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Is There Still a Future for the World of Film Noir?

I went to see the movie “Marlowe” on Thursday. I must support noir movies! There are so very few of them, and it is my favorite film genre.

There have been several movies which feature Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe. “The Big Sleep” is the one most cited, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart is always superb, but I do not love this movie, the plot is very hard to follow; even when one has read the book!, and William Faulkner, who at least co-wrote the screenplay, famously admitted that he couldn’t follow it himself. But the film had style, and some memorable dialogue.

I like “Murder My Sweet,” which is actually Chandler’s novel “Farewell My Lovely.” Dick Powell transitioned from a light musical star to a protagonist in film noirs; and while I did not initially like him as Marlowe in this movie, on additional viewings, I appreciated him more. It is perhaps Chandler’s best novel, and the semi-romance between him and Anne Riordan (Ann Grayle in the movie, played by Anne Shirley), adds a nice charm to it. And who can forget Mike Mazurki as Moose Malloy? My father told me about that role before I had ever seen the movie. That movie was made in the same year as “The Big Sleep,” 1946.

There was “The Lady in the Lake,” also based on one of Chandler’s best novels. This movie was criticized, mostly for actor and first-time director Robert Montgomery’s use of a “subjective camera” device, where the viewer sees things through his eyes. It is somewhat unsettling, but I’ve seen the movie a few times, and I rather like it overall. Notable is Audrey Totter, whom I believe was a superb actress, and who appeared in several noirs.

See her in this brittle yet soft role, and as a sympathetic hospital psychiatrist in “The High Wall,” and then as a truly amoral and yet always watchable woman in “Tension,” and one has to be amazed at how good an actress she was. She was a guest invitee at a noir film showing, and I regret not seeing her, just to applaud or tell her how great she was.

There is a movie channel which shows all film noirs on Thursdays, and I admit that I have watched some of these movies several times. “Tension” is really a great noir movie. It was excellently directed by John Berry, whose career was essentially ruined by being blacklisted. So many times I will watch a movie, usually a noir, on TCM, and the host will tell us that the director or screenwriter was blacklisted. There was one so-so noir film, “Wash the Blood Off My Hands,” with Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine, which had three screenwriters, and they were all blacklisted, though two of them, including Walter Bernstein, who wrote the movie “The Front,” about the blacklist, used a front to get their work put on screen. So much great talent and so many decent people were destroyed during this infamous period.

Back to Philip Marlowe, “The Little Sister,” another Raymond Chandler novel, was made into a movie called “Marlowe,” starring James Garner. It is interesting to see how the different star actors play Marlowe. Garner did it with his characteristic somewhat light demeanor. It is a pretty good movie, notable for the appearance of Rita Moreno, Bruce Lee, and then Gayle Hunnicutt, who started as a glamorous young American actress, then went to England, and almost revamped her career, as she was given several very prestigious roles in historical or classic dramas.

“Farewell My Lovely” was remade, with the original title, starring Robert Mitchum. I admire him so much for his brilliant lead role in “Out of the Past,” and he would have seemed to have been an ideal Marlowe, but he was older then, and the movie is not quite as good as I would have thought, though not bad, few noirs ever are bad. Then the one which I have started to watch a couple of times, but turned off, because it is just wrong, unless somehow it got much better going along.

That is “The Long Goodbye,” directed by Robert Altman, starring Elliott Gould. He starts off waking up, looking sleepy or hungover, shambling into the kitchen to grab a box of dry cereal and a carton of milk, and pouring it into a bowl. He also has several cats. This is an “interpretation” of Marlowe that I do not favor, and Altman is not the director whom I want to see doing a noir film (though he did a great job on the gambling movie “California Split”), so I gave up on it.

There were a couple of other Philip Marlowe movies. Robert MItchum starred in another version of “The Big Sleep.” There was a “Marlowe” series starring Powers Boothe. Marlowe was played on the radio in a long-running series starring Gerald Mohr, who was superb, and won awards for it. BBC did the Marlowe novels in an entire series of radio dramatizations, starring Toby Stephens, who is excellent, along with a cast of British actors doing decent American accents.

