Farewell, My Lovelies: Three Faces of Philip Marlowe

 

Following on from a re-read of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (reviewed here), I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed reading it again. One of Raymond Chandler’s best works, it’s a mean, dark story of a detective working his way through the rotting streets of Los Angeles. Tasked to find an ex-con’s former fiancé, a nightclub crooner called Velma Valento, Marlowe is dragged into a tale involving gangsters, crooked cops, psychic consultants, rich politicians, mysterious hold-ups and not to mention quite a few beatings around the head…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it made a fairly swift transfer to the big screen – beginning with 1942’s The Falcon Takes Over – and holds the honour of being the Chandler novel which has been adapted the most times, with three film versions to its credit (The Big Sleep and The High Window scored two adaptions, with all the others having the one, save for Playback which never was made – rather ironically, given that it started life out as a screenplay rather than a novel). Owing to having a free weekend, not to mention a bit of a hangover to also work through, I nobly committed myself to spending a Saturday re-watching these three films with the view to doing a small comparison piece.

Here goes…

  1. The Falcon Takes Over (1942)

I only in fact watched this for the first time quite recently – you can find my review here.

This film, released just two years after the novel’s publication, is the third entry in RKO’s ‘Falcon’ series – a long-running series of B-movies starring (initially) George Sanders in the titular role of ‘The Falcon’, who takes the place of Philip Marlowe. Directed by Irving Reis, the film is a quirky attempt to bring the works of Raymond Chandler to the big screen – with perhaps better results than might be expected.

On paper, it sounds like an unlikely pairing- the Falcon is a suave, sophisticated and generally refined English, one with a habit for overly excessive womanising, and who solves crimes purely as a hobby whilst supposedly maintaining a day job as a stock broker. He’s a world apart from the hardboiled, cynical and rather lonely character of Marlowe. Yet, the Falcon’s involvement doesn’t actually feel all that forced as far as his involvement in the story goes – probably owing to the fact that the story was fit within the Falcon series, rather than having the Falcon fit within the Marlowe series. At their heart, both characters have a penchant for seeing justice done, not to mention squaring off against the police and generally having an oddly soft spot for helping  a man named Moose Malloy…

Despite all of the immediate difference in terms of characters, as an actual adaption of the book it’s not all that far removed. The core characters of Moose Malloy, Anne Riordan, Jessie Florian, Lindsey Marriott, Jules Amthor and Velma/Helen Grayle are all present and perform the same roles they do in the source material (albeit Mrs Grayle is renamed as Dianna Kenyon, for no particularly significant reason). One of the Falcon series’ mainstays, Inspector O’Harra, also steps in for the Nulty/Randall role.

The core plot is largely the same as the book – the Falcon’s dealings with Moose, his meeting with Jessie Florian, his next encounters with Marriott, with Anne Riordan, with Mrs Grayle, and the overall ‘twist’ at the end are still all in place, so fans of the book aren’t left feeling too offended in light of the other liberties taken with the source material. Truth be told, there isn’t a huge amount of key scenes that are actually cut out – only two major scenes got the trim. One being the scene involving Marlowe stumbling onto a gambling boat which featured towards the end of the novel (not a great loss), but the biggest omission is the book’s scene where Marlowe is captured by the ‘psychic consultant’ Jules Amthor and dumped by two corrupt cops in a back-street hospital where he is pumped full of dope and almost left for dead. The Amthor character is still included, though it’s not The Falcon who goes to visit him, but rather his rather bumbling assistant ‘Goldie’, who goes to dig up some information before Moose Malloy stumbles in and spoils things. It’s a shame, since the hospital scene is one of the books’ best, but in reality it wouldn’t have been in keeping with the Falcon series and the lighter approach it takes.

On the whole it’s a very light-hearted adaption, keeping the overall B-movie feel and retaining a lot of the humour and comedic traits which were a staple of the series, whilst omitting some of the more violent and generally darker aspects of the novel. Clocking in at a little over 60 minutes, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but there’s a surprising amount of fun to be had, and it isn’t the worst Marlowe adaption of them all.

