Though there have been TV adaptations of Raymond Chandler‘s iconic private eye (Powers Boothe and James Caan for HBO, Danny Glover for Showtime and a busted pilot in 2007 with Jason O’Mara), this is the first theatrically released Philip Marlowe film since the 1978 ITC-produced Michael Winner film of the Big Sleep, that plonked Robert Mitchum’s Marlowe into a Sweeney-style ITV cop show 70s London milieu of tabloids and Soho smut. This, an adaptation of John Banville’s take on Marlowe, The Black-Eyed Blonde, is a peculiar take on Marlowe. Liam Neeson, about to turn seventy during filming, is a decade older than James Caan was when he played an ‘old’ Marlowe in Poodle Springs. This is set in 1939, when Marlowe was canonically half Neeson’s age, though here Marlowe is referenced as being a bit ‘too old’. And similar to how the 1996 cable anthology Fallen Angels retconned Marlowe to be black, this retcons Marlowe to be Irish, a veteran of the Royal Irish Rifles in the Somme with a past in the LAPD, but has lost his badge.
In 1939 LA, Marlowe is hired by glamorous heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud), a prop master at Pacific Film Studios. Though we see his alleged demise, his head gorily pulped by a car’s wheel, Cavendish has seen him in Mexico. Getting involved with Cavendish and her mother is former movie star Dorothy Quincannon (Jessica Lange), who is the lover of the Joe Kennedy-esque Irish-American Ambassador to England (Mitchell Mullen) who founded Pacific for her. This leads Marlowe on a trail, ranging from shady club boss Hanson (Danny Huston) and Peterson’s sister Lynn (Daniela Melchior) to effete drug lord Hendrix (Alan Cumming channeling Leslie Jordan) and his black chauffeur Cedric (a scene-stealing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). All the while, various sinister and cliched Mexican thugs hang around, ready to be pounced on by the Ballymena Bronson and his own inimitable dad-fu.
Indeed, in the same way Winner Anglicised Marlowe, this Irishifies him to the point that he’s less Marlowe and more Mike Hammer: a big Irish thicko in a fedora who uses his fists more than his wits. With an Irish writer in Banville and director in Neil Jordan and interiors shot in Dublin, you’d think that might be enough. But Diane Kruger’s anachronistically self-styled ‘femme fatale’ is called Clare, ‘like the county.’ Her mother is a silent-era superstar who specialised in blarney-filled sentimentality who says ‘slán’, and most of the cast has Irish blood. Even those that don’t are still doing Radio 4 drama-level American accents. Who knew that LA was so full of Big Irish Heads?
The only way this Screen Ireland-funded film could be more Irish would be if the hero was Sam Spudz or Steve Silvermint. At times, it feels like a noir parody ad for some new brand of alcohol than a major budget international motion picture. Ian Hart does a Goodfellas Pizza ad-level accent as Marlowe’s former partner. Colm Meaney struggles with the accent as the canonical Chandler character of Bernie Ohls, but has the chemistry with Neeson that Kruger lacks. This is perhaps due to them having first worked in 1980 on the ITV play Nailed. Ironically, the one other cast member was Meaney’s spiritual predecessor, Colin Blakely, who costarred in 1978’s The Big Sleep. This results in the unlikely trivia that a British TV drama about the Troubles had a cast who had all been in a Philip Marlowe movie.
Seana Kerslake is brief but memorable channeling Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malone. She plays a B-movie starlet seen only with a massive false eye-gouge, having come off the set of an anachronistically gory gangster film that far more resembles the kind of thing Roger Corman made in the 70s than any post-code quickie churned out by Chesterfield or Grand National. Such anachronisms colour this to a level unseen since a Harry Alan Towers-produced classic novel adaptation of the 70s. It’s 1939, but Alfred Hitchcock is already in Hollywood (and at MGM, rather than Selznick): but if anything, this just adds to the lunacy.
Also, everyone’s ages seem out of whack. A few mentions of Clare being too old for Nico seem to be put in to placate 45-year-old Kruger’s casting. Lange, in her seventies is playing a former silent starlet, logically no older than her early fifties. Ironically, Darrel D’Silva’s fun bit-part as a whiskery old-timer is credited as ‘Old Man’ despite being a decade younger than Neeson. Most of this stems from the original novel being set in the 50s. The 1930s setting may seem somewhat more aesthetically suitable, but everything else only works if it is in the 1950s. Therefore, it feels even more like a parody, with the chronologically all over the shop milieu of parodies like Murder by Death (1976) and Airplane! (1980).
It feels like a proper old school Europudding. The Spanish exteriors don’t convince as LA in any way: one bar room interior looks like a generic Dublin pub. ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ is used to such an extent I kept being reminded of John Schlesinger’s Yanks. The dialogue can be ear-scrapingly terrible. It gleefully overdoes on the gore and swearing and Huston lowers his head into a pile of coke. The Charles Bronson comparison with Neeson feels apt here, as at times it really does feel like a Cannon film, down to an uneasy post-sexual assault autopsy seemingly shot in Wicklow. The climax with Neeson and Agbaje merrily gunning down villains in weird lighting felt particularly joyous, though this is followed by a somewhat overlong, needless ‘some time later’ coda involving shoehorned a meta-reference.
It is a clunky, slapdash but riotously entertaining clusterfuck that makes the 1978 Big Sleep look like the 1946 Big Sleep, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Marlowe is currently playing in Irish cinemas.