farewell, my lovely
Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

© 2008 William Ahearn

On paper, the production staff sounded like a dream team. Elliot Kastner began work on the “Farewell, My Lovely” material after supervising the production of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” and with him came Jerry Bick who would produce the new film. They hired John Alonzo who was nominated for an Oscar for “Chinatown” to shoot the film and the production designer was Dean Tavoularis who had worked with Francis Ford Coppola on both Godfather films and “The Conversation” as well as with Antonioni on “Zabriskie Point.”

“I wanted to make the kind of movie” director Dick Richards told Al Clark in Raymond Chandler In Hollywood, “that Raymond Chandler, sitting in the chair next to me with a drink in his hand, would have enjoyed. [. . .] I wanted to do pure Chandler.” [Emphasis in original.]

At the risk of sounding heretical, let me say with both barrels that not only is the 1975 production of Farewell, My Lovely a dreadful film, it may be the worst portrayal of Philip Marlowe in cinema. Granted, the hardboiled fan boys and the genre squad will take umbrage at any one suggesting that Robert Mitchum wasn’t born to play Philip Marlowe, yet – let’s face it – that time – and his desire – had long passed.

If ever there was an audition for Marlowe, Jeff Baily – the character of a private eye with a history he wants to forget that Mitchum played in Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” in 1947 – was it. Mitchum had the insouciance, the world-weariness, and the apparent philosophical outlook that a credible Philip Marlowe demands.

But that was almost 30 years before and while Marlowe will always be around 38 or so years of age in pages that never show the ravages of time, Mitchum is built of blood and bone and time isn’t a comforting influence on actors. Yet, aging actors have succeeded in other parts that required a youthfulness that the actors didn’t seem to possess and it isn’t merely Mitchum’s age that undermines his portrayal of Philip Marlowe. Robert Mitchum just doesn’t seem to care. He walks through this film as a ghost that has given up on his ability to haunt. At any number of places in the movie, I expected him to say, “where’s my check?”

“It’s sort of a museum piece,” Mitchum is quoted as saying in Raymond Chandler In Hollywood. “All the subjects are worn out. I certainly am.”

To cut Robert Mitchum some slack for old time’s sake – even if his performance was all we had hoped it would be – the Philip Marlowe written in the script isn’t any Marlowe I can find in the pages of Raymond Chandler. And while the producers worked at showing Los Angeles or Bay City as it might have been back in the 1940s, it comes across more as a nostalgic postcard than the dark and windy world of a mythic detective.

Philip Marlowe never had any friends and the only game he was ever interested in was chess. The only idol he may have had was a Cuban chess master named Jose Raul Capablanca who died in 1942 and is often mentioned as the greatest chess player of all time. Baseball is mentioned once in Farewell, My Lovely as a game is being blared from a radio that can be heard in a hallway. It is mentioned as noise.

Yet, the Philip Marlowe of Dick Richards’ “Farewell, My Lovely” is now a man of the people swept up in Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and befriending a punch drunk ex-boxer who runs a newsstand. (Who fills in for Ann Riordan of the novel since Mitchum’s age made the romance unlikely.) And of course he immediately bonds with the baseball-playing son of an ex-band leader who gives him a bum steer and wastes his time. What’s even odder is that the screenwriters created the character. Chandler had a perfectly reliable mode of accomplishing what the story needed to do. The ex-bandleader is white and his wife is black and I should add that the filmmakers did restore the racial aspects of the story – that were totally eliminated in “The Falcon Takes Over” and “Murder, My Sweet” – yet those changes seemed to have been written by white liberals who also must have concocted the sentimental last scene. And the ex-bandleader will pop up once more in an implausible way ruining what should have been one of the best scenes in the film. So here we have the soft-boiled Marlowe with a backdrop of vintage postcard scenes of Los Angeles still trying to find Velma and still confused about a string of jade. Moose Malloy is the never-changing brain-dead thug he has always been but there’s something about Velma.

In a way, Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” took the detective film to places it should have gone decades before. Similar to many of Chandler’s novels, “Chinatown” isn’t a whodunit in any conventional way and it opens a door to how – or how many of us want to believe – power and corruption actually works. Polanski’s film is a hard act to follow and to try to and beat it at its own game requires something like guile and not something like vaudeville.

