First Case, Last Case

Richard Von Busack
8 min readMar 10, 2023

by Richard von Busack

The longer you watch films, the more you see movie titles coming back. Now we’ve got the second film adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel titled Marlowe. (The first, a 1969 film of Chandler’s The Little Sister, starring James Garner, isn’t shaded at all by this unfortunate 2023 newcomer. Rita Moreno is delicious; Garner is, as always, equitable in manner and easy in charm.)

The new Marlowe also has to suffer contrast with The Long Goodbye, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. Commentators note how badly the Robert Altman film was received on its first run in Los Angeles.

I can remember adolescent disappointment too. First there was what I thought was a needlessly irreverent Mad magazine-style poster by Jack Davis, that basically said in 60 point letters “We have no idea how to sell this movie”… and then there was the surprise ending: Marlowe, previously caught in the mystery like a man careening down a road in a car with no brakes, suddenly stands his ground and fires his gun at an unarmed man. Altman gave the hand that fed him a chomp of farewell with a chorus of the bitter hit, the 1930s tune “Hurray for Hollywood.”

(As odd as the Jack Davis poster for The Long Goodbye was, the Fun With Dick and Jane ad campaign for 1969’s Marlowe was just as basic — as if only a kid learning to read would need this kind of detective story explained to them.)

I was 14 ½ when I saw The Long Goodbye first run. An adolescent’s hero must be without flaws, and Marlowe meant a lot to me. In my opinion then, Chandler was the one person, give or take Jim Morrison, who got what was going on in LA…who nosed an evil to it that all of the blissed-out adults around me couldn’t detect. Thoreau had a memorable line about how the path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men; Chandler said that mean streets required a man who was not mean. Between the two lines you had a vision of how to deal with the twists and turns of Los Angeles. Of course, it was no more corrupt than any place else. But Chandler wrote of a place that could have been paradise, if it weren’t for the snakes.

Anyway, a half century later, Elliott Gould seems a perfect Marlowe, compassionate and acerbic, and impossible to intimidate. I have no idea why I didn’t love The Long Goodbye like I do now.

The conception and the lead actor are twin reasons why this new Marlowe doesn’t function. It’s an adaptation of a post-Chandler novel The Black Eyed Blonde by the Booker Prize-winning John Banville, writing as “Benjamin Black”.

A relation to Bernard?

“Enjoy. It’s rubbish, but it’s short.”
“Enjoy. It’s rubbish, but it’s short.”

Marlowe throws out most of the plot and changes the book’s 1950s setting to 1939. It’s essentially a prequel, only with a 70 year old star: a kind of switch that may never been done before.

Certainly, like 007, Marlowe should have some mileage on him; Robert Mitchum was not yet 60 in a pair of out of time remakes of Farewell My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978). By the time those films were made, Mitchum could have faced the same putdown that he once addressed to Steve McQueen. This time, it was Mitchum who wasn’t bringing much to the party.

Neesom brings even less. He has a lack of interest in the athletic stuff and unfortunately even says “I’m getting too old for this” after a fight. There’s a line that should be banned from cinema. The young people in the audience aren’t convinced by the apology…and it just depresses the old people in the back row.

Neeson is dyed brown, guilty, depressed, slouching in louvered shadows, indicating not mere world-weariness but total exhaustion. Somewhere, even before his adventures began, this Marlowe has lost his mirth, his sense of impertinence. The sad, haunted Neeson amps up the Celtic twilight–-Ireland has government money in this film — and the nation has set its gloomy stamp on the film.

Lord knows there were plenty of Irish around in the LAPD of the late 1930s — Marlowe himself was supposed to be from Santa Rosa, CA — but it’s a weirdly Jesuitical conception of the great detective. Once you think of Marlowe as an actual priest, the game is over. It’s even said he lives like a monk. What he demonstrates is not so much the pleasures of the game being afoot than sorrowing over the world’s sins.

A stranger matter is this Marlowe is hoping for a pension–we get the news Marlowe had been a Bay City cop once and wanted to go back to the force. This would have been a surprise for the detective, who tended to get roughed up by the killer cops in the Santa Monica-like Bay City. This is business so well known that it’s parodied in the Coen Brothers’ brilliant Chandler travesty: “Stay out of Malibu, Lebowski!”

The movie is scared pale of Marlowe taking a younger woman to bed, even one in her mid 40s. Neesom’s Marlowe confess that he thinks he’s a bad lover: it’s strictly an excuse for excluding the kind of no strings yet dangerous romance this hero used to have.

