Wednesday 26 August 2020

Movie Review: Marlowe (1969)

An adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister, Marlowe is a spry if borderline incomprehensible murder-and-mayhem thriller.

In Los Angeles, private investigator Philip Marlowe (James Garner) is hired by Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell) of Kansas to find her missing brother Orrin. Poking around Orrin's last known address at a seedy motel, Marlowe meets front desk clerk Haven Clausen and sleazy guest Grant W. Hicks (Jackie Coogan): both are soon dead with icepicks planted in their necks. 

Marlowe uncovers a blackmail plot targeting glamourous actress Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt), who is carrying on a potentially scandalous affair with master criminal Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wynant). Other suspicious characters include Mavis' personal assistant Dolores Gonz├íles (Rita Moreno) and the shifty Doctor Vincent Lagardie (Paul Stevens). After Sonny's goon Winslow Wong (Bruce Lee) tries to buy-off Marlowe's interest in the case, the dead body count multiplies and police Lieutenant Christy French (Carroll O'Connor) starts hounding Marlowe.

In typical Chandler fashion, Marlowe features a dizzying number of characters popping in and out of scenes, many of them falling foul of murder in quick order. Director Paul Bogart, working from a Stirling Silliphant script, just about manages to maintain a basic level of logic, although the threads between all the devious motives are sometimes lost amidst the rush to the next dead body.

Mood may matter more than plot in such thickets of evil, and Bogart unfortunately lives down to his television comfort zone. The film is visually flat, unable to generate an essential sense of place. The action is set in Los Angeles, but may as well be in any generic city. The lighting, shadows and set designs are equally bland.

Which is a pity, because James Garner is surprisingly good as Marlowe. He finds his own niche, grounded in the 1960s, away from undue heroics but still quick with a quip. In support Gayle Hunnicutt is adequate as a blackmail victim and reluctant client, but as a femme fatale her role is underwritten. Bruce Lee gets two scenes and makes a big impression. His introduction into the movie, unilaterally rearranging the decor in Marlowe's office, is hilariously unforgettable.

The pacing is brisk and Bogart wraps up the complexities in 96 minutes. The ending is suitably rushed and clumsy, Marlowe happy to make a quick exit as soon as the final set of corpses hit the ground.

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  1. There is irony indeed in a 'Bogart' directing a Chandler adaptation. Unfortunately, this Bogart is no Howard Hawks and the anxiety of influence, as the reviewer points out, is too much for him to overcome. 'Television comfort zone' is also quite apt as James Garner, while always endearing, lacks the hard-bitten gravitas essential to Marlowe, and here more or less previews his far better known network detective turn. Still, there are many worse viewing experiences than a ninety-six minute episode of the Rockford Files, especially one that includes Bruce Lee karate kicking his way off a thirty-story building after Marlowe suggests he's queer.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, Marlowe is not a bad effort, but far from essential viewing.


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