Marlowe: a sluggish outing for the veteran gumshoe

Supposedly made because director Neil Jordan wanted to see how Liam Neeson would interpret Philip Marlowe, this adaptation of a literary sequel not penned by Raymond Chandler is permeated by ennui.

20 March 2023

By Graham Fuller

Liam Neeson as Philip Marlowe in Marlowe (2022)
Sight and Sound

The enduring popularity of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe has led the Chandler estate to authorise five new Marlowe novels so far. Published under Irish writer John Banville’s nom de crime Benjamin Black, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014) is a sequel to Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and has Marlowe belatedly re-encountering his erstwhile friend Terry Lennox. Screenwriter William Monahan’s adaptation for Neil Jordan’s Marlowe wisely eliminates the Lennox material, allowing more focus on the eponymous gumshoe, which dovetails with the director’s vision: Jordan claims he made Marlowe because he wanted to see Liam Neeson play the detective.

The most worried screen Marlowe yet seems to have as much lead in his feet as in his fists, moving sluggishly through an underworld peopled by such figures as an upmarket-brothel-cum-drug-den manager (Danny Huston, Robert Morley-like in his fake gentility) and a racist Southern gangster (Alan Cumming). Marlowe is trying to track down film-studio insider Nico Peterson (François Arnaud), a search prompted by the detective’s suppressed desire for his client Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), Peterson’s discarded paramour and the film’s most complex character. Marlowe maintains his courtliness but struggles in his meetings with Clare and her retired movie-star mother Dorothy (Jessica Lange), femmes fatales competing for the attention of ‘the Ambassador’, a corrupt studio mogul whose involvement with Dorothy echoes Joseph Kennedy’s with Gloria Swanson. Kruger endows Clare with a breathy undertone, the disingenuous demureness Mary Astor brought to Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and a promise of sex that tests Marlowe’s integrity even as it lures him up a blind alley – though Clare’s trajectory as an aspiring businesswoman may thrill those feminist scholars who in the late 1970s championed the agency of the femme fatale.

Clare isn’t the film’s only hint at intertextuality. Jordan repays the debt Blade Runner (1982) owes film noir with a sequence in which Marlowe, faking an hallucination after being doped, is frog-marched through interiors dazzlingly neon-lit in different colours. But quoting Blade Runner visually is one thing; allowing a moviegoing character to appraise “Mr” Hitchcock and Leni Riefenstahl is another, a mark of self-consciousness Jordan might have avoided. (The cineaste in question is the chauffeur Cedric, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who emerges as Marlowe’s sidekick and the film’s anti-racist conscience.) More heartfelt are Jordan’s invocations of Irishness – like Jordan, Dorothy and Clare hail from the old country, while Marlowe, it’s revealed, fought with the Irish Rifles in World War I. These, together with the film’s retro-noir stylings, are the more satisfying elements of a film otherwise suffused with ennui.

Marlowe is available to stream on Sky Cinema now.

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