Monday, March 25, 2024

Marlowe (2022)

I approached Marlowe with a mixture of anticipation and skepticism. The anticipation came from the fact that I am a fan of Philip Marlowe and of Raymond Chandler’s stories and novels about him. But I didn’t think I could expect this film to live up to the others that have been produced before. For one thing, it is a 2022 color production that probably wouldn’t fare well compared to the shadowy black-and-white films from the 1940s and 1950s. And this 2022 color production isn’t even based on Raymond Chandler’s work; it is based on a novel by Benjamin Black: The Black-Eyed Blonde.

But I am happy to say that I enjoyed the film plot’s twists and turns, so reminiscent of film noir. Raymond Chandler’s novels are plot-twisty, too. He sometimes assumes that if Marlowe notices something, a small detail, something barely out of the ordinary, readers will notice and remember it, too. But I didn’t find the plot of the film as complicated as a Chandler novel. I had plenty of time to concentrate on Liam Neeson and his performance in the role of Philip Marlowe. I like Neeson, and he is good at projecting a world-weary private detective. But he’s older than the Philip Marlowe in Chandler’s novels, and I kept coming back to that fact.

The opening credits appear over the start of the day for Philip Marlowe. Over a radio broadcast that he is listening to at home, he and viewers hear the news of Hitler’s views about Poland and Czechoslovakia. Type on-screen announces that it is 1939 in Bay City, California. The narrative starts with Marlowe now in his office turning away from the window and lighting a cigarette. His secretary announces a client, Mrs. Clare Cavendish, who wants Marlowe to find her lover Nico Peterson. Peterson has disappeared without saying goodbye.

This opening sequence with Clare Cavendish is slow-paced. The first time that I saw the film, I was afraid the opening sequence might indicate that the entire film would be boring, but I realized afterward, after Marlowe takes the case and he starts his investigation in earnest, that the right word is languid. The dialogue between Marlowe and Cavendish is languid, with plenty of room for innuendo and mild flirtation—and for questions answered with questions. The kind of conversation that probably would intrigue any private detective.

(This article about Marlowe contains some spoilers.)

Marlowe starts his investigation at Nico Peterson’s last known address. The house is empty, with newspapers collecting. Peterson’s neighbor shows up and tells Marlowe about Mexicans looking for Nico Peterson, too. He uses derogatory terms to describe them, which is similar to how characters would talk to Marlowe in Chandler’s novels. It isn’t long before Marlowe discovers that Peterson has died. He was hit and killed on Bay Canyon Drive, outside the Corbata Club, by a driver who did not stay on the scene. Marlowe checks the autopsy report at Bay City Police Headquarters, but he still has questions. He goes to see Joe Green, a homicide detective who is a friend of Marlowe’s. Green tells Marlowe not to pursue the case: Nico’s sister Lynn identified the body, the death was ruled an accident, and that was the end of it—but not for Marlowe, of course.

He eventually gets Bernie Ohls (a familiar name to Chandler/Marlowe fans) involved in the case because Nico Peterson’s sister Lynn has been kidnapped by the Mexicans. Marlowe feels responsible: He and Lynn were at Nico’s house when the Mexicans appeared, knocked out Marlowe, and took Lynn. Bernie works for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and he has a wider jurisdiction than Joe Green—and he isn’t willing to let a kidnapping go, even if it means opening the case on Nico Peterson and treating it as a homicide instead of a kidnapping. Bernie Ohls is the one to tell Marlowe that LAPD found Lynn Peterson’s body. Marlowe knows she is dead when Ohls says, “She’ll wait till we get there.”

As the investigation proceeds, Marlowe meets several characters who have secrets and ulterior motives. Marlowe talks to Floyd Hanson, the manager of the Corbata Club, who doesn’t seem at all interested in Nico Peterson or his unfortunate death. He wants to keep investigators out of the club because it caters to the rich and all their vices, including illicit drugs shipped from Mexico and underage boys and girls. Lou Hendricks wants to find Nico Peterson because of the Mexican connection. Nico has some valuable merchandise that belongs to Hendricks, and he isn’t willing to let it go. The Mexicans looking for Nico are hit men. They are not so much interested in Nico as they are interested in what he is stealing from Hendricks. All the pieces are interconnected, and Marlowe has to uncover the connections.

Except for Liam Neeson’s age, he makes a great Philip Marlowe. He portrays the right amount of world-weariness and chivalry to be convincing. If my calculations are correct, Neeson was sixty-nine years old during filming, and that’s about twice the age of the fictitious Philip Marlowe. The actors and the screenwriter are well aware of Neeson’s age. Neeson as Marlowe even says out loud during a fight with two adversaries that he is “getting too old for this.” Detective Joe Green comments on Marlowe’s age, too, and wonders if Marlowe keeps working because he doesn’t have a police officer’s pension. I would still love to see Neeson again in the role of Philip Marlowe. Would his age be even more noticeable, and would that be a negative? All I can say is that I enjoyed his portrayal this time around, and I would see another Marlowe film with Neeson in the lead.

