Gayle HunnicuttBruce LeeKenneth TobeyRita Moreno
Medium: film
Year: 1969
Director: Paul Bogart
Writer: Stirling Silliphant, Raymond Chandler
Keywords: Philip Marlowe, detective
Country: USA
Actor: James Garner, Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O'Connor, Rita Moreno, Sharon Farrell, William Daniels, H.M. Wynant, Jackie Coogan, Kenneth Tobey, Bruce Lee, Christopher Cary, George Tyne, Corinne Camacho, Paul Stevens, Roger Newman, Read Morgan
Format: 96 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 16 June 2010
Lots of people seem to hate this film, especially fans of the original book. I must be broken, because I liked it.
To get the preamble out of the way, it's a regrettably retitled remake of one of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels, The Little Sister. What's more, I think it's the only adaptation. It's a modern-day version with Marlowe played by James Garner, neither of which sounded particularly promising. Oh, I like Garner. I think he's great. However he's not a natural Philip Marlowe. Instead he's smooth, charming, slippery and a gifted comedian, more the kind of guy you'd choose to play a crook or a conman.
In the end, though, surprisingly this turned out to be one of the more Marlowe-centric movies I've seen so far. It's actually interested in its protagonist as a man, showing us his psychology and using him as a character rather than just an investigating machine. I liked that. It's not going quite as far with this as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and obviously it's still a lesser film than something like The Big Sleep (1946), but that doesn't mean it's not praiseworthy. Incidentally the script's by Stirling Silliphant, who'd won a Best Screenplay Oscar two years earlier for In the Heat of the Night.
As for James Garner, he impressed me. He's turned off the charm and the easy confidence. He's not just coasting on his usual persona, but actively going against it and creating a character. Garner's Marlowe is practically a loser, an underdog who keeps getting kicked down and doesn't always seem likely to survive to the end of the movie. His office gets trashed in front of him. He gets drugged and stabbed. He's got no money, although surprisingly he does have a girlfriend. However in large part because of all this, this Marlowe struck me as more than usually dogged and honourable. Notice the way he avoids lying to the police, even though they know he's holding out on them and are about to lose it and start throwing punches. Look at how he refuses a sexual proposition from Sharon Farrell, which is incidentally a more effective scene than it would have been in the 1940s (when they were working under the Production Code) or the 1970s (in which Robert Mitchum looked about a hundred years old). Garner was only forty when this film was made and still handsome.
The only casualty of this is that Garner's Marlowe isn't funny. Garner's a fine comedian, but his Marlowe is a weary, stubborn man whose flippancy is a character point rather than wit. I think only one of his wisecracks made me laugh ("termites, lieutenant"), although in fairness Garner does sneak in a surreptitious funny bit when he's watching the wrong television.
The 1969 setting is perhaps more of a problem, although theoretically it shouldn't be since the book was only written twenty years earlier and Chandler had gone on writing Marlowe stories for another decade afterwards. Nevertheless the cinematic Philip Marlowe feels (to me) like a 1940s character. At least half of his films were made in that decade and others (Farewell, My Lovely) were made later but set in that era retrospectively, with the "at least" depending on whether or not you count the films that are based on Philip Marlowe novels but have been changed to star other people's detectives. The 1940s has a glamour about it. This film doesn't. On the contrary, it's rather drab and doesn't have much of a sense of place or period. Even the 1970s films felt better, since they had that visceral 1970s-ness that makes them a little startling. However what this does have is an admirable determination to depict a shabby, lowlife world that may not be nice to look at, but feels authentic to Chandler.
There's also Bruce Lee.
No, really. It's Bruce Lee. This is the film's biggest "what the hell?" James Garner's sitting inoffensively in his office when suddenly Bruce Lee walks in, knocks a hole straight through the wall and kicks a hatstand in two. While the audience are picking their jaws off the floor, he then politely offers Garner money to drop the case. Bruce Lee! It's not even a particularly big role, either. However this isn't as weird as it looks, since this was still the sixties, before Lee had done The Big Boss, and so to Americans he was basically a guy doing TV work like The Green Hornet, Batman and so on. If you squint hard enough that you're seeing this as an English-language Bruce Lee film, then it's a slightly unusual one, since it's the only one where he plays a villain and apparently one of only two where he's using his own voice.
The script's not making it easy to see what's going on and where all the plot threads are leading, but on the upside at least it's doing it deliberately. Silliphant's simply being true to Chandler and I respected that. Its ending isn't particularly exciting, but I loved the truth about everyone's actions and motivations enough to say that this is threatening to become my favourite Philip Marlowe story. It's clearly not the best Marlowe film, but I really responded to the underlying story about these characters.
I liked this film a lot. It's serious-minded, perhaps almost too much for its own good, and to me it seemed respectful of both Chandler and his creation. People who've read the book seem to think it's been torn to shreds by Silliphant's script and for all I know they're right, but speaking as someone unaware of the original it felt true to me. Garner's better than you'd expect too, even if (like me) you'd already liked him. It's a bit drab, but seriously underrated.