Contrary to what certain critics have said, Liam Neeson is NOT too old to play Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hero from the golden age of detective fiction.
Not that this Marlowe is Chandler’s creation. He’s taken from a book called Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville. Yes, Chandler’s stuff is out of the public domain. That’s scary, isn’t it?
John Banville is Irish. He’s been described as ‘the heir to Proust, via Nabokov’. High praise indeed, but he cites the Irish poet W. B. Yeats as one of his main influences.
The Irish connection is strong: Marlowe is directed by Irish director Neil Jordan, possibly best-known for The Crying Game, which featured Irish actor Stephen Rea. Jordan previously worked with Neeson on his biopic about the Irish patriot/fighter/politician Michael Collins.
The interiors were shot in Dublin, the exteriors in Barcelona. There’s Spanish money and creative influence here too, and it’s no stretch to make Spain look like Los Angeles. Despite the exotic locations Marlowe manages to be true to the visual aesthetics of 1930s Hollywood and is drenched in the ambience of the noir genre.
Jordan observes all the conventions: the slatted light coming through the venetian blinds and falling on the faces of the gumshoe and the femme fatale (Diane Kruger) who wants him to find someone who’s disappeared. She’s a classy dame – expensively dressed and smart-talking. Naturally, she smokes. Everybody smokes, and the music is just right. No anachronisms here, thank God.
I really liked the way he used period slang – an ordinary Joe, a working stiff. Mexicans are wetbacks or beanos, which was a new one on me, but it was easy to pick up from the context.
A character says at one stage, indicating a woman at the wheel of a parked car: ‘Who’s the frail?’ Frail? I was momentarily puzzled, but then a bell rang. You know that old Cab Calloway song Minnie the Moocher? She’s described as ‘the roughest, toughest frail’. Ah ha! Frail is period slang for a woman, likely a drug-using prostitute. (I looked it up.) Ten points for the authenticity, and for enlightening me on a reference I hadn’t previously understood.
As it turns out, that particular woman (Jessica Lange as the femme fatale’s mother) isn’t a prostitute or a druggie, but the plot does revolve around drug skulduggery and prostitution.
Jordan stays true to the noir genre too in that there’s none of that Tarantino-esque humanisation of the baddies. If you’re a drug-dealer or a whoremaster, you’re fair game to be shot.
As for Marlowe’s age, while Chandler’s Marlowe went from his thirties to his forties in the books, Neeson’s Marlowe is decidedly older. And why not? He’s not cast as a sexy leading man after all, and there are references to ‘a man your age’.
Jordan uses that trick of having a character tell Marlowe she knows all about him. She’s done some homework and delivers a potted bio for our benefit. He ‘didn’t have a good war’ – that’s the First World War, then a stint in the cops, then tried his hand at scriptwriting – enough anyway to explain why he’s the age he is, and why he prefers to be a lone operator.
I really liked this movie. I like the detective noir genre, but design buffs might find it worth seeing for the period evocation alone.