  1. Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Next up is Edward Dmytryk’s ‘Murder, My Sweet’ (although released as ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ in some markets). The change of name came about in an attempt to stop audiences thinking that the feature might actually be a musical – owing the lead actor’s reputation for such films. The lead actor in question is Dick Powell, the first actor to actually assume the mantle of Philip Marlowe on the big screen. Murder, My Sweet was the third Chandler adaption (after ‘Time to Kill’ – an early take on The High Window, followed by The Falcon Takes Over itself), but it was the first one to actually feature Marlowe as the main character. Powell does a fine job in the role, using some of his previous experience to give the character a slightly lighter essence, whilst still managing to get down to the dirty end of business when he needs to.

As far as being an adaption of the novel, the film shifts the setting back to Los Angeles and is most definitely a proper crack at doing a true ‘Philip Marlowe’ film. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a couple of changes –  firstly, the Anne Riordan character is no longer Anne Riordan, but rather Anne Grayle – stepdaughter of Mrs Grayle and the daughter of her ageing husband. She tries to pay Marlowe off the case, rather than serving to just feed him information to move him from one plot to the next (which was seemingly the character’s main purpose in the novel), and inevitably she comes up as a love interest for Marlowe. There isn’t too much reason for this beyond giving the film a ‘happy’ ending (as far as they go in film noir, anyway), but it’s not exactly unsurprising, and certainly isn’t the only Marlowe film to do so – The Brasher Doubloon or, most famously, The Big Sleep end on the same note – neither does it really cause too much interference in the rest of the film.

There are a few minor plot shifts as the novel moves on – Moose Malloy’s involvement Amthor’s meeting with Marlowe is one, but biggest change, and in some respects the most disappointing part of the film, is the final scene involving Velma and Moose. Rather than Velma shooting an awestruck Moose down dead in cold blood, Velma is caught by her husband and stepdaughter talking about her criminal ties to Marlowe, at which point her husband shoots her dead, with Moose then bursting in on the scene and having a gunfight with the surviving Grayle. It’s an ending which perhaps wraps up some loose plot points which might have been left dangling, but it robs the story of the final tragedy and resolution of the Moose-Velma storyline.

Still, the film has its highlights. The supporting cast is fairly solid -although I never took too much to Claire Trevor’s portrayal of Velma/Helen Grayle. Mike Mazurki is the best of the bunch in his portrayal of Moose Malloy – playing him as a bit more lively character and as less of a simpleton than he is in the other adaptions, but whilst maintaining the essence of the character and his relentless pursuit of his missing Velma. He also gets a brilliant introduction, with his towering figure reflecting itself in Marlowe’s office window as the neon signs flicker outside.

Otto Kruger also stands out as another highlight in his role of Jules Amthor – he pretty accurately reflects the image of Amthor I had in my mind when reading the novel, and definitely shows all of the cunning and general evilness of the character, and, as with the novel, it’s a shame he’s limited to one main scene (though the film does give him one extra cameo appearance earlier on…bonus points to the film for that.)

The film also brings back the ‘drug-dream’ sequence of the book omitted from The Falcon Takes Over. As with the book, it’s one of the high points of the film, and actually has a neat quirk in distorting the camera to include what appear to be spider webs over the screen at the time of Marlowe’s gradual awakening and interrogation of Sonderborg, reflecting the passage of the book describing Marlowe’s mind as “a grey web woven by a thousand spiders…”

Overall, it’s not my favourite Marlowe adaption – but it’s certainly not a bad job either. Dick Powell was a good choice for the first true Marlowe, and some of the supporting characters are excellent, but my main problem is with the final scenes involving Moose, Velma, Marlowe and Mr Grayle. It’s less of a ‘punch in the gut’ that the original ending was to the characters, and whilst it’s not necessarily a bad ending, it does feel like it could have been better.

Still, the film was quite a success and is held up as an important film noir, and more importantly it showed Marlowe as being a bankable cinematic act, which perhaps helped to pave the way for his finest hour…The Big Sleep.

 

  1. Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

This past spring was the first that I felt tired and realised that I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in LA. Maybe it was the rotten cases I’d had; mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives once I’d found them, in order to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired. And growing old.”

