Marlowe Review – Neil Jordan’s Philip Marlowe Would Have Raymond Chandler Spinning in His Grave

Philip Marlowes are a little like Tom Ripleys in that several actors have played the part and although there are fan favourites (Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Elliot Gould for Marlowe and Matt Damon, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper for Ripley). Marlowe is a character who can be moved out of his essentially 1930s to 1940s surrounds to the 1970s as long as the director understands what makes Marlowe tick. Altman managed to do that with The Long Goodbye, unfortunately Neil Jordan who returns Marlowe played Liam Neeson back to 1939 seems to have been given a CliffsNotes version of the famous private dick and uses other characters to tell the audience about him rather than allow Neeson the chance to build the character.

It is October 1939 and Marlowe is in Bay City worrying about his increasing age (at 75 Neeson is the oldest actor to take on the role) and his lack of financial security, especially as he has no police pension to rely on. Into his office walks the femme fatale of the story, Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger who is utterly unconvincing on every level) a married woman looking for her erstwhile lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud) a props master at Pacific Studios who has gone missing. Mrs Cavendish and Marlowe do the verbal dance that is somehow meant to be seductive on her part and Marlowe takes her case. In the elevator as she leaves she says to him “You’re very perceptive Mr Marlowe, I imagine it gives you trouble.”

Of course, Marlowe getting into trouble is the core of any Marlowe story. The number of times he ends up on the wrong end of a cosh or the butt of a gun is legion in Chandler’s work. What Neil Jordan and screenwriter William Monahan are adapting is The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, a sequel to Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. The result is the most ludicrously Irish version of Marlowe available. James Joyce gets quoted, Jessica Lange plays Clare’s mother Dorothea Quincannon a once famous actress known for her “Flash eyed Colleen” roles before she aged out of the industry despite her affair with studio executive an elegant ‘Mick’ named Joseph O’Reilly (Mitchell Mullen) who is also confusingly going to be Ambassador to England. There’s also a possible Chinatown subplot going on, but the writing is never clear enough to decide if that’s the audience should pay attention to (although Quincannon implies it) because it is too busy digging up red herrings to have a coherent movie.

In the search for Nico who was a known womaniser and had connections with Mexico and an exclusive nightclub called The Corbata Club that can get anything or anyone for the right price and right clientele. A body presumed to be Nico’s shows up run over outside the club. Marlowe investigates, is threatened by the manager Floyd Hanson (Danny Huston) and makes contact with Nico’s half-sister Lynn (Daniela Melchior) a Venice Beach Cabana Club “junky whore” working for an extremely over the top crime boss, Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming).

If it sounds convoluted it is, but at the same time the resolution is ludicrously simplistic. This is Los Angeles (actually Spain and Ireland) in the late thirties and people in the motion picture industry are predators, and of course the rich are mostly corrupt and perverted. The cops, even the good ones, are under the thumb of a mayor who is a member of The Corbata Club. The only person who can crack the case and bring the house of cards tumbling down is the absolutely incorruptible Philip Marlowe with his Sir Lancelot demeanour. There is the late-stage addition of a canny film obsessed chauffeur called Cedric (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who bonds with Marlowe and takes out some thugs in a scene that could have been shot by Nicolas Winding Refn.

Liam Neeson now mostly known for his ‘geriactioner’ roles gets a bunch of action scenes – no-one would direct Bogart that way, and for a Philip Marlowe film it is especially grisly in places. Raymond Chandler never shied away from the seedy side of Los Angeles, but his works knew how to evoke it in a subtler manner than Banville who is just going for broke in an updated yet still somewhat backwards version of the era. This Marlowe is a veteran of WWI and fought in the Somme with the Royal Irish Rifles (don’t try to do the mathematics of how old her would have been) and is constantly being reminded of his increasing age whether that be by old friend Bernie Ohls (Colm Meaney) who reminds him that “When you’re getting to be an old timer it’s okay to get out alive,” or his own line “I’m getting too old for this shit.” The age issue also comes to play in Clare’s declaration that she prefers older men and Dorothea’s attempt to seduce him because apparently Clare and Dorothea are in competition for everything.

The constant reminder of age reinforces how tired the film is. Neil Jordan has directed some excellent neo-noirs including Mona Lisa but given the chance to direct a straight noir he has nothing fresh to bring to the genre. His primarily Irish, Scottish, or British supporting cast don’t do much for authenticity either. Ian Hart’s confusing New York accent doesn’t seem to have registered as out of place.

It wouldn’t be wrong to blame an audience for checking out long before the resolution. Marlowe is a stale and pale slab of noir which mistakes narrative crowding and useless exposition for plot and character development and relies on violence and explicit depictions of tinsel town depravity to attempt engagement. Neil Jordan has made a film that is about as authentically Chandleresque as its fake Los Angeles setting.

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange

Writers: William Monahan, Neil Jordan, (based on The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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