There are private detectives, and then there is Philip Marlowe. The iconic investigator created by Raymond Chandler has existed in the form of the written word since 1939, and on the big screen since 1942’s The Falcon Takes Over.
Embodied on the silver screen by such icons as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum (both of whom starred in respective adaptations of The Big Sleep, Chandler’s most famous, and first true, Marlow piece), The Warner Archive has given the world the chance to see one of the lesser talked about Marlowe films. The company has released the 1969 film, Marlowe, starring James Garner.
Directed by Paul Bogart, Marlowe follows the titular literary legend, as he worms his way through cases ranging from missing people and the occasional murder-by-ice-pick. Based on Chandler’s ‘The Little Sister,’ the film is an odd bit of noir filmmaking that is not quite as engaging as Bogart’s Big Sleep or as inventive as Robert Montgomery’s first person tale Lady In The Lake, but it’s just as entertaining and well crafted.
As with any Philip Marlowe narrative, the most important aspect is who is in the film’s lead role, and here, it’s an odd fit. Star James Garner doesn’t have the charming swagger and tough exterior that someone like Humphrey Bogart had in The Big Sleep, the best of the Marlowe films, but he does have the sense that there is something off about this man. At his core, Marlowe is a booze loving philosopher who is simply in this world to try and make a buck. Garner really gets to the center of Marlowe as a character, giving a quietly engaging performance, despite the seemingly odd fit.
The film also has one hell of a supporting cast. Featuring top notch turns from the likes of Carroll O’Connor, William Daniels and Gayle Hunnicutt, the cast is as interesting on the big screen as a cast of characters is within one of Chandler’s novels. The storylines are inherently dense who-done-its with a cavalcade of characters that go out of the film as quickly as they come in, making each performance important and in need of an eye grabbing turn. Hell, there is even a performance from Bruce Lee in this film, which will be hard for any viewer to truly forget.
However, the novels are also rather gritty and brooding, something that this film truly lacks. Bogart’s direction is shockingly clean and almost clinical in a way, that the lack of grit and grime is apparent. A film like Lady In The Lake gets both the twisty plot structure as well as the natural darkness within the plot so well, something that is lost in this translation of Chandler’s work. Speaking of plot structure, this film could have stood to use a bit longer in the editing room. The film moves along at a speedy clip (the film clocks in at just 96 minutes), but it also moves along at a clip that doesn’t lead to a rewarding conclusion overall. There are a few great sequences, particularly one involving the destruction of Marlowe’s office, that will leave you wholly entertained, but the ends ultimately don’t justify the means.
Overall, Marlowe is far from a bad film. Featuring a series of great performances and a few really top notch moments, Marlowe simply doesn’t culminate in an ending that rewards the viewer. After the nearly 100 minute long film is up, you’ll be running out to not buy the novel, but instead rent something like The Lady In The Lake, in order to get your Marlowe fix. Star James Garner is great as the iconic detective, but without the most intriguing of narratives and a lack of Chandler’s patented grit, the film is far too clean cut to make any real dent in a film noir novice’s DVD collection. Chandler and Marlowe addicts will rejoice with this now available release, but it’s best left to the rental world for those who don’t fit that bill.