 

If there was any actor who could have matched Humphrey Bogart’s era-defining take on Marlowe, it was Robert Mitchum. One of the leading figures of film noir in the 1940s, Mitchum was no stranger to playing the roles of hardboiled private-eyes. His take on Jeff Bailey in 1947’s Out of the Past is as close to a portrayal of Marlowe as any there is – only perhaps one who is a bit more a sucker for the ladies than Marlowe was.

By the time he finally got his turn as Marlowe though, Mitchum was 58, so a different take was needed. Whilst the film remains a period piece set in the early 1940s, Marlowe himself is portrayed as an old man, getting older still, working in a profession he doesn’t much care for any more. The character is still very much Philip Marlowe, only with a greater sense of sense of bitterness and word-weariness than he had before. Thanks to this, Mitchum’s take on Marlowe is probably the most unique of all of the ones who came before him. He really does look the part of a tired, world-weary private eye who has been doing the job for too long but is resigned to living out his days chasing down missing husbands and looking for runaway teenage daughters. Mitchum is quite a contrast to the version of Marlowe played immediately before him –Elliott Gould’s youthful yet out-of-place-in-the-modern-world Marlowe found in 1973’s The Long Goodbye (reviewed here).

In terms of supporting cast, Velma is played by Charlotte Rampling, and n reflection is probably the best of the three actresses who played her. She’s not quite the “blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window” as described in the novel (and portrayed in the preceding films), but brings a more subtle, refined approach to the character. Moose Malloy is played by boxer Jack O’Halloran. He certainly looks the part and can handle the character’s aggressive outbursts, but his overall portrayal is a bit flatter than Mazurki’s was. Still, he plays the character faithfully enough. One of the best performances actually comes from Sylvia Miles, who plays Jessie Florian. Her role or significance to the plot isn’t any greater or any  less than it is in any of the other adaptions (in fact, she and Marriott are probably the two characters whose involvement aren’t changed at all from the novel in any of the adaptions). Miles really makes the character sympathetic – vulgar, but sympathetic, with her trying to impress Marlowe in their first meeting by putting on an innocent display of her old dance routine, like watching a child practising in front of a mirror and hoping to be a star one day, while Marlowe softly sings alongside her. The only real miscasting is John O’Leary as Lindsey Marriott. Granted the character only really appears briefly, but he doesn’t at all match the smooth, good-looking shyster that he was originally meant to be.

One of the key strengths of the film is the way it brilliantly depicts Los Angeles and the world Marlowe works in. The low lighting, smog, neon lights, and gloomy settings all give the film an authentic feel. The film also has a real air of authenticity. Even when stacked up against the earlier two films, both of which were made when Chandler was still writing his Marlowe novels, this adaption really seems to capture a feeling of 1940’s Los Angeles which goes above and beyond that portrayed in any of the other movies in the Marlowe series (although The Falcon Takes Over is, admittedly, set in New York).  The dialogue is well-written, with Marlowe coming out with plenty of wisecracks and smart remarks, many of which were written for the film rather than being lifted from the book, but they still feel like they could easily have been lifted from Chandler’s page.

Also to go alongside it, the movie also features a theme tune which I quite enjoy a lot, which dotted intermittently throughout the film in the same way ‘The Long Goodbye’s’ theme was, and which seems to capture the downbeat mood of the film:

In some respects, this version stands out as perhaps the most faithful adaption of the book of the three. It includes the gambling ship sequence omitted from either of the previous two films, which is where the final denouement takes place, which actually seems a bit better-developed compared with the novel’s gambling boat scene, where Marlowe squares of with the gangster running the town and asking him to get Moose Malloy to get in touch with him, before going off on his merry way back to his office to pick up matters up with Velma.

Owing to the change in film production codes, the film could depict more of the novel’s violence than either of the earlier adaptions could, as well as taking on some of the ‘racier’ aspects of the book’s opening scenes, where Marlowe and the Moose find Velma’s old bar has been converted into a ‘shine bar’ where white men avoid. Whether you think that inclusion is a good thing or a bad thing is up to you, but it at least makes for a faithful adaption…

In other respects though, it takes some unusual detours. Marlowe himself is, as mentioned, an older and even more cynical man here than was on the page. A couple of new characters are added in, mainly the family of a jazz musician who used to work with Velma and who gets killed once he talks with Marlowe. The point of this seems to be so that the film could go on a slightly more positive note than the book did, with Marlowe choosing to give his fee to the son of the murdered man. There are also a couple of new scenes involving drive-by shootings by gangsters trying to take out Moose Malloy, and the character of Anne Riordan is omitted entirely.