So to try and match the corruption levels of “Chinatown,” the meek Mr. Grayle of the novel who loves his much younger wife and shuns publicity now becomes a powerful judge and an active member of the ruling class. Pulp writer Jim Thompson (The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters) plays the judge in a credible performance. Casting the sexy ice queen Charlotte Rampling to play Helen Grayle seemed almost brilliant. In “Murder, My Sweet,” Claire Trevor in the same part is dressed as if she’s auditioning for Tay Garnett’s production of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Rampling has the stuff to make you think she has the class to pass as a judge’s wife. Instead of letting Rampling run with it, she’s reduced to doing impressions of Lauren Bacall from “The Big Sleep.”

And poor Jules Amthor. In “The Falcon Takes Over” he’s reduced to being a “swami,” and in “Murder, My Sweet” he’s much closer to the book but in “Farewell, My Lovely,” he’s reduced to a cigarette case stolen by a crooked cop played by Harry Dean Stanton after Jessie Florian’s body is discovered. In this film it’s Frances Amthor and she’s a madam who runs a bordello because nothing implies corruption such as scantily clad prostitutes running through the halls or the sight of some girl-on-girl action that seems to be the cinematic sign of the end of western civilization in bad movies looking to make deep statements about decadence or “society.”

Having pointed out that Marlowe has rather odd – not antiquated, but odd – views toward women, the ending of the film should send Chandler purists looking for something to throw at the screen. There is no way to discuss this without so-called “spoilers,” so be warned. In the novel, the Velma/Mrs. Grayle character escapes after killing Moose Malloy in what could easily be dismissed as self-defense. Three months later a Baltimore police detective finds her singing in a nightclub. The detective confronts her as she’s smoking a joint in her dressing room. After some wonderful Chandler chitchat, Velma fatally shoots the detective and then herself. Suicide, as we shall see in The Long Goodbye, is almost a motif with Chandler.

If you read the book, you might note an appreciation on the part of Marlowe for Velma. The following exchange is between Detective Lt. Randall and Marlowe:

“Hell, she didn’t have to shoot a cop to do that,” [Randall] said.
“I’m not saying she was a saint or even a halfway nice person. Not ever.[. . .] But what she did and the way she did it, kept her from coming back here for trial. Think that over. And who would that trial hurt most? Who would be least able to bear it? And win, lose or draw, who would pay the biggest price for the show? An old man who had loved not wisely, but too well,” [replied Marlowe].

In that exchange, Marlowe shows that loyalty is what he prizes most. Even if Velma killed and murdered, she had the heart to spare her husband the inevitable enormous despair that the publicity would bring at her trial. In Marlowe’s world that counts for a lot and it’s these nuances that separate him from the limping army of imitators and wannabes.

In this film, Marlowe shoots and kills Velma who has changed her name and is now married to Judge Grayle. Marlowe shoots and kills three people during the course of this film – that is punctuated by pointless, unnecessary and far-from-credible drive-by shootings – and one of them is not only a woman, she’s a client. As pointed out in the “Murder, My Sweet” essay, Marlowe is not much of a tough guy in the book and he doesn’t shoot anybody. The violence in this film is another example of the misguided notion of “pure” Chandler.

In a letter to Frederick Lewis Allen, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, in May of 1948, Chandler described how the pulp magazines would cut from his stories anything that “held up the action” because the readers “didn’t appreciate” it.  Chandler wrote:

“And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death [. . .] the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door.”

“There was no one else to shoot her,” explained director Dick Richards in Raymond Chandler in Hollywood, “[Marlowe] simply had to do it.”

That’s a rather odd explanation from someone who wanted to do “pure” Chandler. Pure Chandler would have been the ending that he wrote in the novel. What depresses me about this film and many of the others – Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” comes to mind – is that Chandler is far more than trench coats, gats, dishy dames and clever patter; all of that can be had by buying the work of a much cheaper poser. Velma’s death in the novel allows her to be more than some floozy chorus girl – she’s only a prostitute in this film to add another layer of false seediness – and become a person that Marlowe can see that at least cared for and would sacrifice for someone who had loved her.

It’s the same quality that Marlowe found in “her” in The Big Sleep. That Marlowe could wade through the bootleggers, killers, blackmailers, double-crossers, dope peddlers and others of the underworld ilk and still recognize and appreciate human qualities in those that had them is where Chandler separates himself from so many other tough-guy, hard-boiled and detective story writers.

To find something admirable in a cop-killing dame who commits suicide to spare her aging husband the trauma of the truth that would come out at a trial is what “pure Chandler” really means.

William Ahearn