Monday, April 20, 2009

Philip Marlowe on Film: Farewell, My Lovely (1975)


“This past spring was the first that I felt tired and realized I was getting old. Maybe it was the rotten weather or the rotten cases I’ve been getting lately--chasing after women’s husbands then chasing after the women to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am getting tired and growing old.”

~Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) in Farewell, My Lovely


In 1975, Robert Mitchum played private investigator Philip Marlowe for the first time in director Dick Richards’
Farewell, My Lovely. The film tries gamely to convey the weary mood of Raymond Chandler’s second novel. Plot wise, FML is largely faithful to the book, but adds its own excellent, hardboiled dialogue as well as some slight departures that don’t screw up those who cherish Chandler’s novel. No doubt inspired by the success of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Farewell, My Lovely isn’t up to the level of its source material, or anywhere near the level of the masterpiece that is Chinatown, the movie it is most often compared to, but has enough merit to make a worthy addition to 1970s Neo Noir as well as in the adventures of Philip Marlowe.

Synopsis: Private investigator Philip Marlowe is working on two cases. The first is finding one Velma Valento, the missing girlfriend of Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), who’s just released from the pokey after serving a seven-year stretch for bank robbery. The other has our hero trying to discover the killers of a client who was murdered when Marlowe accompanied him on a routine job to pay the ransom for some rare, stolen jade.

Farewell, My Lovely was among the first entries in the Film Noir style that I ever saw. I was immediately taken by the gloomy, weary atmosphere that a Film Noir--or “Crime Drama” as I still prefer to call movies of this type—represented. Dark deeds done by nasty people and a city in decay, an ineffectual and corrupt police force, and the lone knight with an outdated code of honor that is nevertheless all he has. I loved it. And I’m still surprised today that so many films, regardless of the decade, have some variation on that theme. Farewell, My Lovely remains a favorite film of mine, and one that has been on my DVD wish list for some time.


Seeing the movie again recently, however, and having read the book numerous times in the past ten years, I can see that even the great Mitchum wasn’t perfect as Marlowe, and the film drops a few characters, as well as adding a few of its own. I guess it was an attempt to make Marlowe less cynical and more sentimental. He pals around with a newsie, who also helps Marlowe out after the latter’s run-in with brothel owner Frances Amthor (in a brutal, but actually quite amusing scene; not in the book; The strict Hays Office rules no longer applied in 1975, and the movie is allowed to guess what Raymond Chandler might’ve done had he been able to write the book as a true crime novel), and Marlowe feels beholden to a mulatto child because he feels that the boy’s father died because of information he gave the detective. Though not in the book, the relationships are right in step with Marlowe’s character and they are worthy character interpretations. I would stop short of leveling 1970s-era I’m Okay, You’re Okay charges at the movie, but it differs enough from the novel enough and it interests me to point out the differences, as is always the case between the print and film mediums. The following minor narrative elements contained in the movie are not in Raymond Chandler’s novel:

Joe DiMaggio’s hit steak. Farewell, My Lovely was published in 1940; “Joltin’ Joe’s” 56-game hitting streak took place in 1941. The movie obviously takes place in summer, 1941, because Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union (mentioned in the film) began on June 22, 1941. The film most likely uses the hit streak as a way of threading together the narrative and the passage of time. I like it, but it’s not in the book. Chandler would use World War II in an effective manner in his 1944 Marlowe novel, Lady in the Lake.

Characters not in Novel: The newsie, Tommy Ray and his family, and Frances Amthor are not in the novel, though Amthor is a psychiatrist and a man, and has Marlowe locked away in a mental institution rather than a brothel. There's also a nasty, malodorous indian thug who gives Marlowe pain and grief, but he's absent from the film, too. The movie also omits the rather superfluous character of Anne Riordan, but that’s no big loss.

The main attractions here are the performances. I’ve said many times before that plots are never my main interest, and that characterizations and performances always take center stage in any movie I watch. Robert Mitchum’s take on Philip Marlowe is rock steady. He’s not as peppy as he is in his next portrayal of the detective, in 1978’s
The Big Sleep, but he’s just too happy for my tastes. The Marlowe of the books ruminates over the decaying of civilization and his best wisecracks get delivered without him seeming pleased with his ability to do so. I enjoyed watching Mitchum and liked his display of frustration as one misfortune after another befell him, but I hold my belief that no actor ever played Marlowe to perfection. It’ll be my eternal gripe until the job gets done. I may have to wait a generation or two. By the way, in Lee Server’s Robert Mitchum biography, Baby, I Don’t Care, there’s a hilariously disgusting anecdote relating to the suit Mitchum wears and originally tailor made for actor Victor Mature in the 1940s.