The biggest change, though, is way that Amthor is fitted into the plot. Whilst we still get the ‘drug-dream’ sequence, the character of Amthor is flipped entirely. Instead of being Jules Amthor, Psychic Consultant, we have…Frances Amthor, proprietor of one of LA’s leading brothels! After meeting Mrs Grayle for the first time, instead of attending a pre-arranged meeting with Amthor where he gets himself captured, Marlowe is instead taken hostage in his office, shipped off to Amthor’s brothel, questioned about Moose Malloy and then left drugged up in a basement. He gets himself out in the established way, inspects a few of the ‘guest rooms’ and interrogates Amthor (in the place of Dr Sonderborg in the novel), before chaos ensues when Amthor finds her young daughter sleeping with one of the henchmen who brought Marlowe in (played by a young Sylvester Stallone). The brothel idea is worked into the story as being a place where Velma worked before marrying Mr Grayle, but it’s still a somewhat strange twist to make…

Overall, it probably stands up as the best of the three adaptions. Mitchum gives us a new take on Marlowe, whilst still retaining all of the familiar traits of the character. The supporting cast and settings are pretty flawless (Lindsey Marriott aside), and whilst none of the films are ‘straight’ adaptions of the novel, this one seems to come the closest to a faithful adaption of them all. Yes, even with that whole brothel sequence…

Unfortunately, Mitchum’s role as Marlowe was carried forward into another adaption in 1978, with a new adaption of The Big Sleep. Seemingly abandoning everything that made Farewell, My Lovely work, they made it a contemporary film and changed the setting to London, England. It was a more faithful adaption of the book than Bogart’s 1946 version was, but that’s about all the film has going for it, and even Mitchum wasn’t able to save it from mediocrity. But that’s a review for another day. Maybe.

*

Now, to finish up – a couple of ‘man of the match’ selections:

Best Marlowe: A tricky one. All the three lead actors have their individual strengths – but we can probably discount Sanders/The Falcon for the simple reason that he isn’t Philip Marlowe. That makes things a bit easier…

Between Powell and Mitchum, it’s a tough call because they have quite opposite takes on the character. Powell is much more of the ‘classic’ Marlowe; younger, slicker and generally energetic in the role. He gives an admirable performance and probably ranks up in the top three Marlowe actors.  He also deserves credit for actually being the first person to bring Marlowe to life on the screen, free from the rather difficult task of stepping out of Humphrey Bogart’s shadow which all future Marlowe actors were to do – including Robert Mitchum. Whilst it meant that he wasn’t bound by Bogarts shadow, neither was he guided by Bogart’s influence – as the first Marlowe actor, he set the ground for all that followed.

That said, Mitchum brings a degree of experience and seriousness to the role which hasn’t been seen in any of the other Marlowe adaptions, and really does come across convincingly as an ageing detective trapped in a world without any heroes.  It’s a pretty powerful performance and gives him the slight edge on Powell.

 

Best Adaption: Already mentioned above, but the honour here goes to 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely. It’s a tough pick as each of the films contain different strengths and weaknesses. Each one makes different changes to the story, for better or worse, and each of them has a mostly solid range of supporting actors and set-pieces. But on the whole, Farewell, My Lovely takes the prize home for presenting a new kind of Marlowe, and for giving us the best depiction of Los Angeles – the city which is itself almost a whole character in Chandler’s works – of the whole Marlowe series. (And I really do love that theme tune).

 

Best Supporting Characters:

Best Moose Malloy:        Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet)

Best Velma:                        Charlotte Rampling (Farewell, My Lovely).  Honourable mention to Helen Gilbert (The Falcon Takes Over)

Best Jessie Florian:          Sylvia Miles (Farewell, My Lovely)

Best Jules Amthor:          Otto Kruger (Murder, My Sweet)

*

 

 

You could see a long way – but not as far as Velma had gone.”

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