By Peter Labuza | Press Play May 2, 2012 at 8:51AM
For decades, the detective Phillip Marlowe has been iconic character in American cinema, but who is Phillip Marlowe? Is he the sly and dashing professional of The Big Sleep? The tough yet vulnerable man from Murder, My Sweet? Perhaps we may think of Marlowe as the stalking camera of Lady in the Lake, or even as the bumbling comic in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. But perhaps none of these are the true Marlowe, the one present in the pages of Raymond Chandler’s fiction. What exactly makes Phillip Marlowe, and what if he couldn’t be Marlowe, anymore?
Made in the wake of the box office failure of The Long Goodbye, Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely is an elongated and weary trip of nostalgia into the world of film noir, as well a melancholic lament for the passing of the Marlowe mythology. The film manages to be both an homage to film noir, as well as a bleak deconstruction of the Marlowe character. Richards and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman create something quite the opposite of Robert Altman’s film, which had a zany and esoteric approach, placing the classic hero in the modern age. Instead, they would transport us back to a slower time, but move Marlowe forward.
By casting Robert Mitchum, perhaps the most iconic star of film noir, Richards set the stage for a weary and tiring detective who must solve one last mystery, but not because he searching deeply for the truth. Marlowe’s story revolves around two cases: a missing girl and a sour deal that leaves a client dead.
But Marlowe’s interest in both cases is less motivated by pride or the professionalism of film adaptations past. Here instead it is guilt. An added character from the novel, Tommy Ray, is murdered early in the story, and Marlowe continually reminds us that this is why he can’t let go of the case.
Otherwise, Marlowe seems to be more inefficient than ever. He gets clocked, drugged, beaten, and saved by others at every moment. He also takes time out of his case work to find out the latest news about the Yankee baseball star, Joe DiMaggio.
During the summer of 1941, when the film is set, DiMaggio was on a legendary hitting streak, still the longest in baseball history. Marlowe identifies with DiMaggio’s record not out of talent, but the player’s ability to soldier on, one hit a day. The streak also allows him to ignore the impending doom of World War II.
The film slyly plays with this impending history. Marlowe blatantly ignores what could happen; he’s seen it all, and what’s another war compared to the crimes he’s seen? Richards and Goodman understand the pain that has followed Marlowe throughout the cases from his novels. Chandler’s Marlowe is not some professional who always finds himself two steps ahead of the bad guys. To paraphrase the author, he was a knight in an era with no need for knights.
The film’s visual palette also provides a world Marlowe can’t fit in. The film’s director of photography, John Alonso, had just come off Chinatown, and shot the film in Fujicolor, the first American film to do so. These textures not only give the film a soft 1940s-like palette, but give these intense colors that seem to soak Marlowe in blood red throughout the film. This is not film noir, but film rouge, with Marlowe unable to escape these distorted colors that now frame his world.
Goodman also changed the background narrative of the film by making race and gender a larger issue than either the film’s original adaptation in 1942 or even the novel by Chandler. The writer not only added additional African-Americans and Asian-Americans characters, but changed Amthor from a card reading psychic into a butch lesbian who runs a whorehouse. Such revisionism displaces Marlowe even further from the social pariahs he often identified with in the classic Hollywood films. His identity as a straight white male in the lower class seems more out of touch than usual, like a walking relic of an older time.
Like The Long Goodbye, Farwell revels in its Hollywood nostalgia. Marlowe makes a number of glib remarks containing cinematic references, and the film’s visual style includes a number of references from the classic Marlowe films. Even Jim Thompson, the writer of many classic crime novels from the 1950s, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, makes a brief cameo. But he, like Marlowe, is too old to be a force within the narrative, and is instead played for a patsy.
But the most fascinating aspect of Farewell is Mitchum’s drained and battered performance. Like his work in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Mitchum embodies his ghosts throughout. Pauline Kael once referred to Mitchum as an actor “who wore a gut as a badge of honor.” You don’t just see an old man trying to play Philip Marlowe; you see the tired heroes of film noir trying to fit into a new era of even grayer ambiguity and stronger institutional control. Mitchum’s slow and laborious walks, his almost tone deaf narration, and those soulful eyes that have seen too much all build into a very different, but in many ways, the most authentic, vision of Marlowe.
What happened to Phillip Marlowe? Like The Long Goodbye, Farwell, My Lovely suggests a world in which the era for Marlowe has finally passed. Marlowe was never an iconic hero, meant to last beyond his era. He got old. By the end, all he can do is walk out of the narrative. Some heroes are meant to last forever. But for the Marlowe myth, Farwell suggests it is the end.
Peter Labuza is a film writer in New York City originally from Minnesota. He has written for Indiewire, Film Matters, the CUArts Blog, the Columbia Daily Spectator, and MNDialog. He will be attending Columbia University in the fall for a Master in Film Studies, focusing on the history of American film genres. He currently blogs about film at www.labuzamovies.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.