a photographer takes pictures of them with a telephoto lens. This effectively draws us into the mystery from the very beginning.
The story, typical of Chandler’s work, defies easy summarization. The plot is labyrinthine, involving a blackmail scheme that leads to multiple murders with multiple perpetrators. Some criticize Chandler’s stories for being convoluted and incomprehensible. However, this plot proves to be one of the film’s strengths. The rapid-fire developments in the mystery keep the film’s momentum strong throughout. More importantly, watching Marlowe pull back layers of clues and red herrings and get drawn deeper into the world of the crime is involving and entertaining. Marlowe weeds through the classic trappings of mysteries: blackmail photos, a cheap hotel with a seedy house detective, gangsters who force the detective into a car at gunpoint, and even the detective getting Mickey Finned. All of this business is great fun.
The main flaw in the movie, however, is the miscasting of James Garner as the tough, but clever private eye Philip Marlowe. He’s too handsome, too polished, too clean cut—yes, the film shows him with a rumpled suit, but it doesn’t look like it belongs on him. Also, Garner’s laconic delivery doesn’t do justice to the film’s snappy dialogue. Yet, the dialogue does show the wit that we expect from films adapted from Chandler.
While seeing Jackie Coogan and Bruce Lee in small roles is a treat, the film lacks the great cast of Hollywood character actors who played the myriad denizens of the criminal world in movies of the classic era. The director, Paul Bogart, who mostly worked in television, peoples this film with actors from that medium who lack the charisma of their big-screen counterparts. With the exception of Sharon Farrell, who gives an overly shrill performance as Marlowe’s client, none of the performances are really bad. Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O’Connor, H.M. Wynant, and William Daniels are not incompetent actors. The performances are just not as deliciously vivid as they could have been. Only Rita Moreno, as a friendly and shrewd burlesque performer, displays strong magnetism and screen presence.
Marlowe is not a great film. It doesn’t show the quality and ingenuity that Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, a similar updating of Chandler, would four years later. But it’s fast-paced and intriguing, a real treat for mystery fans.