The mystery itself isn’t bewildering. The detective is hired by a rich married woman named Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger). She seeks her lover, a no-good swine named Nico (Francois Arnaud) who worked as the prop-master at a movie studio. His subsequent death was rather clumsily faked.

As he puzzles over the mystery, Marlowe daylights some business that was buried in Chandler’s texts: that the detective learned his no-bullshit mannerisms because he was a vet of the Great War. It’s been said that the very sight of Humphrey Bogart’s trenchcoat was a reference to the formerly entrenched in Flanders. Marlowe’s life during wartime comes out during some eminently rewritable dialogue with the villain Floyd Hansen (Danny Huston).

Hansen is the head of a country club that seems genteel but which conceals some nasty secrets. The lordly and mean Huston, fragrantly evil in everything from Wonder Woman to ivans xtc, is given nothing to sink his teeth into.

That said, there is the beginning of an attempt to connect Marlowe and Hansen through shared war experiences. At one point, director Neil Jordan poses them interestingly, facing in the same direction but not meeting each other’s eyes.

Later, Marlowe encounters Dorothy Quincannon (Jessica Lange), Clare’s mother. This tough old gal is the queenpin of a movie studio. The elderly dame’s latest fling is about to become the Ambassador to the Court of St. James. We’re supposed to vaguely recall the story of JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy, who went from bootlegger to ambassador, and Kennedy’s liaison with the actress Gloria Swanson.

The real Joe Kennedy hated Jews and sympathized with Hitler. Seeking a reason why this Marlowe was reset in the 1939, one wonders why the only image of the Nazi threat is a staged book burning, being filmed at the studio. (But who’d be making the Nazi exposé we see being filmed? Hollywood in 1939 was under senatorial investigation for what was later called “Premature anti-fascism.” At that point, only the Warner Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and the Three Stooges dared to confront the facsists.) Marlowe sets the stage for the patter of little jackboots, but nothing comes to pass.

Credited writers Jordan and Bostonian William Monahan load the DOA script with flagrant anachronisms and weird semaphores of literacy. The Ambassador (Mitchell Mullen) claims that Christopher Marlowe, the detective’s namesake, only wrote one good line in his career. He quotes it: Mephistopheles’ “This is hell, nor am I out of it.”

Dorothy has a coarse joke about the proper making of tea, taken from Ulysses. The line is there so she can bond in mutual Irishness with Marlowe. But the conversation leads to a hit and run about the character of James Joyce, and a story about “a shamus named Seamus.” At the end, there’s a line about Leni Riefenstahl that similarly sticks out a mile.

To be fair this kind of thing happens in Chandler adaptations, successfully: the lightning-fast name check of Marcel Proust in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is one item, where the writer’s name is a password slipped between a bright Lauren Bacall and the sleek Bogart.

The good cast is no help. Diana Kreuger played Helen of Troy once. (“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” — there’s a second good line of Christopher Marlowe’s right there). In our world of endless decay, Krueger is holding up well, with a ceramic sort of blonde beauty, linen-wrapped, fine-boned and a bit glazed.

Colm Meaney as Bernie Ohls of the police is a walking piece of exposition, who suddenly gives Marlowe an 007-like license to kill.

Alan Cummings is a bejeweled gangster, as gay as a treeful of macaws. He has a Tennessee Williams-like line of patter, and an intimidating chauffeur Cedric (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who turns out to know as much about cinema as a film school grad. After discussing Hitchcock, Cedric finally ID’s the McGuffin the film was lacking: “A briefcase that could bring the whole studio down.”

Some arresting photographic effects are here, with low-wattage interiors leading to crimson-lit hallways. I don’t know who the first filmmaker ever was who showed a neon reflection in a rainwater-filled pothole, suddenly dispelled into a kaleidoscope of light when a car’s tire splashes through it. Whoever was first is honored by the rendition here. We see flashes of Christmas-tree colors through the pebbled glass of an office door, and the lit up theater marquees reflecting on a wet car windshield, driving through downtown Los Angeles.

Catalonian director Xavi Gimenez previously helped Barcelona masquerade as LA for Brad Anderson in the film The Machinist (2004). This time it’s clearer that LA isn’t playing itself — what we see is too shaggy, too dry, and too long-time settled.

Philip Marlowe is more than a moral compass that doesn’t budge. The effort here was to unearth euphemism, to make LA darker and colder, with more profanity, as in the Perry Mason prequel currently on HBO. As for Jordan, he has previously been a director who understood the power of violence. This is strangely removed from both cause and effect. I feel he will bounce back, but here he’s as seemingly quizzical and abstracted as his hero.

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Richard Von Busack

Former film critic for Metro Newspapers in San Jose for a frightening number of years.