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This, the second adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, is much closer to the source text than the original - Murder, My Sweet (1944), which tended to avoid some of the sleazier parts of the plot - but still concerns private eye Philip Marlowe's attempts to locate Velma, a former dancer at a seedy nightclub and the girlfriend of Moose Malloy, a petty criminal just out of prison. Marlowe finds that once he has taken the case, events conspire to put him in dangerous situations, and he is forced to follow a confusing trail of untruths and double-crosses before he is able to locate Velma. Written by
Mark Thompson <email@example.com>
In the wake of 'The Long Goodbye' and, especially, 'Chinatown', there was a profusion in the mid- to late-70s of recreated films noirs of the Chandlerian bent, many featuring aging stars. 'Farewell My Lovely' is one of the best - while it does not reek of the depravity of Dmytryk's 1944 version, starring Dick Powell, it is broader in scope, and truer to a kind of lived-in realism, as opposed to hard-boiled iconography. It's nice to see 1940s L.A. close to what it might have looked like, and not the vague dreamworlds presented by classic noir. it would be a mistake to assume that this is a progressive, or revisionist movie - while it scores well in its treatment of race, the fundamental misogyny of Chandler's source novel and Dmytryk's film lingers. Indeed, it is less palatable, in that 40s Hollywood made its villainesses glamorous, charismatic and desirable; Charlotte Rampling seems barely to exist on screen, a mere assemblage of corruption and cold amorality.
The hard-boiled detective fictions of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were created in conscious opposition to the reactionary puzzles of the English Golden Age (eg Agatha Christie), which were exercises in asserting order and social control. Chandler tried to express a bleaker reality, one where arbitrary violence and corruption is not so easily contained, where smaller crimes may be solved, but society itself is rotten, diseased, irredeemable. Chandler pits his hero Philip Marlowe against this malaise, tough, solitary, misanthropic, frequently compared to medieval knights, as hopelessly out of his time as Don Quixote.
Chandler's novels are completely filtered through the prejudiced narration of Marlowe, so instead of realism we get a barely controlled expressionism, riddled with ideology. Marlowe is unable to trust anyone, and defines himself against everyone else, the Other, especially women and blacks. This is a subtext in the novel, but RIchards foregrounds it in the early scenes of this film. When Marlowe enters a black neighbourhood investigating Velma, he is very uncomfortable in an alien environment. Although, as a detective, he has the freedom to navigate the city, to access both poor black neighbourhoods and obscenely wealthy white mansions in a way neither one of these nor the other can, he is still constrained by ideology, the ideology of his times - he is not as apart from the corruption as he thinks. And so we frequently see him indoors, even imprisoned, by cops and criminals alike - like a conservative, everything is connected for Marlowe, except everything stinks.
This making mental states physical is important for a narrative seen through its hero's head. It puts us on our guard, distances us from Marlowe in a way Chandler never lets us, allows us to be more critical. Another device is the bizarre use of narrative voiceover. This seems conventional enough, Marlowe telling us the story, controlling, interpreting, often verbatim from the book. But his voiceover is broken - he starts addressing us, then, within that, he tells Nulty a story; so that the viewer is at two removes from a story that we only have it's teller's word for its veracity. In its modest way, the film DOES have revisionist aspirations.
Unlike Altman's film, 'Farewell' is purely enjoyable on the level of a murder-mystery thriller - the plot is satisfyingly, Chandlerianly (sic?) opaque; there are sufficient interesting supporting characters; the violence seems quaintly 1940s; the music is exciting. The film, therefore, would be pleasant, but harmless, except for one crucial element: Robert Mitchum, America's greatest actor. His aging Marlowe might be more appropriate to 'The Long Goodbye', but this is an astonishing portrait of middle- giving on to old-age, a study of a man struggling with cynicism, trying to maintain order (wisecracks; narration; frequent references to baseball, a game with rules) and humanity (the kid) in a world that only offers diabolic inversions of each.
Even more resonantly, the film is a film about film noir, about acting, about Robert Mitchum, soon to become famous in the period represented, soon the embodiment of the doomed noir hero. The Chandlerian dialogue that works wonderfully on the page can seem corny and stilted when spoken, but Mitchum pulls it off with melancholy beauty. He is the only screen Marlowe that seems like an actual human being who has lived - not even Bogie quite managed that.
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