A film critic once wrote of one of my prior recommendations, the 1998 retro-noir Twilight, that you might have to be over 35 to really enjoy it. That may also be true of this week’s film recommendation, a reverent revival of detective noir starring an old hand at the genre: 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely.
The plot is from a Raymond Chandler novel, so in some sense there is no point in explaining it because his books are more about language and character than storyline (indeed, it didn’t even bother him to realize that he himself didn’t know who committed one of the murders in The Big Sleep). But anyway, private eye Phillip Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy, a mountain of a man with rice pudding for brains (ex-heavyweight boxer Jack O’Halloran, perfectly cast in his acting debut). Moose lost track of his girlfriend Velma after he went to prison, and now that he is out he wants Marlowe’s help in tracking her down. But every time Marlowe starts to get close to locating her, there is a violent backlash against him, Moose or both. Powerful forces clearly don’t want Velma found, but who are they and what is their motive?
The most famous and lionized adaptation of Chandler’s novel was made in 1944 under the name Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell as Marlowe. But as I have written before, I never quite bought Powell’s transformation from pre-war light comedy/song and dance man to noir tough guy (John Payne in contrast pulled it off) whereas the star of the 1975 version, Robert Mitchum, was born for this kind of stuff.
As a world-weary, cynical, Phillip Marlowe, Mitchum carries the 1975 adaptation end to end with aplomb. Many movie tough guys try to play the invulnerable hero too late in their lives, and it starts to look silly or even embarrassing. Mitchum, in his mid-50s, is playing a guy in his mid-50s and he’s just not that tough anymore. Indeed, he takes way more physical punishment from the bad guys than he can dish out.
Sylvia Miles received a supporting actress Oscar nomination for solid work here as a boozy floozy, but it just as well might have gone to little known Kate Murtagh for her ferocious performance as a tough-as-nails madam. It’s also fun to see John Ireland, so often the bad guy in the heyday of noir (see for example my recommendation of Railroaded!), playing the “one honest cop” role here. Charlotte Rampling makes a sultry, Bacall-esque femme fatale whose hair is the color of gold in old paintings and who gives a man a smile that he can feel in his pocket (Added fun for noir fans: her screen entrance mirrors Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity). Also look fast for a young Sylvester Stallone in a small part.
Director Dick Richards really took a chance in making this old story in the 1970s with no condescension or trendy upgrades. The whole look of the film is a throwback, particularly the almost Sepia tone color scheme created by the set and costume designers and cinematographer John Alonzo (who also shot Chinatown). If this had been shot in black and white, it could have been released to praise in the 1940s or 1950s. Some critics found that tiresome and affected, but for me this retelling of the classic story is as honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style.