(This is the first of many reviews of made-on-demand discs I’ll be doing at The Digital Fix during the month of June. A few select write-ups, such as this one, will be cross-posted here at clydefro.com)
A country blonde Kansas girl retains California private detective Philip Marlowe for $50, hoping he can find her brother. When Marlowe instead comes across a fresh kill accomplished via ice pick, he returns the girl’s money and bows out of the case. But our Marlowe can’t stay away from a female in peril and he ultimately finds some incriminating photographs that smell of blackmail. It soon becomes clear that things aren’t exactly as they seem. Another ice pick murder, a gangster and his group of thugs, a night club dancer, and a popular television actress all figure prominently in the quest to make sense of the whole mess.
There’s so much baggage attached to the character of Philip Marlowe that it’s almost a wonder he’s been portrayed as frequently as he has on film. Ten different actors have tried their hand playing Raymond Chandler’s signature creation in the movies and a couple more on series television. The interpretations have varied a good deal, leaving fans of the page version of the character seemingly always ready to snipe. Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is an easy favorite but Dick Powell got there first, in Murder, My Sweet. The subjective-angled Marlowe from Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake has only a small handful of fans, among whom I count myself. That same year George Montgomery (no relation) did the private detective in the hard-to-find John Brahm-directed picture The Brasher Doubloon. The New Hollywood of the late ’60s and 1970s rediscovered Marlowe in quite varied ways. Robert Mitchum got the character rather late in life in two films while Elliott Gould pissed off the faithful in Robert Altman’s subversively brilliant The Long Goodbye.
Potentially the most apt incarnation of Philip Marlowe occurred with the simply titled Marlowe, a 1969 feature directed by Paul Bogart. Its star is James Garner, in proto-Rockford mode, and the Chandler book being adapted (by Sterling Siliphant) is The Little Sister. Garner was adept at playing characters who were casual, smart and tough without being invulnerable. In virtually every other performance of Marlowe on film you can see aspects of Garner’s signature style. He would seem to have been a perfect fit to play Chandler’s private eye. The unfortunate comedown is that things didn’t exactly mesh as planned or hoped, and Garner’s version turned out to be as uneven as he is affable. Still here, at times, are the classic Marlowe ethics, the quips, and the knack for connecting A to B to C. But, perhaps as a result of the film’s overall bumpiness, the character manages to feel underdeveloped. It’s this lack of distinction that holds Marlowe back from the success gained by previous Chandler adaptations.
If you can remove any hard-boiled expectations, the film proves to have a number of smaller pleasures. Chandler’s dense plotting remains, and the story elements come together like a beautifully intricate puzzle. Otherwise, it really might be best seen as a James Garner vehicle instead of a Marlowe one. Garner is deeply in his element here, playing a character conspicuously like the one he played in The Rockford Files. His Marlowe is very much in the vein of that usually broke California private detective who was prone to coming out on the losing end of fisticuffs. Philip Marlowe is a better dresser than Jim Rockford, and there are obviously other differences, but it’s not much of a stretch to see the similarities. Aside from a risqué dancing number by Rita Moreno and an instance or two of mild profanity, Marlowe even resembles a television production over a theatrical one. Indeed, with the unimaginative framing and direction by TV veteran Bogart, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a movie actually made for the small screen.
Before even sort of starting to dismiss Marlowe, it needs to be asserted that the film is hardly a dud. It’s a solid watch – reasonably involving and enjoyable aside from a sometimes sagging section midway through to late in the movie. The reliably charismatic Garner is joined by three forgettable female co-stars (Gayle Hunnicutt, Sharon Farrell, Corinne Camacho) and the far more vivacious Rita Moreno, playing a night club dancer. Hunnicutt somehow got above-title billing. Strangely enough, the Texas-born Hunnicutt seems to be suppressing an English accent here. She was married to the actor David Hemmings at the time but only moved to England after filming Marlowe. Other notable cast members include Carroll O’Connor as a police lieutenant, William Daniels (whose namesake was the director of photography), and Jackie Coogan. A big draw for certain modern viewers will be the two appearances by Bruce Lee. They come and go but both are fun scenes. Dig the character name Winslow Wong.
It’s also pretty easy to have fun with a movie where seemingly random insertions like Marlowe enjoying a Greta Garbo performance on a television monitor instead of watching the live filming of a popular show on a soundstage or Garner asserting “impertinent…even baroque” in sly reference to something in Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge occur. The film even has a theme song which plays over its colorful opening credits. The track, named after Chandler’s source novel, is performed by the band Orpheus and repeats in part at the end of the film. As can be seen during that title sequence, Marlowe at times seems to want to align itself with the groovy era in which it was made rather than the postwar setting found in the book. This doesn’t make for the smoothest or most successful of transitions. Suddenly the character of Marlowe is a square and the little psychedelic touches come off as mere pandering. Now as an artifact, it further distances the film from the classic Philip Marlowe of Chandler’s novels (though in a much different way than Altman’s version). It’s also probably illustrative of the difficult transition the film can’t quite accomplish successfully from one era and medium to the next.
The Warner Archive Collection, a made-on-demand service from Warner Bros. that is now at around 1,000 titles deep, has made some real strides in improving its product. There are the many titles being categorized as “Remastered” (including Marlowe). There’s also a far more attractive approach to cover art, typically using the film’s original poster as a basis, than the uniformly ugly blue fronts that originally adorned Warner Archive releases. Recently, there’s even been disc art added to these purple-underbellied DVD-Rs. A few extra features have also been tacked on to some of the most recent releases. Now if we could just get lower prices, subtitles, wider availability, and a format that doesn’t have questions about stability…
Marlowe has a nice color transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio (listed incorrectly on the back of the case as 1.85:1). It’s enhanced for widescreen displays and has been progressively transferred. Some dirt and debris remain, though it’s minimal. Close-ups look reasonably clear and acceptable, with longer shots appearing a bit softer. Colors are quite warm, bathed in California sun. You probably can’t watch this disc and discern any real difference between it being a single-layered DVD-R and if it was a DVD. Though I’d still prefer the latter, this is a more than decent-looking image.
Audio is English mono with no problems such as hiss or crackle. And no subtitles.
An included trailer (2:12) is, for some reason, in letterboxed 1.33:1.