Farewell, My Lovely
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has appeared in ten movies and many TV and radio adaptations. The movies range in quality from very good (Bogart in The Big Sleep) to pretty bad (Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet, which was really this story, re-titled), to plain bizarre (The Lady in the Lake, shot entirely in POV, and The Big Sleep re-make with Robert Mitchum, inexplicably moved to London). This one is by far the best depiction of that world-weary but implacably honest private eye who revolutionized an entire genre of fiction. Everything about it from the script, which contains whole passages lifted from the book, to the production design which takes us right back to the sleaziest side of pre-War Los Angeles, to the casting and acting of the supporting and minor roles, is just perfect, and the center of it all is the towering performance of Robert Mitchum.
It is 1941, World War II is just months away for Americans though of course we don’t know that, Hitler has engulfed Europe and is invading Russia, and the only good news seems to be that Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, is on an unprecedented hitting streak that won’t stop until he reaches 56, one of those records that will probably never be broken. A human juggernaut with the brains of a ball-peen hammer, name of Moose Malloy, has just come out of a seven-year stretch in some graybar hotel, and he hires Marlowe (not that Marlowe ever had a chance to say no) to find his sweetie, Velma. And then the murders begin.
No point in going any deeper into the plot. It’s a good story, but it’s the ambiance here, the hard-boiled, noir (even though the film is in color, it feels like black and white), pulp feeling of the thing that matters. Many of the shots could be used, as is, for covers of an old paperback, or a film poster for movies of the ‘40s.
The most important element here is, of course, Mitchum’s hang-dog face, how well he fits into his trench coat, and his world-weary narration. He’s helped along by the insanely seductive face and posture of Charlotte Rampling as the bad little rich girl, by Sylvia Miles as the drunken floozy, Jack O’Halloran as the unstoppable human bulldozer, and most of all by Kate Murtagh as Frances Amthor, a truly horrific presence as the huge and ruthless madam of a high-class whorehouse. There is a really memorable scene where Marlowe is sitting in a kitchen chair surrounded by her thugs (including Sylvester Stallone in a non-speaking part) and she brutally slaps him across the face four times. After a very short pause, he gives out a wordless cry of outrage and humiliation, surges from the chair, and pops her with an enormous right hook … and she barely reels back, bleeding from her lip. You seldom see a movie hero hit a woman, and the scenes are always memorable because of that. (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, remember? Of course you do.) Seldom has a female more richly deserved a punch in the nose. I was also surprised to see that Jim Thompson, one of the best pulp writers of his generation, had a small part as the judge. His only movie appearance.