The other quality performance is given by
Sylvia Miles, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as alcoholic former chorus girl Jessie Florian. Although her part is trimmed for the movie, Miles makes us remember her because she is so heartbreakingly sad; a woman lost in her loneliness and faded ambitions that never came to pass. Her reenactment of her pathetic stage show is embarrassing but it’s effective in showing some dimension to the character. The book gives Florian a better showcase, but Sylvia Miles brings the essence of the sad, forgotten Jessie Florian in her brief time onscreen.



Like so many films I enjoy, Farewell, My Lovely features a fine music score. This one's by David Shire. Shire, (The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3) nails the imagined sound of Film Noir with his haunting main title written with the weary, romanticized sound associated with the detective genre, even if that jazz-inflected feel was not present in the original 1940s crime dramas; that sound came later, after Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Henry Mancini’s A Touch of Evil. Popular culture always portrays Film Noir as having a slow, smoky and jazzy musical accompaniment, yet when watching 1940s Film Noir, the music is a marked contrast: very loud, melodramatic, and European. It a gradual "Americanization" seeing as these films were made in Hollywood by European directors and European composers who drew on their own classical backgrounds. Farewell, My Lovely is influenced more by the latter association of jazz with crime dramas of this type.


All in all, Farewell, My Lovely does an admirable job in attempting to put across the weary, tired-out Los Angeles and its most famous resident private eye, but like every take on Raymond Chandler’s world, it succeeds more as a way of enjoying Robert Mitchum’s take on the weary private eye, but those who know and love the books will still think this movie just misses. Yet the film contributes characters and situations that serve to populate Marlowe’s world with the types of people you’d expect to find in a Raymond Chandler novel, and given the author’s limited output—should have read about, too. Farewell, My Lovely is worth seeing---many times.

Credit Where Due: Images courtesy of Moviegoods.com

8 comments:

  1. C.K.

    Excellent point on the change in music, that in original film noirs having a more Classic European style vs. the more jazzy Americanized music in much neo-noir. I liked Mitchum as Marlowe, much better than Dick Powell in “Murder My Sweet”, though surprisingly the 1944 version is certainly more decadent than the 1970’s remake. Great posting!

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  2. I've wanted to see this movie for a long time. Great post :)

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  3. C.K., a very thorough post on this version of "Farewell, My Lovely." I'm wondering if you've ever seen the 1944 version that John refers to and, if so, how you think they compare. That was probably the first version of a Chandler work I ever saw, as a child, on TV, before I ever knew who Chandler was or had heard of film noir. I just thought of it as an amazingly entertaining detective movie. I'll never forget Mike Mazurki as Moose Malloy looking for his Velda. I liked Mitchum as Marlowe in this movie, but he seemed a bit worn out for the role by this time. Powell had more vigor and because he wasn't brawny was convincing as a guy who got by on using his wits (and wit) more than his fists. Also, Claire Trevor was most amusing as a slutty tart transformed into a society dame. I would say, though, that the newer version of "Farewell" is the best of the post-40s attempts at a Chandler movie. I just can't envision them updated to a contemporary setting. I wonder if any modern actors could do a good version of a period Marlowe.

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  4. John: I know that my film music posts aren't as riveting as the chase in BULLITT, but I still do them anyway! Thanks for recognizing the music aspect of Noir.

    Sebina: FML is not on DVD yet, but has made the rounds on cable in a nice widescreen transfer. Hope you can find it where you are (Denmark, right?)

    R.D: I've seen "Murder, My Sweet" and an entry on the film is upcoming, I just don't know when! I'm skipping "The Long Goodbye" and "Marlowe" because they're just so out of step with what I like about Noir. Plus, I like to keep things positive here, and I would spend too much time trashing "The Long Goodbye"!

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  5. C.K.

    Music in film is so important to the art of cinema. You just have to imagine how "Jaws" would be without John Williams soundtrack. Film music does not get enough attention on the blogs, so please keep doing it.

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  6. C.K.Dexter-Haven is one of two names I've never forgotten. The other: Floyd Thursby. A Galapagos cigar to whoever remembers where that name showed up! All I need to do is mention my just-published hard-boiled private eye Las Vegas novel, THE FOREVER GIRL by Chris O'Grady - ISBN # 1606939939 in which the action revolves around a new hotel/casino named FLORIAN's. 'Nuff said?

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  7. Oh this is one of my favorite films and probably a big reason I am in love with the '30s and '40s. It was the first film I ever rented on video tape. I had to go to a rich friend's house to watch it because we didn't have a player yet (they were like $700 at the time). You are right that Mitch isn't perfect as Marlowe but the atmosphere (sets, casting, score) makes up for it. I did have a copy of the DVD which came out in the 90's. The transfer was awful. The movie cries out for a proper DVD release with the print digitally cleaned-up and loaded with Chandler extras.

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  8. It was good to see a new post by you. I always enjoy what you post up here. Good writeup here. I love this film. It's been awhile since I've seen it though. You've reminded me of how much I enjoyed it.

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