“Keep all of our secrets, Mr. Marlowe.”
When my boyfriend’s son and his girlfriend told me they had booked tickets for Marlowe, the new period mystery film by director Neil Jordan, I was surprised. Marlowe isn’t the kind of title that would normally attract a pair of 20-somethings. Since the film was screening at a specialized arthouse theater, I assumed they were going for the experience until my boyfriend’s son mentioned that his girlfriend was a fan of Jessica Lange (still riding the wave of a resurgence thanks to her American Horror Story success), who has a supporting role here. I’ve yet to hear what their reaction to the film was, but I suspect that plenty who see it might come away feeling a tad confused or disappointed because Marlowe is a movie that happily exists between two different levels- stylish period piece and B-movie tribute.
In his 100th film outing, Liam Neeson stars as the famed character Philip Marlowe, a private detective in 1930s Los Angeles who is hired by a wealthy blonde heiress named Claire (Diane Kruger) to help find her missing lover Nico (Francios Arnaud). As his search progresses, Marlowe comes into contact with several questionable characters with ties to his beautiful employer and the missing man, including a dangerous country club owner (Danny Huston), a flamboyant gangster (Alan Cumming), and Dorothy (Lange), Claire’s former movie star mother.
I challenge anyone to get bored with Marlowe as a purely visual cinematic experience. The level of production quality here is so stunning and exact for a small film of this nature, it’s impossible not to get lost in the sheer beauty of stepping back into the world Marlowe himself inhabited for years in author Raymond Chandler’s books. Jordan throws himself into the time with such great stylish flair and panache, which he never lets go of. This both works for Marlowe in terms of establishing the kind of visceral sense of place a film like this needs and against it as the pacing and flow seem to be two key elements that take Jordan some time to get a handle on. But Marlowe’s moody score, flashy camera angles, and editing are so strong that you almost forget that the audience may be further in the mystery than the detective. One interesting scene in particular shows Marlowe discovering that a side character has been found murdered through a slow-moving, gorgeous camera pan that’s just breathtaking. It’s a moment rooted in style and character as we see our hero taking the news in and getting a sober reminder of the world he belongs to.
Despite the prestige of its director and cast, Marlowe is strictly a noir B-movie. While titles such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon have been hailed as genre classics, it’s easy to forget that film noir was populated with titles that were made on the cheap with in-house writers, actors, and directors. Often used as B-sides to more superior films, these movies were made simply to keep audiences in theater seats longer. Marlowe has decided to pay homage to these kinds of films in its setup and construction. The film plays like a B-movie, coming across as somewhat compact and getting to the nuts and bolts of the mystery without much messing about and only stopping to breathe when it’s necessary. As for the mystery itself, William Monahan’s script gets passing marks for being more than initially meets the eye and for evolving rather than just laying dormant. The mystery of Marlowe could be considered convoluted for some. But for others, the plot is a refreshing reminder of many a noir favorite that came before with its story turns and crackling dialogue. In one scene, when a medical examiner says to Marlowe: “I hope that lady friend looking for him looks good in black,” a fan knows they’re in noir B-movie heaven.
Everyone in the cast is so clearly enjoying themselves even if their specific character’s purpose and motives aren’t the most compelling or fleshed out. Neeson has a weariness to him and a curiosity that’s just right for this incarnation of the man himself. Elsewhere, Lange is commanding, Cumming is theatrical, and Huston is menacingly playful. What makes Marlowe work on performance level is that everyone is playing it for real. This grounds the film in a reality that allows it to be larger in other ways. The lone exception is Kruger, who cannot help but overdo her part, becoming worse with each scene. The actress is certainly capable enough for the job but is so aware of the kind of film she’s in, she’s practically doing parody.
I liked Marlowe. I did. But I can’t ignore the fact that the film has some legitimate problems, such as an ending that lingers just a bit longer than it needs to. The film also offers up an assortment of genuinely interesting side characters but only lets us spend so much time with them before ushering them out of the film entirely. But Jordan still has that same level of passion and showmanship about him that ensures Marlowe is a great early-year entry that will delight those it’s meant to. Even though it’s got the pace of a B-movie, the film still manages to be something of a slow burn at times. For Jordan, that’s where the beauty and allure lie with a film like this. There’s poetry in the pulpiness, in the dialogue, and in the characters themselves, all of which make Marlowe the kind of noir gem you’re glad still exists.