A New ‘Marlowe’ for Noir

A weirdly unsuccessful Irish take on Raymond Chandler’s classic private eye

Noir lovers, your crumb has been served. His name is Marlowe, a puzzling new feature from Hollywood’s Irish camp. The producers bring a veritable feast of Hibernian talent to the platter, yet it wouldn’t fill a thimble. You will starve at this table.

‘Marlowe’’s title comes from the era-defining gumshoe character, Philip Marlowe, invented by Raymond Chandler (an Irishman descended from the Waterford Crystal dynasty), who abandoned the romantic poetry of his youth and rather grimly devoted himself to the middle-aged craft of dipso-antiheroes with a feel for human betrayal.

MARLOWE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Written by: William Monahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Colm Meaney, Alan Cumming, Ian Hart
Running time: 110 min

This movie isn’t written by Chandler. ‘Marlowe’ is based on a novel called Black Eyed Blonde commissioned by the author’s estate. They asked John Banville, a Booker Prize winner, to write something “just like Ray.”

Well, it isn’t.

Along came star Liam Neeson, in 2017, looking for a project, perhaps an homage to Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps he wished to inject a Gaelic spin on Marlowe’s fatalism. A marvelous idea, even better if it was cooked up in a pub! Yes, Neeson made this project happen, and that’s why I must lean on him the hardest— what went wrong, son?

Unlike other critics who’ve said, “Neeson’s too old for this role!” I won’t take his number as an  excuse. ‘Marlowe’ sports even older co-stars who briefly make the fur fly in the minutes they command the screen. It’s Liam who lumbers about like a giant dormouse, failing to generate heat. Neither fallen angels nor sordid villains stir him. He’s a six-foot paper doll.

Neeson brought the Black Eyed Blonde novel to screenwriter William Monahan, another Irishman by-way-of-Dorcester. People like me, a daughter of Ulster, worship Monahan for writing The Departed: “I’m fucking Irish; I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.”

If such fatalistic poetry makes you weep and cry out for more — well, you came to the wrong place. ‘Marlowe’ fails in many ways, and the script bears the brunt of the blame.  If it were up to me, I’d tie Monahan to a pipe til he delivered better, and Irish director Neil Jordan too, since he apparently had to write the third act while never putting his name on it. The two of them are giving press interviews where they joke about how poor the script was. Sláinte!

I can’t tell you the plot of this film – who knows? I’m bedeviled as to how so much talent could go so wrong.  It was a long night in the theater, and I had to comfort myself back home with a well-worn video copy of L.A. Confidential.

The city of Los Angeles, the craven tawny soil of Chandler’s illusion factory, is missing from ‘Marlowe’. ‘Tis a sin. Jordan got a bargain to shoot in Spain for the exteriors and Dublin for the interiors. In someone’s hands, it might’ve worked. Jordan has said he hoped to create a meaningful alter-space, like Blade Runner. Really? The audience felt as though we’d been dropped in a backlot of pastiche, where the colors were all wrong and the tea hadn’t been steeped for even a minute.

There is one tea party on screen that rises above cheap imitation, and that is the performance of Jessica Lange, who plays a vengeful retired movie queen. Whenever Lange appears, on horseback or at the table pouring Earl Grey Hot,  she is the only character who transports us to the 1930s, the days when movies were BIG and Hollywood was the belly of the lie factory. What a woman.

There are glimmers of gutsy performances from several: the fine Scouse actor Ian Hart gets all Monahan’s best bar lines. Danny Huston plays the “Sydney Greenstreet” bad guy and does a wonderful white powder pratfall. Sadly, every role on screen dubbed “Mexican!” (the word said repeatedly with gritted teeth in tragic mulatto accent) is pure cringe— to the point where I wondered if the entire script was a racist round of The Great British Bake Off. For shame.

Americans love noir; we created it. Chandler exploited the genre like few others. But the Black Mask magazine vibe, preceded Ray. Noir was the working stiff’s response to the Depression, the scales falling from eyes to no justice, the collateral damage of human smoke. There is no God, and no one is coming to rescue you.

Yet all the shiny things are still shiny. There exists a morality of not flinching into the abyss.

Hunger is no joke, and as ‘Marlowe’ is no substitute for a meal, I invite you to my dark screening room, late at night. We’ll watch Kubrick’s The Killing, Orson Welles in the The Third Man, Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The Limey. We’ll feast on Bukowski, Hughes, and Hammett.  I will drink your milkshake and you will thank me, for believing another day will come, another black cinematic masterpiece, and we will wait for it.

Susie Bright is the editor of Santa Cruz Noir and the audiobook producer of the Akashic Noir anthologies, as well as the audiobook catalog of Charles Willeford and the short stories of Charles Bukowski.

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Susie Bright

Susie Bright is an author, editor, and critic known for her work at Audible Studios, The New York Times Book Review, Playboy, Jezebel, Salon, On Our Backs, Talking Points Memo, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Review of Books, Esquire, the Criterion Collection, as well as her contribution to The Celluloid Closet, Bound, The Virgin Machine, Transparent, and the Criterion reissue of Belle de Jour.

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