When it comes to genre films (and in this case I use the term “genre” lightly), I’m a real sucker for classic noir. The ones with the cynical antihero protagonists (often hard-boiled private detectives), the simmering femme fatales, the seedy settings and even seedier side characters, the intricate crime-centered plots, the cool straight-shooting dialogue. It’s a “genre” that has mostly faded into the sunset, but that (thankfully) still pops up every now and then. Case in point: Liam Neeson’s new film “Marlowe”
Considering the trajectory of his career, it’s hard to imagine Neeson leading an old-school film noir. He certainly has the world-weary look and gravelly grumble. But seeing him in a rumpled three-piece suit and fedora, driving around 1939 Los Angeles in a Ford Coupe is an adjustment. Yet here he is alongside an intriguing cast that includes Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Danny Huston, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
Directed by Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”) and written by William Monahan (“The Departed”), “Marlowe” is an adaptation of John Banville’s 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. As its title gives away, the film’s lead character is none other than Philip Marlowe, the tough-minded wise-cracking private eye created in the 1930s by novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler. He’s appeared in several films throughout the years and has been played by such stars as Humphrey Bogart, James Garner, Elliott Could, and Robert Mitchum. Now Neeson gives him a whirl in what is the 100th film of the actor’s career.
Set in Bay City, Los Angeles (inspired by Santa Monica in Chandler’s world), Philip Marlowe once enjoyed working as an investigator for the district attorney’s office. But that went south, and now he gets by as a self-employed private detective, often taking cases from the area’s wealthy and unscrupulous. Neeson turns out to be a pretty good Marlowe, blending in nicely with the terrific period production design and nailing the character’s look, demeanor, and pessimism.
One morning, Marlowe is visited by Mrs. Clare Cavendish (Kruger), a wealthy heiress who hires him to find her lover, a prop guy for Pacific Film Studios named Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). Mrs. Cavendish informs Marlowe that she’s married, and despite having an “understanding” with her husband (Patrick Muldoon), she prefers discretion. And just like that we have our femme fatale, a role that Kruger has a blast with.
Marlowe takes the case and immediately starts poking around. It doesn’t take him long to discover that Nico Peterson is dead – the victim of a hit-and-run outside the front gate of the Corbata Club, an exclusive members-only establishment managed by a suit named Floyd Hanson (a delightfully shady Huston). So with Nico dead, that means the case is closed, right? Not so fast. After Marlowe fills in Clare, she tells him she knows Nico has been pronounced dead by the authorities. But she claims to have recently saw him very much alive on the streets of Tijuana.
From there it’s all about putting together the many pieces of the puzzle as Jordan shuffles us from one person to the next, each with information to share. Some are reliable; just as many aren’t. They’re an interesting batch and everyone Marlowe meets gives him (and us) reasons to be suspicious. In addition to Huston’s Floyd Hanson, there’s Clare’s acerbic mother Dorothy Quincannon (Lange who’s great), a former movie star living off her former glory. There’s a gangster named Lou Hendricks (Cumming) and his loyal driver Cedric (Akinnuoye-Agbaje). And there’s Lynn (Daniela Melchior), Nico’s sister who’s caught between a rock and a hard place. They all speak in riddles and keep their cards close to the vest.
And of course you have Clare herself who like all femme fatales has her secrets and is always holding something back. I enjoyed Kruger’s performance, but her relationship with Marlowe needs more sizzle. It’s mostly due to how Marlowe is written. Jordan and Monahan’s version is older, tired, and is feeling his age. “I’m getting too old for this,” he sighs after disposing of a couple of goons “Taken” style. It’s a profile that fits Neeson, but it inevitably tempers the sexual tension. Yet it’s kinda nice that we’re not force-fed some obligatory romance.
As for the look of the film, Barcelona and Dublin do a surprisingly satisfactory job filling in for Southern California. They may not capture the authenticity of something like “L.A. Confidential” or “Chinatown”, but they get the job done in large part thanks to DP Xavi Gimenez whose sun-baked vision of the Golden State is at times exquisite. Then there are his visual touches that are catnip for classic noir fans like me – the way the sun casts strips of shadow through window blinds. Or the bright glow of a neon sign reflecting off the rain-puddled pavement.
Those looking for a reimagining of Chandler’s world could very well leave disappointed. “Marlowe” isn’t meant to be some revisionist exercise in the mold of Altman’s “The Long Goodbye”. It’s more of an celebratory ode; a proudly unashamed pastiche rooted more in an obvious love for classic noir than some impulse to update it. Sadly, for that reason it’ll take some hits. But it turns out to be exactly what this sucker was hoping for.
Great to here. It’s a lot of fun.
I love noir, too, and can’t seem to get enough of Liam Neeson. If you like it, I most likely will, too.
It doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But that’s one of the things I liked about it.
I think this looks interesting and I’ll definitely make time to see it…but what was the studio thinking opening this on the same weekend as Ant-Man? It’s going to get buried.
It’s definitely getting buried. Really weird timing all the way around. It actually comes out tomorrow (as if that’s going to help it somehow).
I’ve read some dissenting reviews on the film since its premiere in festivals but I still want to see it as it just looks fun and Liam Neeson as Philip Marlowe. I can go for that. Every generation needs a Philip Marlowe story and an actor to play that role. I know it’s going to get killed in the box office (sorry about that as I’m going to see Quantumania this Sunday) but let’s hope it finds some life on the streaming world.
I think it’s planned for a quick release on digital. As for dissenting reviews – just as I expected. Some will find it too old-fashioned and be disappointed that it doesn’t do anything new. I actually love that about it.
I actually think that is refreshing. Sometimes, the old ways work. I don’t mind old-fashioned.
YES! Precisely. Reactions to this one will all come down to expectations.
We need more detective films like Marlowe, But with a Scooby-Doo style of solving mysteries.
That could work.
Wow! 4 stars? Thanks for the review on this one, I would have skipped it since Neeson’s last few have been hit and miss and leaning toward miss for me too many times. I loved the Crying Game and Departed and wasn’t aware those from the past were involved in this one.
I thought it was a blast. It’s getting shredded by fellow critics (as I predicted), but I think it comes down to expectations. It’s very aware of what it wants to be (and what it’s celebrating). And as a lover of classic noir, it scratched all the itches.