The Brasher Doubloon
Director: John Brahm
“Rule number one of being a detective – always cash the retainer check before the client has a chance to change their mind.”
One of the lesser-known cinematic adaptions of Raymond Chandler’s works, The Brasher Doubloon is an adaption of Chandler’s 1943 novel The High Window, the third novel to feature legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe. A somewhat overlooked entry, both now as well as at the time of release, the film never received too much praise, but in viewing the movie recently, it stands up as being a light yet definitely entertaining entry into the Marlowe film series.
Admittedly, the film was perhaps doomed to failure from the outset, given that it followed a year on from the release of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which firmly established Humphrey Bogart as the definitive Philip Marlowe, along with Lauren Bacall as the classic female co-star. Whilst The Big Sleep was, and remains, a masterful movie and probably the best Chandler adaption of them all, it does put The Brasher Doubloon at an unfair disadvantage. In this outing, Marlowe is played by George Montgomery (not to be confused with the Robert Montgomery who played the character in The Lady in the Lake, also released in the same year as The Brasher Doubloon), who provides a light hearted and mischievous take on the character. He doesn’t quite have the cynical attitude that defines the character (certainly in the novels, anyway), but he puts a lot of energy and life into the role, delivering Marlowe’s customary quips and wisecracks with a roguish energy.
The movie begins as a reasonable straightforward adaption of the novel, with Marlowe attending the home of a rather unpleasant widow named Elizabeth Bright Murdock, who is hiring him to recover a stolen golden coin – the eponymous Brasher Doubloon – which was discovered missing when a coin dealer named Morningstar called to ask whether the coin might be for sale. As with the novel, Ms Murdock is a drunken, rather hostile and generally unpleasant sort of client, domineering over her household and, in particular, her emotionally repressed young secretary, Merle Davis, as well as her playboy son, Leslie Murdock. Interestingly, the film cuts out the role (and even the existence) of the characters of Linda Conquest and Lois Magic, but retains most of the remaining cast, developing the story into a more traditional and straightforward heist plot involving a collection of shady gangsters hunting after a previous artefact, with various element of back-stabbing going on, and no shortage of bodies for Marlowe to work his way through.
The film provides some new scenes and alternate takes on the characters from the book, but these are necessary changes given that the book mainly involves Marlowe discovering everything after all the action had taken place elsewhere, being instead left to find and report enough dead bodies to keep a morgue in business for a while. The core plot remains faithful to the novel, and the book’s secondary plot, involving the death of Mrs Murdock’s former husband, remains intact in the film, with a new angle added at the end whereby Marlowe, in an almost English country detective fashion, outlines the truth of the matter to the rest of the cast of characters in his office, before the police take them away to face their fates.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, especially given the legendary Bogart-Bacall pairing of the previous year, the film adds in a romantic element to the story which wasn’t particularly present in the novel, with Marlowe actively (to the point of being borderline predatory…) pursuing Merle Davis. But the love element doesn’t intrude on the film in the same way that it does with The Big Sleep, which is not a bad thing – but perhaps another reason why the film didn’t take off to well. Davis is played by Nancy Guild, who captures the character’s naïve yet sweet essence, whilst having to fend off the ‘lessons in love’ being offered by Marlowe.
The film contains a steady backing cast of hoodlums and gangsters, each played well, but it is Florence Bates’ portrayal of Elizabeth Murdock which truly elevates the cast and serves to steal almost every scene she appears in, including her final, manic screams of ‘lunatic….lunatic!’ as she is taken away by detectives for the murder of her husband, continuously trying to make Merle Davis convinced it was she who was the one responsible. Bates gets the inherent bitterness and manipulative nature of the character down perfectly, which acts as a brilliant counterpart to Montgomery’s wisecracking Marlowe. Already a strong and memorable character in the book, the movie expands on this further, particularly with regards to the character’s cruel manipulation of Merle Davis, with a memorable scene where she orders Davis to sleep with Marlowe so she can retrieve the counterfeit copy of the doubloon in Marlowe’s possession.
Overall, the film came and went and hasn’t been remembered in the same vein as The Big Sleep or Murder, My Sweet (or Robert Mitchum’s later take of that film with Farewell, My Lovely in 1975), or even that of Elliott Guild’s opinion-dividing take on Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, but The Brasher Doubloon is an entirely enjoyable entry, providing a reliable adaption of the source material whilst retaining a sense of humour and fun which marks a refreshing change of pace. It’s not the greatest of the Marlowe films, but it’s a fine film nonetheless and certainly one that any Chandler fan should be able to enjoy.