Marlowe (2022) Review
Marlowe was directed by Neil Jordan (The Borgias, Ondine), written by Jordan and William Monahan (The Tender Bar, The Gambler), who based their script on characters by Raymond Chandler and a novel by John Banville, and stars Liam Neeson (Blacklight, Clash of the Titans), Diane Kruger (Welcome to Marwen, JT Leroy), Danny Huston (Wrath of the Titans, 30 Days of Night), Alan Cumming (The Good Wife, Burlesque), Ian Hart (Backbeat, Mary Queen of Scots), Jessica Lange (American Horror Story, Tootsie), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Watership Down, Lost), Colm Meaney (Under Siege, Confession), Daniela Melchior (Mulheres, Valor da Vida), and Francois Arnaud (Blindspot, I Killed My Mother). It follows a private investigator as he descends into L.A.’s underworld to solve the murder of his client’s husband.
The Plot: Eleven screen depictions apparently aren’t enough to satiate Hollywood’s interest in Raymond Chandler’s ubiquitous character. That number has at least translated to one sure thing: the plots of these films are all running together.
Californian law enforcement can only go so far, so that’s where gumshoe Philip Marlowe (a decent but oddly cast Neeson) comes into play when Clare (Kruger) seeks him out in hopes of finding Nico (Arnaud), a cinematic bit player and her secret lover. Jordan and Monahan don’t have many aspirations to shake awake a tired formula, and from this setup to the ending, Marlowe hits only the expected narrative beats. Through Joe (Hart) and Bernie (Meaney), his police contacts who pop up throughout the feature, Philip finds that Nico was killed in a hit-and-run but refuses to stop at an easy answer, continuing to probe Clare and her Hollywood player mother Dorothy (Lange) for more details after the former alleges she saw him alive.
Nothing of use comes from Floyd (Huston), the owner of the club Nico died outside of, other than the fact that Nico has a sister, Lynn (Melchior), or from Lou (Cumming), a local mobster. Impasses are common as one would expect, but none of them are ever particularly original or all too interesting, except for a meeting with Lou’s driver Cedric (Akkinuoye-Agbaje), which makes the stock proceedings even more disappointing, even though there’s a brief glimmer of hope when Clare brings Philip closer to the action by making him head of security at her production lot.
It’s far from a bad plot despite its unsatisfying ending, but it’s just a beat-by-beat retread of an oft-told story that needs some spice to be worth another look.
The Characters: Some minor successes arise with the colourful supporting cast of Marlowe, but Jordan doesn’t have a memorable protagonist, making most solo scenes a bit of a drag.
Philip, having been depicted in film almost a dozen times before, is largely an adherence to Chandler’s description. He’s good at making people talk via prickling sensitive subjects and offering cigarettes to loosen them up and get behind the lies. All expected traits are present, although one of the few interesting changes with the age of the character, with Neeson being 30 years older than the source; little changes in substance, but his dialogue reflects the surface nicely and makes for a slightly more beleaguered private eye.
Clare is a rather generic femme fatale with a penchant for leaving out specifics. She flirts with the detective to avoid giving out too much information, hoping that he will uncover more for himself, but it’s too artificial a barrier, even for these kinds of pictures. According to her mother, who’s resigned herself to the bitterness of all sorts after her time in the limelight, Clare has a screw as loose as her legs, which justifies her decision but makes her no less flat as an impetus.
It’s everyone in between the detective and his case that gives some life to Marlowe, with vivid personalities like the sarcastic, shifty, and somewhat raunchy Joe, the defensive and brutal veteran and club owner Floyd, English language enthusiast and thick southerner Lou, stoic wheelman Cedric, and a dulled Bernie. Each individual has an aversion to Philip, but their traits are vivid enough to keep them memorable for the duration of the film, which the hero and his employer sorely lack.
The Mystery: Scribes Jordan and Monahan did a good job at giving Marlowe an air of vague threat, with plenty of supposedly loose ends (again, common for this character’s exploits) and red herrings maintaining secrecy.
Getting the investigator on the trail starts off as banal as ever, as the quarry in question is unsurprisingly alive and part of someone’s grander scheme. With his head supposedly smashed under rubber not gelling with alleged sightings and insinuations that Nico is alive in Mexico after fleeing from his job as a prop master, the movie doesn’t do a great job at obfuscating the true state of its primary subject. It would simply be too easy if the man was dead.
Reasonable doubt is something that Marlowe does well to include via proximity to its supporting cast, even if some – like Floyd and Dorothy – can easily be ruled out on account of their obviousness. Connections to Mexican drug pushers, notice by the angry husband of Clare, along with the family’s financial advisor, a membership to Floyd’s club, and a reluctance from the police to reopen a previously open and shut case all provide a healthy number of options to think about, but the problem Marlowe faces is its refusal to follow through on almost all of them as it sticks to those related to Hollywood the most.
Resolution and reveals are things that are supposed to be certain, at least as far as these films go, but this is the biggest letdown of the whole film since it gets too tidy. Everything that majorly affects the outcome is resolved without much stickiness, which is an inverted truth to the motive of the whole conspiracy, which is murky at best and convoluted without being complex at worst. The film is able to retain engagement with its questions, however simple the answers may truly be, but it’s, unfortunately, one track minded with its sense of discovery.
The Technics: As time passes, technology advances, and budgets for anything not superhero related shrink, period mysteries come around less and less. Despite increasing hardship, Jordan and the team behind him do a very good job at recreating the time period and techniques of yesteryear.
Crucial to an L.A. noir is it’s costuming and environment, which Marlowe has plenty of success in depicting. Betsy Heimann (The Tomorrow War, Almost Famous) did a fantastic job with the attire each of the players wears throughout the film, with a classical slickness present on all involved with the case that extends to John Beard’s (K-PAX, The Last Temptation of Christ) solid production design that ably transforms Spain into 1939 Los Angeles. Most shots are tinted with a yellow glow and colourized with inky blacks and reflective surfaces, rounding out the visual character that a film like this needs to achieve believability.
Other aspects like David Holmes’ (Killing Eve, Out of Sight) score and the selected soundtrack are a little too blunt about the time period and upbeat in tempo to sit right with the downbeat griminess of the rest of the feature, but when the film looks so good under director Jordan’s hand, it’s hard to complain all that much. Though it has all the hallmarks of a classic picture, the movie could’ve had a bit more flair in its presentation, which the director seemed to avoid in order to accomplish the nearly century-old project.
Unfortunately, the nth time isn’t the charm for the character, as Marlowe is bland by most metrics. It’s fine throwback entertainment but stands no chance against the classics which it so desperately wants to mimic.
Marlowe is currently available on VOD and Digital Platforms from Open Road Films. Universal Home Entertainment will release it on Blu-ray on April 18th.