Friday, May 21, 2010

Little sister

I just saw Marlowe by Paul Bogart.

It was, I believe, the last Raymond Chandler movie I hadn't seen.

Yes, that includes The Falcon Takes Over and Time to Kill, for those of you keeping score of such things.

The movie is based on Chandler's The Little Sister, the fifth of the novels following the cases of one Philip Marlowe. It stars James Garner, who would go on to play a similar character to Marlowe with more than a little success on the series The Rockford Files.

Why doesn't the movie work?

I don't think it's exactly the screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, which does maintain much of the wit of Chandler's writing.

It's certainly not Garner, who is not only fine here, but may even be unofficially the best screen Marlowe of all time in his performance as Rockford.

I think it's something in Bogart's direction. The movie just doesn't have much energy.

Strange moments happen, such as a cameo by Bruce Lee, who was teaching Silliphant martial arts at the time, but even they aren't taken for all they could be. For instance Lee, never the strongest actor, is simply shown things to kick, but never set loose. His scenes may be the dullest martial arts scenes with Lee ever filmed.

Mind you, this is me coming at it from a distance. I'm sure the Lee scenes were quite a surprise and the liveliest part of the movie to the audience of the time, but having seen Way of the Dragon countless times, it feels bloodless and restrained.

Ultimately, it flounders in trying to find a place in its time, which it never quite reaches.

On the other hand, The Long Goodbye finds its place magnificently. I've discussed this movie, notably in Altman thrillers, but here I'm just impressed how it takes the nature of a Chandler story, by the time oft-imitated and familiar, and drops the pretense that the "plot" itself is important. In doing this, it comes closer than even earlier bona fide classics like The Big Sleep at capturing the paranoid netherworld feel that Marlowe seems to live in.

In an alternative sense, Stephen J. Cannell and Roy Huggins would utilize Garner's loose and amiable ability to offer a wry line in the face of adversity, to play a weary and hardened white knight in a modern world and to face up against a world that seems increasingly stacked against him, in creating the character of Jim Rockford, who, as I said, is arguably the best screen adaptation of Chandler's character and the world he lives in.

And for whatever it's worth, I think they owe a debt to the groundwork laid by Bogart and Silliphant, which says a lot more about the legacy of Marlowe than much about the experience of watching the movie itself probably can, at this point in time.


Tony Dayoub said...

Odd tidbit: THE LONG GOODBYE's screenwriter Leigh Brackett also cowrote THE BIG SLEEP and... THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK!?

Neil Sarver said...

As well as Rio Bravo and a pretty extensive list of sci-fi novels. A very talented and strangely unsung talent, she is.

It is interesting that I posted this on the 30th anniversary of Empire's release, though. Good catch!

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