Noir became popular in the post-War era and has lasted through the years by reinventing itself or updating the setting to reflect the current darkness plaguing society. Robert Altman succeeded at grafting Marlowe into the ’70s with Elliot Gould as the verbose detective. Carl Franklin rooted Devil in a Blue Dress in the African American community, putting a different spin on how the justice system works differently for persecuted peoples. The Coens managed again with The Big Lebowski by making the typical gumshoe into a stoned bowler. Neil Jordan‘s Marlowe is the latest attempt to bring noir back to the big screen. Unfortunately, it’s far from a smooth transition.
This time, Dublin and Barcelona stand in for Los Angeles. It’s one of the many ways the film illustrates that everything in the film is a pastiche, a recreation of a form. Adding to the confusion is that Marlowe—despite sharing the same name as the character created by Raymond Chandler—is not adapted from one of the classic novels but from The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville. Not that a good film has to come from a great novel, but it is a curious choice for a character with an established pedigree to go with a recent book by a relatively unknown author.
If you ignore the choice of source material, all the genre implements are still present. The intricate monologues, convoluted plots, hard-drinking masculinity, outward bigotry, and dangerous women are there, just tweaked to fit its setting. What drags Marlowe down is that it feels and looks lifeless. The pieces should all work together, in theory. Director Neil Jordan has crafted spectacular mysteries in the past (The Crying Game) and William Monahan wrote classics like The Departed and Kingdom of Heaven. Add eminently capable actors like Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Danny Huston, and Colm Meaney to the ensemble, and this should be a solid noir.
So why doesn’t Marlowe work? Liam Neeson has played characters like Philip Marlowe before and it worked. A Walk Among the Tombstones proved that he is very game for stories like this. And the actor can still convincingly take part in a fight, but even that feels out of character for Marlowe. The protagonist risks physical harm constantly, but making him quick to fight is a misrendering. Marlowe loves drinking and cracking wise, but breaking chairs over backs isn’t his bag.
Neeson has excelled at gruff and menacing for several years, but Marlowe isn’t a variation of his Taken role. It requires a different touch. Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum imbued Marlowe with aggressive intellect and resolve. Neeson aims for world-weary, but the result verges on exhaustion.
As tired as Neeson seems, the script for Marlowe is somehow more ragged. Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) wants Marlowe to find out what happened to her lover. All evidence of his disappearance points to Floyd Hanson (Danny Huston) and his hush-hush club, but we all know mysteries aren’t solved that easily. No mystery would be complete without interlopers, and Marlowe has two scenery chewers to add intrigue. A gleefully camp Alan Cumming plays gangster Lou Hendricks, who interrupts the proceedings to say things like “I am entirely composed of tarantulas.” Then there’s Dorothy Quincannon (Jessica Lange), Clare’s mother and a former starlet. She is far more hostile than her daughter and twice as secretive. They are the most compelling performers by far—both deserving a film to themselves.
Chandler’s mysteries could be convoluted, yet Marlowe has no intrigue, no sense of the audience compulsively searching for clues like its protagonist. Scenes stretch out like gum stuck on a private detective’s shoe, leaving minds wandering elsewhere, like the set design. The production design is remarkable, considering Dublin doubles as post-War Los Angeles. Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez successfully covers the disparities between Barcelona and Los Angeles with a yellow filter that lends the film a layer of grime.
Noir relies on light to play with shadows to create the cinematic look that the genre is known for. Marlowe is shot in digital, rendering a lot of the interstitial light play muted or formless. That lethargy spreads to the dialogue, which substitutes wit with cursing to cast a spark. Jordan doesn’t place much faith in his film, adding a scene just for Cedric (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to summarize the plot to the audience. Jordan’s made stinkers before, but he leaves a mark on his pictures. Given his absence of a calling card on Marlowe, he must have felt it wasn’t worth his time.
Marlowe is a lost film without a time. Refusing to adapt to a modern age, but all too eager to wink at the audience like a post-modern send-up. Hollywood loves to revisit itself. Perhaps, Chandler needs more time before his next call-back. Because when Neeson growls, “I’m getting too old for this,” all the audience can do is agree.
Marlowe hits theatres on Wednesday, February 15.