There are two primary characteristics of the novels of Raymond Chandler that have rendered them classics. One is their atmosphere: the sexy, corrupt, dangerous world of 1930s Los Angeles, populated with characters so perfectly and snarkily described by protagonist Philip Marlowe that said novels almost demand to be adapted into films. The visuals that Chandler provides in Marlowe’s unique voice put the reader smack dab in the middle of the scene of the crime, and even with the violence, chaos, and debauchery that proceed to take place around you, you’re still glad to be there. The visual element is so strong that filmmakers have seemingly little work to do to bring them to life.
That previously mentioned unique voice is the second, most crucial factor in Chandler’s appeal. Marlowe is not always likeable; though ostensibly the hero of the stories, and the most moral character in every ensemble, he still has his share of bad attitude and vice. Yet he is always smart, funny, and undeniably badass, with charisma that leaps off the page. Finding the right actor to bring this character to life has been historically difficult; while definitely not in Marlowe’s physical mode, Humphrey Bogart definitely came the closest in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep, though that film would have been even more spectacular if it had chosen to utilize voiceover to include even more of Marlowe’s delightful commentary.
James Garner steps into those shoes in Marlowe and does an admirable job, though the film itself is not as great as his performance. Marlowe is an adaptation of a later and lesser-known Chandler novel, The Little Sister, and so is already on a lesser footing than The Big Sleep. And while it is unfair to compare this film to that earlier classic, it is also inevitable because that first film is such a classic, and such an ideal representation of what makes Chandler’s work iconic. Marlowe was made in 1969, and so updates the story to that time period, with mixed results. Whereas Chandler’s novels were soaked with rain and darkness and noir, Marlowe is sun-splattered and glows with a stereotypically Seventies orange hue. It’s equally atmospheric, but in a way radically different than one would expect from Raymond Chandler; for this fan, it was a little too far removed, too dried up and Day-Glo. The opening title sequence, complete with jazzy original song and colorful, cool graphics, cribs more from the James Bond franchise than it does from the noir tradition. However, Garner captures the Marlowe essence and attitude perfectly, staring at all of his suspects with a bemused, always-untrustworthy gaze while spouting comebacks like, “For a guy with a limited vocabulary, you sure do manage to get your point across.”
The plot is stereotypically convoluted as most mysteries are: young Orfamay Quest (Carroll O’Connor, playing annoyingly naïve a little too annoyingly well) tumbles off the covered wagon from Kansas into the gritty world of LA, and hires Marlowe to find her missing brother. Also involved somehow is beautiful up-and-coming sitcom actress Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt), who has gotten herself romantically entangled with an unpleasant gangster aptly named Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wynant). People are stabbed literally in the back, dirty photographs are revealed, offices are trashed and robbed—the crimes keep piling up until the only person involved who can keep anything straight is Marlowe himself, and Lord knows even he has a hard time of it. The supporting cast is the perfect mix of beautiful and mysterious dames and grizzled old detectives and gangsters. Rita Moreno, best known for her Oscar-winning performance as Anita in West Side Story, oozes sex appeal and sass as Dolores Gonzales, a trusted friend of Mavis who looks out for the actress’s best interests but has her own secrets, of course. Everyone does in Philip Marlowe’s world. Moreno does a strip tease in the third act of the film that pretty much anyone, male or female, can appreciate the appeal of, and has her own share of dialogue that rolls off the tongue and sticks in your mind, such as “The streets are paved with forgotten husbands!” (I wish I had an excuse to use that line in real life, don’t you?) Also awesome is Bruce Lee. Yes, THE Bruce Lee. He shows up for a few short scenes as Winslow Wong and characteristically karate-chops Marlowe’s office into oblivion after Marlowe rejects his offer of a bribe on behalf of Steelgrave. All of this gathers steam until it explodes at the climax in a sequence that kept me on the edge of my seat. It was the best scene by far, apart from the ones with Bruce Lee; it’s a shame it came so late in the film.
Overall, I think that you can appreciate Marlowe more if you are unfamiliar with the source material and so are capable of seeing it in an unbiased, untainted light. As someone who has written research papers on Raymond Chandler, in particular how was both successful and unsuccessful as a film adaptation, this reviewer was a little too attached to her preconceived notions of Philip Marlowe to fully enjoy the film for what it was—a smart, sexy mystery with an exciting conclusion.
DVD Bonus Features
The only extra on this spare and yet crisply remastered edition put out by the Warner Archive is the original trailer for the film.
This made-to-order edition of Marlowe is available exclusively from the online WB Shop.
"Marlowe" is on sale June 10, 2011 and is rated PG. Crime-Thriller, Drama, Film-Noir. Directed by Paul Bogart. Written by Raymond Chandler, Stirling Sillphant. Starring Carroll Oconnor, Gayle Hunnicutt, James Garner, Rita Moreno.