Marlowe Jan 21, 2012 15:02:30 GMT -5
Post by Eddie Love on Jan 21, 2012 15:02:30 GMT -5
James Garner steps into the famed gumshoes of Humphrey Bogart and others in MARLOWE. But, rather than creating a hard-boiled throwback to 40s tough guy pictures, this is more in keeping with (if not flat-out inspired by) another eponymous P.I. picture from the 60s: the Paul Newman vehicle HARPER. This outing isn’t likely to make you forget earlier Marlowe classics and is doesn’t offer the infectious, powerhouse star-turn of the film that inspired it, but it’s a tidy little entertainment
The picture’s an adaptation of The Little Sister, indeed, the end credits list that as the film’s title – I guess they didn’t get the memo about the more generic moniker this would be released under. The source is one of Raymond Chandler’s funniest books as, in addition to weaving a tale of blackmail and ice pick murders in L.A., there are some pointed digs at the workings of the Hollywood film community.
The plot remains essentially faithful to the original, it’s been crisply adapted by Sterling Siliphant. He does a really smart job of starting the action at a midpoint of the book’s plot. The background setting though, is shifted from the world of movies to TV, and that medium takes the brunt of some satirical jabs. There’s a scene where Marlowe attends a garish variety show’s musical number being taped and instead of watching the performers, he’s transfixed by a console that shows an airing of Garbo in GRAND HOTEL. The message is clear – television is dreck that pales next to the luminous stars of film.
It’s an ironic critique for a movie starring Garner. If there was ever an actor seen to best advantage with an easy facility for the small screen it’s him. In his 60s movie star heyday he’s always likable, but he just doesn’t fill the big screen with the same command as contemporaries like Newman and McQueen. He comes off as square-jawed, stalwart, always watchable, but also borderline bland. Never popping off the screen, he seems tentative about unleashing the personality we occasionally see tart glimpses of.
Still, even if he hasn’t found his distinctive voice yet, this picture could be ground zero for its inception. There’s a scene where Marlowe is roughed-up by a heavy’s paid muscle. As they’re taking their shots at him Garner turns to one and, in a voice that hints at unmanly scolding, asks, “Does your mother know what you do for a living?” It’s a great line, yet it’s one that doesn’t quite fit the style of laid-back cool they’re going for here. It would, however, convey perfectly the freewheeling, anti-heroic attitude of Jim Rockford when Garner would recycle it some years later.
(There’s another memorable line in the picture, also a Garner ad-lib. He’s at a swanky nightclub with his girlfriend and he’s offered a bottle of wine. After giving it a taste he announces, in a parody of the elite connoisseur, that it’s: “Impertinent. Almost baroque!” That’s a reference to a line in Gore Vidal’s Hollywood novel Myra Breckinridge where he assigns the adjectives to a description of Garner’s ass. Okay, I’m straight – I’m not certain exactly what Vidal meant by that – but I do know what he’s talking about. If you ever watch Garner’s first big vehicle, UP PERISCOPE, it features scenes of him running around in swimming trunks and, when I saw this recently, I was like: “Daaaaaaammmmm! For a dude, that is one high-water, bubble booty!” Look, I'm not proud. Just saying…)
MARLOWE’s principal claim to fame these days is another scene where a young hood puts the squeeze on Marlowe to back off the case, this time in the person of a grinning Bruce Lee playing a thug who kicks the shit out of Phil’s office. Clearly everything he’s busting up is somehow perforated or breakaway, but it’s still impressive – especially when he high kicks a ceiling light. His handling of his menacing dialogue in an exchange with Garner is also effective. Unfortunately, there’s a subsequent scene where we’re expected to believe Jim somehow gets the drop on Lee using a ruse that wouldn’t have fooled Wile E. Coyote. (By the way, this moment, where a gay taunt is followed by a villain’s precipitous dispatch, is straight out of HARPER.)
I really liked the women in this picture. Gayle Hunnicutt as the TV star at the center of the story is a little under-used, but good. (Although she looks a bit too much like Marlowe’s similarly comely girlfriend who we see in a few scenes.) Even better is Rita Moreno as a shadier femme fatale. She has no difficulty making her character vaguely sinister yet also alluring, you forget what a sexy little minx she was. (Although her strip-tease, burlesque act at the climax goes on too long.)
Best of all, though, is Sharon Farrell as Marlowe’s client – the little sister of Chandler’s novel, who’s prim and uptight yet, nevertheless, offers herself to the detective. There are a number of beats to keep up with and Farrell handles them perfectly; she’s a pretty girl unafraid to give a seriously shrill, unattractive performance.
The cops who Phil inevitably has to contend with are led by a pre-All in the Family Carroll O’Conner who’s quite good, as is that hard-faced, ginger guy you see in a lot of movies from this period as his subordinate. The two have one really good scene – straight out of the book – where O’Connor goes off on Garner.
This picture is kind of slick, even glossy, but it has a tough, adult feel to it as well– you know you’re not watching a TV show. Still, it lacks the timely, subversive bite Robert Altman would bring to Chandler a few years later with THE LONG GOODBYE, though it does skirt that territory. At the end there’s a moment where it looks like Marlowe may stand aside and let a little rough justice go down, but when it actually happens, he acts all surprised and calls the authorities. Feels odd, like they wanted to break the rules, but pulled back. (In another little foreshadowing of Altman’s masterpiece, the brassy theme song played over the opening credits evolves into a track Marlowe hears on his car radio as the action begins.)
MARLOWE, released in 1969, is often thought of as a contemporary reworking of Raymond Chandler’s private eye. But, in fact, none of the earlier versions of the shamus character were set at the time of their source book’s publication – they were all, in essence, updated to the period of their production. Which makes this both a cool 60s flick and a better than merely serviceable entry in the Chandler filmography.
(And, by the way, that poster is very similar to the one for HARPER.)