Friday, August 5, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
Directed by: Dick Richards.
Written by: David Zelag Goodman based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring: Robert Mitchum (Philip Marlowe), Charlotte Rampling (Helen Grayle), John Ireland (Det. Lt. Nulty), Sylvia Miles (Jessie Halstead Florian), Anthony Zerbe (Laird Brunette), Harry Dean Stanton (Det. Billy Rolfe), Jack O'Halloran (Moose Malloy), Joe Spinell (Nick). Sylvester Stallone (Jonnie), Kate Murtagh (Frances Amthor).
Robert Mitchum was born to play cynical, film noir detectives – which he did with frequency throughout the late 1940s – most memorably in Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece Out of the Past (1947) – which has to rank among the very best noirs ever made. By the 1970s, noir had entered a new phase with films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), which put new twists on the genre – making the films even darker than they had previously been, and highlighting the differences in American culture from the post-war years to Watergate. It is in this environment that Farewell, My Lovely was made in 1975, starring Mitchum as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Directed by Dick Richards, Farewell, My Lovely is a fine film – mostly because of Mitchum’s performance, although he’s certainly aided by a fine supporting cast as well, and the look of the film, which provokes our memory of those 1940s noirs, even if this one is in color. Yet, something is holding the film back from true greatness – and I think it’s the fact that the film stays stubbornly surface level. With the aforementioned The Long Goodbye, just two years before, Altman showed that Chandler’s novel, and the Marlowe character, could be updated for a new era – and still retain what made it so good in the first place. Farewell, My Lovely doesn’t really do that – nor does it take advantage of Mitchum’s age – he’s older than most Marlowe’s – to say something interesting there. What the film really is then is an entertaining diversion executed at a high level. If you’re a noir fan, you won’t be disappointed in the film – but it hardly ranks among the best neo-noirs the 1970s had to offer.
As I mentioned when I mentioned the previous adaptation of Chandler’s novel – 1944’s Murder, My Sweet – the plot here is overly complex, the way all of Chandler’s plots are, but is hardly the point. In broad strokes, Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran) – an ex-con, just out of prison, and a violent, yet surprisingly sweet one at that, to track down his old girl – Velma. He is also hired to accompany a man being blackmailed to hand over a jade necklace as payment – but that ends badly, with Marlowe knocked out, and his employer dead. Both cases will – of course – eventually come together, centered on Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling), the beautiful, young wife of a very rich man. Marlowe has to try and explain everything to Nulty (John Ireland) – a cop, and perhaps the only honest one left, because everywhere Marlowe goes, someone ends up dead.
Mitchum’s on-screen – and off-screen – persona was as a guy who just didn’t give a fuck. That makes him perfect for this version of Marlowe – who is more cynical than most other Marlowe. He’ll take a case purely for the money for example, which Marlowe never did. The joke of Altman’s The Long Goodbye is that Elliot Gould’s Marlowe is the only one with any morals or ethics at all, and even if it ends with him committing cold blooded murder, he’s still more principled than anyone else. This Marlowe is more principled than anyone else in the film just out of sheer happenstance – he’s not really moral at all, he just isn’t as immoral as everyone else is. The movie eliminates the “good girl” from the narrative at least in part because of Mitchum’s age, but it works for the film’s more cynical tone as well. Mitchum carries the film – and it’s needed even if the supporting cast is mostly in fine form, even if some of their roles are underwritten – in particular, Charlotte Ramplin’s femme fatale. Sylvia Miles delivers a wonderful (Oscar nominated), small performance as the wife of one of the victims, who Marlowe plies with booze to get her to talk. It’s a sad performance as a woman at the end of the line, with nowhere left to go. Jack O’Halloran is quite good as the lunk headed head Moose – a violent criminal in many ways, and just an overgrown kid in others.
Farewell, My Lovely cruises through its running time as a consistently entertaining movie. Even if you know the plot – which as someone who has read the book and seen Murder, My Sweet, I did – it’s all executed with skill and style, and remains fun throughout. Yet, the film never really digs very deep – not really at all beneath its stylish surface. The film, directed by Dick Richards, does make Marlowe more cynical than usual – but that’s really its only nod to what was happening in the 1970s. If it’s a better film, ultimately, than Murder, My Sweet, it’s mainly because Mitchum’s a better fit for Marlowe than Dick Powell, and Miles is wonderful in her small role, and the ending doesn’t feel the need to make it all turn out happily. But neither version stand up to the best Marlowe adaptations – Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) and the aforementioned The Long Goodbye (1973). That’s a shame, because I think Mitchum could have pulled off something even better than he does here. He was just two years removed from The Friends of Eddie Coyle for instance – and that stands alongside his work in Out of the Past and Night of the Hunter (1955) as the best he’s ever done. Farewell, My Lovely is ultimately little more than a throwback – and stylish, skillful and entertaining one – but one that doesn’t really have a lot to add to what had already been done.

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