Warmed-over Raymond Chandler isn’t quite the same as hard-boiled Raymond Chandler, but that’s what’s on offer in Marlowe, a strange misfire that looks like it wanted to make a high-concept colourised simulacrum of a darkly noirish 1940s-style thriller and then settled instead for bloodless pastiche.
It’s second order stuff all the way, from Xavi Gimenéz’s deliberately un-cinematic, almost Hallmark TV cinematography, to screenplay writer William Monahan’s flat adaptation of John Banville’s novel, itself a simulacrum of Raymond Chandler’s style. David Holmes’s non-committal (bewildered?) soundtrack kind of says it all.
It’s all set in 1939, where ex-cop-now-gumshoe Marlowe (Liam Neeson) is visited by a rich, breathy, libidinous blonde (Diane Kruger) who wants him to find her missing lover (François Arnaud), a devilishly handsome props man-cum-gigolo in the movie biz. Her mother (Jessica Lange), a wise-assed similarly blonde and libidinous older version of her daughter, wants Marlowe to find the same man, possibly for the same reasons. While out on the case, and running into tough guys determined to put an early stop to Marlowe’s investigations, Marlowe also has familiar dealings with the police – Ian Hart as the old cop buddy who will perform the odd “it’ll cost me my job” favour etc. And, also on the case of the missing man, Colm Meany as the detective who’s also always a touch late on the scene and who might at some point end up putting Marlowe in jail.
So, clients, cons and cops. There is also a McGuffiny plaster statue to be found, which might as well be called the Maltese Falcon (to borrow from Chandler’s great inspiration, Dashiell Hammett) but is in fact referred to as the Serena Mermaid. It doesn’much what it’s called because the plot doesn’t matter much, which is entirely as it should be.
I’ve never seen so many executive producers in a credits sequence, and in too-many-cooks fashion that might explain what has gone wrong with this film. But however you explain the film’s essential emptiness – and it’s bewildering because Neil Jordan is the director – there’s nothing wrong with the cast. Liam Neeson is maybe a touch old to be playing Marlowe but he puts in a warm and bemused performance as the seen-it-all gumshoe. He’s used to playing the lone, brooding, justice-seeking vigilante in all those “very particular set of skills” movies (the Taken series, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Run All Night, The Commuter) so it almost feels as if he’s played Marlowe before, though he hasn’t.
Kruger is spot-on as the cool, mystery blonde whose sexuality seems to seesaw on a frigid/volcanic axis. Lange has previous in neo-noir – most notably the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (with Jack Nicholson) and the 1992 remake of Night and the City (with Robert DeNiro). But trumping both is Danny Huston, playing the owner of a club frequented by the moneyed and honeyed. Huston is not just the son of John Huston, whose The Maltese Falcon got the whole Hollywood noir cycle going, but here he deliberately apes his dad’s voice, adding a touch of Chinatown gravitas, in which John Huston acted, playing big, bad old patriarch Noah Cross.
Calling to mind Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Night and the City is bold. You’re going up against writers of the ilk of Dashiell Hammett, Robert Towne, James M Cain, David Mamet and Richard Price.
William Monahan’s response is to fill his screenplay with anachronism – no one said “go figure” in 1939 – which might be all part of the simulacrum idea but comes across here as merely cute, or tin-eared.
Of the modern Marlowes (in colour), Marlowe is possibly aiming at being a 21st-century companion to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, from 1973, starring Elliott Gould. It’s closer in effect to Poodle Springs, Bob Rafelson’s abortive attempt to revive Philip Marlowe in 1998, with James Caan as the downbeat white knight. Altman’s movie, like Polanski’s Chinatown, grows more like an authentic noir and less like a homage with every passing year. That fate is unlikely to befall Marlowe.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023