So that brings us to this new and original movie, “Marlowe,” starring Liam Neeson, who is 70, which means that his Marlowe is somewhat different, though recognizable. The movie has good pedigree, with Neil Jordan directing, the screenplay written by William Monahan, who wrote the screenplay for the very good “The Departed,” and it was based on a novel by the very highly regarded Irish writer John Banville.

Well, I will leave it to you to see, if you want to, so I won’t say much more, except that I thought that it wasn’t bad, it was done with a serious regard for the Chandler and Marlowe canons. But it wasn’t great, either. And I am trying to think whether it was because of choices made by the filmmakers, or whether, as some critics were quick to say (though some did like it), it shows that the character of Marlowe, or the classic noir themes and images, have become worn out.

I give the filmmakers credit for trying to do an actual noir, setting it in 1939 Los Angeles, though it was mostly filmed in Ireland and Spain. It is not a “New Age noir” trying to make it more hip or familiar for a younger audience. It is an actual attempt to make a classic noir movie. But it was somewhat slow and at times uninvolving, though the “reveal,” what was really at stake, was well done, and gave the movie more resonance.

I do worry that this might be the last time that a “prestige film” is made like a classic noir. It may well be that an audience which has an inexhaustible appetite for “superhero movies,” or whatever one terms the seemingly thousands of films turned out by Marvel; or which wants politically themed movies about various kinds of biases, does not want to see anything about 1930’s or 1940’s Los Angeles. I will admit that at times “Marlowe” seemed to be trying to recreate the atmosphere of “Chinatown,” which was a better film. But I think we can use all the noirs we can get.

Why do I like film noir so much? I have written an essay or two about it here on the blog. I will just say that it offers escape; not the fantasy world of the Marvels, but an escape into an earlier time, which in some ways, as in “Chinatown,” is a kind of backstory to how we got to where we are now, not just historically or politically, but perhaps in terms of morality, who wins and who loses. Philip Marlowe, described as a “knight-errant” by Raymond Chandler, does not see himself that way; but in a world of deceit and corruption, and seduction of various sorts, he almost always does the moral thing, tries to help or save the decent characters.

Actually, the best noir, books or films, in my view, feature the detective as a good guy or woman, who is almost in some sense trying to save the world in microcosm, the “things fall apart/the centre does not hold” frightening evocation of the poet Yeats. Of course he is only working on one small corner of things, though sometimes, as in the best neo-noirs, it is more than that. In either case, the reader feels better to think that there are one or two people out there who can tell good from evil; who do not take the bribes, or lose their moral sense to the femme fatale or the power broker.

I think that we need this kind of champion, even if fictional, as much now as we did in those earlier eras. Not someone who is larger than life, that would not be satisfying. Someone who may have his flaws, but knows himself, as the words written on the temple of the Oracle at Delphi enjoined. A person who takes the wrong direction sometimes, but finds it again, and is willing to risk everything to put things right, at least as far as he can in the story he is in.

And I love stories set in that era; and of course Los Angeles, where I live, is where many noirs are set, for some obvious reasons. What a thrill it is to see movies from that time show streets and locales which I know, some recreated, some still there, Sometimes if feels as if I can open the door, and I will be on those streets, as they existed; go into the diners, visit the racetracks and the poker games; talk and dance and listen to the music in the famous clubs. It is a world of danger, but also of possibility, if you can somehow find your way through the maze.

I don’t know if the film noir ethos can be preserved in new films. “Marlowe” tried, but I don’t think succeeded as well as it wanted to. Maybe no one can, though I am excited about Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which I have deliberately tried to avoid learning anything about, maybe it is not a noir at all, but the title sounds like it is.

I know that the “Noirfest” every year in Los Angeles, showing twenty or so films in ten days, was very popular; but because of COVID, it was canceled, then currently moved to another city. Film noir still has an audience, its themes still have resonance. We can only hope that we are not overwhelmed by a surplus of fantasy films and comedies, which there is certainly room for, but not as a steady diet of non-nourishing junk food. I hope that there will still be a few other people who will try to evoke the world of film noir in their movies, with all the drama and character and moral choices that made the best films of that genre so involving, and in many cases unforgettable.