Review by Lindsay Peters
Posted on 17 January 2011
Source Pioneer DVD
In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote: “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid, he is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” Chandler was of course describing his own Philip Marlowe, the definitive hard-boiled detective who would validate many a Hollywood career. Marlowe has thus far experienced a total of four cinematic personifications, the first being Dick Powell in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (1944), also known as the original cinematic adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely; the second, the seminal Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946); the third, a mumbling, petulant Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s modernized The Long Goodbye (1973). The fourth, Robert Mitchum, would twice play Marlowe: first in Farewell, My Lovely (1975), and second in a thoroughly ill-conceived remake of The Big Sleep (1978).
Adapted by David Zelag Goodman (Straw Dogs, Logan’s Run) and directed by Dick Richards (March or Die), Farewell, My Lovely appeared two years after The Long Goodbye. The film’s production team, led by a young Jerry Bruckheimer, also recruited Chinatown cinematographer John A. Alonzo, a move which strongly suggests that the film was made in an attempt to capitalize on the recent success of the Roman Polanski noir. Fresh off the success of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Robert Mitchum had been enjoying a first-rate career stretching back to the 1940s, unusual in both longevity and consistency. A veteran of classic noir and crime thrillers like Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952) and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), Mitchum had all the makings of an ideal Marlowe, save for the fact that the role came to him about twenty years too late. Apart from a half-hearted attempt to recognize Mitchum’s 58 years during the opening voiceover (“this past spring was the first I realized I was tired and growing old”), the film fails to fully utilize Mitchum’s wizened state. Farewell, My Lovely could have made an intriguing addition to the grand cinematic narrative of Philip Marlowe had the film been a study of Marlowe as an aging, washed up private detective. However, the film’s problems ultimately have little to do with Mitchum, whose affable roughness renders his Marlowe a serviceable, if somewhat wearied, composite of Powell and Bogart. In short, Farewell, My Lovely is a lethargic, convoluted contribution to the 1970s detective subgenre; one that lacks the elegiac polish of Chinatown and the self-awareness of The Long Goodbye.
Chandler’s second novel after The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely follows Philip Marlowe on the hunt for missing nightclub performer Velma Valento. In a seemingly unrelated development, Marlowe is hired by the sexually ambiguous Lindsay Marriott to serve as bodyguard while Marriott attempts to regain a stolen jade necklace on behalf of a lady friend. Marriott is quickly murdered for his efforts, and Marlowe soon becomes embroiled with the owner of the necklace: the smoldering, seductive Mrs. Grayle. It soon becomes clear that Velma and Mrs. Grayle are one and the same. Along the way, Marlowe is beaten, drugged, and shot at for being little more than a genial inquisitor, assisted by a vibrant collection of down and out passersby. Finally, Marlowe concludes his story with a secondhand description of Velma’s eventual fate by suicide after a confrontation with an enterprising Baltimore detective over her string of murderous deceptions.
In comparison to Murder, My Sweet, the 1975 Farewell My Lovely has been touted as the more faithful adaptation, an assertion made by those who apparently failed to read beyond Chandler’s first chapter. In contrast to the white-washed 1944 film, the 1975 version retains the black nightclub clientele of the opening scene while discreetly avoiding the explicitly racist commentary found throughout the novel. Despite these attempts to honor the original source material, the film’s plot quickly devolves into narrative incoherence. Mrs. Grayle (a barely conscious Charlotte Rampling, who seems to have utterly misinterpreted Lauren Bacall’s Big Sleep bedroom eyes) fleetingly addresses the stolen jade necklace while inexplicably wearing a jade-like rope around her neck. This will mark the only reference to a crime that is of central importance to both the novel and the 1944 version. Rampling’s Velma eventually turns out to be a double-crossing femme fatale who may have committed a few other vaguely defined crimes. She ruthlessly kills her ex-lover, then is promptly shot and killed for her trouble, leaving Marlowe to explain things to the police. Throw in a whorehouse that merely allows for gratuitous shots of bare-breasted prostitutes, and an appalling slapfight between Marlowe and a dope-wielding madam, and Farewell, My Lovely becomes little more than a five-cent shell of Chandler’s original work.
Adapting intricate first-rate detective fiction like Chandler’s is a challenge from the start. (Howard Hawks remarked that in The Big Sleep, “neither the author, the writer, nor myself knew who had killed whom.”) An excess of subplot renders this adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely even more problematic. The subplots include Marlowe’s preoccupation with Joe DiMaggio’s record-breaking season; a doomed romance between a mute Sylvester Stallone and a doe-eyed prostitute; and a ball-tossing kid whose father is murdered for the crime of talking to Marlowe. This third subplot appears to have been included for the sole purpose of humanizing Marlowe — a device that would have been completely unnecessary had the filmmakers read Chandler’s essay and realized that Philip Marlowe already comes with enough veiled heroism and genuine humanity to satisfy any audience.
The film is not without its redeeming qualities, however. Harry Dean Stanton provides much-needed cynical humor as Det. Billy Rolfe, a character created specifically for the 1975 adaptation. Richards also manages to consistently convey a decaying, grime-encrusted Los Angeles. The theoretically glamorous cruise ship Marlowe boards for the film’s climax is mottled with rust, and even the stately Grayle mansion, “smaller than Buckingham Palace,” exudes an aura of dusty gloom. Alonzo’s camera captures overcast skies and moves through crumbling screen doors, creating an interesting though simplistic contrast to the glaring intensity of Chinatown. One lovely shot that stands out in particular is when Marlowe is brought in for questioning by the police after being found unconscious at the scene of Marriott’s murder. Mitchum is lit only by a low-hanging ceiling lamp, a light source which in turn faintly illuminates his interrogator, rendering the remaining police detectives mere silhouettes. Mitchum sparks with sudden energy in this scene as though fully aware of its poetic elegance. As such, this shot stands in for all the cinematic originality that got away from an otherwise forgettable production of a seminal detective story.