That was pretty good. I don't think it's quite up there with Murder, My Sweet
(1944), but it's strong enough to stand up to the comparison and even hit some notes that its predecessor didn't find. I'll be honest and say that I hadn't been expecting much from the 1970s Philip Marlowe movies, but they've gone about it properly here.
The most obvious thing to notice is that they've made it a period piece. The original book was published in 1940 and this film is set in 1941, with a ton of historical references. Listen out for nods to contemporary slang ("hooligan"), Eleanor Roosevelt, Busby Berkeley, Joe DiMaggio's record-breaking baseball run and most obviously Hitler having just invaded Russia. (I'm puzzled by the reference to this being an election year, though.) However the film's in no way a museum piece. The art design isn't trying to be pretty and the script's a bit political, with a jaundiced view of contemporary race relations. A black man gets killed and everyone knows the newspapers won't mention it and the police don't really care, while there's a cross-race marriage that would have ruffled a few nerves even in 1975 America. "Just about ruined him in show business, marrying a nigger."
The adaptations of this Raymond Chandler novel that were actually made in the 1940s didn't have to do any thinking about their historical period. They could just look out of the window. This one on the other hand is recreating a lost era and it has a few things to say about it.
I think Murder, My Sweet
had a better Philip Marlowe. Dick Powell was playing a stronger character, even if he didn't look as much like a private dick. Robert Mitchum is a bigger movie star who'd played the lead in film noir himself back in the 1940s, but the script's giving him less to work with. Unlike Powell, he's not rude to people and he never seems interested in money. There's not as much edge to him, which means in turn that the film lacks a certain something. He's just an old, weary Robert Mitchum. Personally I'd say he's actually too old, both for being Marlowe and for kissing Charlotte Rampling, but that's just me being pernickity since Mitchum's age is actually the most interesting thing about his Marlowe.. He's nearly sixty and still alone, still pounding the streets and getting beaten up by crooks. "I've got a hat, a coat and a gun - that's it." He and the film find a sadness that wasn't in the 1944 version, with Marlowe's final act being to give away a stack of money to the family he's never had.
On the other hand, the movie feels more vivid and immediate than its predecessor. It's got a 1940s setting but it's still a 1970s movie, with that sense of everything being a bit more raw and in-your-face than you'd have ever got under the Production Code. Frances Amthor's now a brothel madam, built like a brick shithouse and scarier than Otto Kruger ever was in 1944. We see a few topless prostitutes (yay!), but they're in no way glamourising the profession. The client in one room is just sitting on the bed, crying. Her henchmen include a young Sylvester Stallone, oddly enough, who's rather good as a thug with a gun and an eye for the ladies. He doesn't get any dialogue, but it's not a bad little cameo.
We also have a very different Jessie Florian. I liked Esther Howard a lot, but this is a much more complete portrayal of a washed-up alcoholic ex-showgirl who can't even close her dressing gown. Sylvia Miles is the actress in question and it won her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She deserved it, too. There's also a sharper portrayal of the police, with Marlowe rubbing up against both honest and bent ones. Harry Dean Stanton's playing one of the latter.
I like the actors too. Jack O'Halloran is rather good as Moose Malloy, while Charlotte Rampling is... okay, mainly she's gorgeous. We get a clearer idea of her relationship with her poor rich husband, though.
The storyline's been simplified a little from the 1944 film. Admittedly they haven't gone so far as to (ha ha) make it comprehensible to the audience, but they're making more of an effort to tidy up plot threads and stray characters instead of deliberately leaving them all over the place. However on the other hand, they're a bit less thorough about the explanations at the end. It just feels as if they're getting the exposition out of the way, whereas the 1944 film gave it to us in a memorable set-piece. I also must have missed where the boat came from. Suddenly they're on a boat. Maybe I was coughing or something when the explanation of that cropped up.
For anyone who was wondering, this is a good film. I like its muscular, slightly angry approach to portraying its setting of 1941 Los Angeles. I like the cast. The only thing that's missing for me is that Mitcham isn't my ideal Philip Marlowe, but in fairness he's a proper film star who's giving us a valid alternative take on the character and furthermore is the only man to have played the role in two movies. Don't believe anyone who says that The Big Sleep (1978)
is a sequel to this film, though. It's merely another Raymond Chandler adaptation that happened to cast the same star in the lead role, since it's set in 1970s Britain rather than 1941 Los Angeles. I'm bracing myself for a train wreck with that one, but Farewell, My Lovely surprised me by being a seventies Chandler adaptation with integrity and a point.