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Marlowe (DVD Review)

30 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars James Garner, Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O’Connor, Sharon Farrell, Bruce Lee.

Artistically speaking, one, or in this case, two scenes, do not a movie make. But they can be enough to inspire you to tip off a friend with a, “Yeah, you really ought to see this” if you know the scenes in question — more specifics on this later — have ticklish potential for that person.

Of course, a seemingly more obvious reason to catch this rather pedestrian L.A. mystery is that it is what it is: the only screen adaptation ever made out of Raymond Chandler’s 1949 The Little Sister — which, by dealing at least tangentially with Hollywood’s central industry, is a novel you’d think might have rated more than one movie industry salvo. By scheduling it in the right context, I even managed to do a little business with this onetime drive-in fodder when I later included it in a Chandler retrospective I programmed for the American Film Institute Theater. At least it managed to outdraw 1947’s passable curiosity The Brasher Doubloon, which starred George Montgomery (an actor who, in one regard, was the Harrison Ford of his day because he also made furniture in real life).

To most people, The Big Sleep’s Humphrey Bogart remains the movies’ top Marlowe, though my own favorite is Murder, My Sweet’s Dick Powell. If this sounds like blasphemy to Bogie fans, I’m pretty sure I’ve read that Powell was also the favorite of Chandler (who didn’t live to see Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which would have been fun to witness). In this case, we have a not very interested (or interesting) James Garner — who, in this obvious update, portrays detective Philip Marlowe as being out of his time.

Cultural displacement isn’t the key the key theme it would become in 1973’s Goodbye, a movie that also points up the difference between having an auteur like Altman direct and a journeyman like Marlowe’s Paul Bogart. Right from the beginning, there’s no texture or offhanded visual commentary here — just a shot of Garner walking into a hippie beachside motel (whose youngster clientele seems to be lounging en masse outside) and leaving it at that. Meanwhile, the older indoor patrons or employees will soon develop a penchant for attracting ice picks in their backs.

As for the little sister, Sharon Farrell plays her in what was that actress’s big movie year (the same one in which she also co-starred with Steve McQueen in The Reivers). Farrell’s innocent Kansan (named Orfamy, how about that?) has hired Marlowe to track down a missing brother. But by the time she makes her screen entrance, the transaction has already taken place, which leads to some slight audience confusion almost from the get-go (just what Marlowe plots need: extra confusion).

Others in the preceding or ensuing passing parade include Jackie Coogan with a bad rug (which is actually a plot point); Carroll O’Connor (pre-Archie Bunker) as a cop who distrusts Marlowe; and Rita Moreno as a stripper. There’s also some major blackmail involving a TV star (played Gayle Hunnicutt) that centers on some bathing suit photos of her with an underworld type. But the photos are very tame, suggesting nothing more than a condo-mixer pool party that got out of hand after one too many wine coolers. It’s a plot point that further relegates the picture to the status of a glorified TV-movie from the era, which is about all MGM was making in those days.

And yet. There are two fabulous altercations — one in an office, one outside of a skyscraper restaurant — between Marlowe and a whacked-out Asian who works for one of the movie’s heavies. When I saw this movie in 1969, the only reason I knew Bruce Lee from funny man Bruce Vilanch is that I went to college with Bruce Vilanch. So Lee caught me totally unaware when he started flying through the air and kicking the hell out of Marlowe’s office — or in a second dust-up (with quite a final exclamation point) in which Marlowe is more of a player. I don’t know which is more fun: to have seen these scenes cold at the time or to see them in full context, knowing what Lee’s career became. But they are screams, and if you care for Lee at all, they do redeem a lot of the rest.

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