Marlowe is based on the novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, which I have read. The second half of the novel and the second half of the film are so different from one another that if I had seen only the second half of the film, I would have found it hard to believe the two were connected. I enjoyed the film so much more than the novel, which doesn’t happen very often, although I find it happens much more with film noir and neo-noir than it does with other types of films. I thought the screenplay was much more clever than the novel, although it wasn’t necessarily any truer to Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe. In fact, the details that I really appreciated had little to do with Chandler’s novels. The literary references sprinkled throughout the film’s narrative were wonderful, as they would be for anyone who enjoys literature, and Chandler in particular, as much as I do.

Literary References

Here are some examples of the film’s literary references.

The first time that Philip Marlowe meets Dorothy Quincannon, Clare Cavendish’s mother (played with great aplomb by Jessica Lange), she is on horseback, and she wants to know what his business is with her daughter. She asks him if he is “looking for pearls,” a sly reference to “Pearls Are a Nuisance,” a short story written by Raymond Chandler (published in April 1939 in Dime Detective, so Dorothy Quincannon could have heard of it, could have read it). She had a private investigator find out about Marlowe, and she tells him a little of what she learned. Dorothy and the screenwriters are clever: What she recounts is a mix of details from Chandler’s private life (for example, he drank himself out of a good job in the oil business, had a bad experience in World War I) and Philip Marlowe’s backstory (the character Marlowe used to work for the LAPD as an investigator).

When Philip Marlowe meets Dorothy Quincannon again, this time at the Garden of Allah Hotel, he catches her in the middle of instructing the waiter on making tea properly: “When you make tea, make tea. When you make water, make water.” This is a paraphrase from Ulysses by James Joyce (“When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.”), and Philip Marlowe points out to Dorothy Quincannon that she is stealing from Joyce. It is an opportunity for the Irish director/screenwriter, Neil Jordan, to put words into an Irish actor’s mouth by pointing out the literary theft of an Irish author’s words. (I found it doubly clever.)

Marlowe tells Nico Peterson, “My determination for some time has been that reports of your death were greatly exaggerated.” The quote by Mark Twain actually reads, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Most people (me included) remember it the way that Marlowe says it.

Differences Between Marlowe in the Film and Marlowe in Chandler’s Novels

Philip Marlowe in the film isn’t exactly like Marlowe in Chandler’s novels, and I can’t resist pointing out some examples. Others will probably notice them, too.

In the film, Marlowe has a secretary named Hilda, but he doesn’t have a secretary in any of the novels. He has an empty antechamber outside his office that clients can sit in while waiting to see him.

The film includes more guns and violence. There is a scene where Philip Marlowe and Cedric use long guns (are some of them machine guns?) to kill Floyd Hanson and Lou Hendricks.

The violence is more explicit. For example, viewers see Nico Peterson’s head squashed at the start of the film, when everyone still thinks the dead body is Nico Peterson’s.

I already mentioned that Liam Neeson is older than Philip Marlowe, but it’s a difference that is very hard to ignore, even though I enjoyed the film and Neeson’s performance as much as I did. Production on the film was two months starting in November 2021, which would make Neeson sixty-nine years old at the time of filming, about twice Marlowe’s age, give or take.

Philip Marlowe uses profanity in the film; he doesn’t in the novels.

It’s too bad that Marlowe didn’t garner more positive reviews when it was first released. I guess no one else enjoyed the literary allusions as much as I did. Screenwriter Jordan even has Marlowe finding a copy of The Elements of Style, a writer’s style reference, in Nico Peterson’s home and sitting down to read it. It matches nothing in The Black-Eyed Blonde, nothing in Chandler’s novels. If I ever have the chance to meet Neil Jordan, I would really like to ask him, “Why The Elements of Style?” Because I have my own story to tell about it!

September 24, 2022 (San Sebastián International Film Festival), February 15, 2023 (United States), release dates    Directed by Neil Jordan    Screenplay by William Monahan, Neil Jordan    Based on the novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black    Music by David Holmes    Edited by Mick Mahon    Cinematography by Xavi Giménez

Liam Neeson as Philip Marlowe    Diane Kruger as Clare Cavendish    Jessica Lange as Dorothy Quincannon    Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Cedric    Ian Hart as Joe Green    Colm Meaney as Bernie Ohls    Danny Huston as Floyd Hanson    Alan Cumming as Lou Hendricks    Daniela Melchior as Lynn Peterson    François Arnaud as Nico Peterson    Seána Kerslake as Amanda Toxteth    Patrick Muldoon as Richard Cavendish

Distributed by Metropolitan Filmexport (France), Briarcliff Entertainment, Open Road Films    Produced by Parallel Films, Hills Productions, Davis Films

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