Dorian's Pick - Marlowe (1969): Out of the Past, Into the '60s
Before the good people of Warner Archive recently made Marlowe (1969) available on DVD, I think the last time I saw it was on the 4:30 Movie when I was a kid in the Bronx! But before we talk about James Garner’s performance as author Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective Philip Marlowe, I think it’s important to provide some background. Marlowe has been played in the movies (and on TV and radio, too, but let’s stick to the movies for this post) by a remarkable variety of actors, with performances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. For me, I’m afraid Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye wins in the “ridiculous” category. In Robert Altman’s version, Gould looks and acts like he’s auditioning for Columbo. Yes, I know the Gould/Altman version has its fans, and I’ve liked Gould in other roles, but I just don’t think he’s a good fit as Philip Marlowe. Years earlier, in 1947, George Montgomery had tried his hand at playing Marlowe in The Brasher Doubloon. I’ve never had an opportunity to see the film, alas, but judging from the trailer and the bits and pieces of the film I've seen on YouTube, young Montgomery was trying to look older behind a dapper mustache. Eventually, Montgomery quit show business to run a wildly successful furniture business. Does anybody here know if there's a legal DVD of The Brasher Doubloon available anywhere? But I digress….
Happily, the sublime Marlowes outshine and outweigh the lesser ones. My own favorites include Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s 1946 film version of Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep; Robert Montgomery directing himself in MGM’s offbeat but compelling 1947 adaptation of Lady in the Lake (I’ll admit that one’s an acquired taste, and by golly, I’ve acquired it!); and three different but thoroughly entertaining versions of Chandler’s 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely. The first film version actually used the plot for one of George Sanders’s Falcon movies, The Falcon Takes Over (1942). Instead of Chandler’s Los Angeles, The Falcon Takes Over is set in my beloved New York City, with Ward Bond as Moose Malloy and Team Bartilucci fave Hans Conried as Lindsay Marriott. Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) was a far more faithful adaptation despite the title change; the producers were afraid that the title Farewell, My Lovely sounded too much like a musical. But by any title, Murder, My Sweet helped Dick Powell shatter his image as a crooner, establishing him as a big-screen tough guy forevermore. Dick Richards’s 1975 version restored the original Farewell, My Lovely title, and Robert Mitchum commands the screen as another one of my favorite Marlowes. Mitchum was terrific in Michael Winner’s 1978 version of The Big Sleep, too, although I wasn’t crazy about many other aspects of the film, especially its transplant from 1946 Los Angeles to 1978 England, and its overreliance on blood and violence to keep audiences awake.
|Electric Company: Sparks fly between Marlowe and Dolores
Orpheus, who’d had a big hit with “Can’t Find the Time.” Lang Thompson’s absorbing article on the TCM Web site describes Orpheus as “a psychedelic pop band,” but for me, “Little Sister” and the other Orpheus songs I found on YouTube evoked The Lettermen’s greatest hits more than, say, The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints.”
The opening credits show a young man taking surreptitious photos of a sexy couple getting wet and wild in what’s obviously supposed to be a private pool. The woman turns out to be popular sitcom star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt), who should perhaps use some of her sitcom earnings for better security, or at least better friends. You see, Mavis’s pool buddy turns out to be notorious mob boss Sonny Steelgrave* (played by H.M. Wynant, whose many TV and movie appearances include roles on 77 Sunset Strip, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Maverick, and the genre spoofs of Team Bartilucci favorite Larry Blamire, of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra fame). Can you say “blackmail”? I knew you could!
|Party line-up with camera shop guy,
Marlowe, & his girl Friday, er, Julie
|Whodunit? Take your pick!
Future Emmy-winner Paul Bogart directed; ironic, considering that Humphrey Bogart (no relation) was, in my opinion, the best movie Marlowe (no offense intended to the beloved star we’re saluting this week). Entertaining and well-cast though it is overall, Marlowe could have used a tweak or two. Silliphant’s script works hard to balance out the old and new elements, but the movie sometimes felt a bit unstuck in time to me. True, Quentin Tarantino has been doing that in his films since the 1990s, but Marlowe sometimes feels like its Chandler-esque elements are being shoehorned in. The characters’ first names sound very 1940s even though the setting is 1969 L.A., which might well have been intended as a tribute to Chandler’s original material. And I know the hairstyle Hunnicutt wears in the scene in Mavis’s apartment was probably cutting-edge in the late 1960s, but I wish she had cut it off instead. It makes the otherwise beautiful Hunnicutt look like she has ultra-long sideburns! Does the fact that Chandler’s 1949 novel was updated for the 1969 movie version make this a period piece for us 21st-century viewers? That said, when the ’40s elements work, they work quite well indeed, like placing Marlowe’s office in L.A.’s landmark Bradbury Building.
|When Marlowe’s client gets knocked off, there’s hell toupee!
|Warning: Drugged cigarettes can be hazardous
to a private eye's health!
|Who needs HGTV? Leave your next office makeover to Winslow Wong!
*“Sonny Steelgrave” was a character name also used by the late writer and TV producer Stephen J. Cannell, if I recall correctly. (Vinnie says: "She's right - he was a bad guy on the first season of Wiseguy, played by Ray Sharkey.")
Vinnie's pick - Support your Local Sheriff (1968) : "We're All Behind Ya!"
The town is filled with wacky characters played by beloved character actors, including Harry Morgan, Henry Jones and Jack Elam as Jason's deputy Jake. Joan Hackett plays the mayor's daughter Prudy, a tomboyish young lady who doesn't seem to know what to do with her hands when the Sheriff's around. Garner walks smoothly through the chaos unruffled, pulling his gun when he has to, but most of the time getting people to do what he wants by wits and generally confounding the hell out of everyone. When Pa Danby (Western legend Walter Brennan, parodying his role in My Darling Clementine) shows up to break Joe out of jail, Jason stops him by sticking his finger in Pa's gun barrel. After killing endless hired guns, he drives one out of town by throwing rocks at him.
One of the coolest aspects of the character is how he really is a tremendous fighter and a better shot, but chooses to keep that under wraps, like a claw. When presenting himself for the position to the town council, they ask for his credentials. He replies with a simple "Oh, don't worry, you'll be glad you hired me". When they ask for some provenance, he takes a large washer, flings it up in the air and shoots through the center. The council is reticent to believe him, pastes a stamp over the hole, and asks him to repeat the stunt. He does, effortlessly. The change in tone from Harry Morgan is priceless.
James Garner produced the film through his company Cherokee, and like Humphrey Bogart's self-produced films through Santana, his films are tailor-made for him. He followed this up with Support Your Local Gunfighter, which did not feature the same characters, but did feature much of the same cast, giving the mistaken impression that it's a sequel. It doesn't hold up for me; for one thing, his character is more of a con-man in the film, and as I've mentioned, I prefer it when he plays a good guy, as opposed to my other favorite character type, the charlatan with a heart of gold.