Farewell, My Lovely

The third entry in our Philip Marlowe Marathon is “Farewell, My Lovely.” Made in 1975, this is the most recent film in the marathon, though it is set in the Marlowe heyday of the 40s. This is a remake of “Murder, My Sweet”, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that this production doesn’t live up to its predecessor.

“Farewell, My Lovely” is the 1975 remake of “Murder, My Sweet.” Some elements are changed either to reflect the times a bit better or for simplicity’s sake. The drunk former owner of Florian’s bar takes on a larger and showier role in this movie, and there is just one female lead instead of two. Overall, though, the updated movie follows basically the same story.

In terms of tone, “Farewell, My Lovely” is pretty much a straight neo-noir. The opening of the movie is pure, seedy Los Angeles. It’s nighttime, neon signs flash, and our favorite private eye is holed up in a hotel room that looks like it’s falling apart from the inside. You can practically feel the shady characters lurking in the alleys outside the building.

This time, our hero Marlowe is portrayed by an aging Robert Mitchum. The movie was released two days after Mitchum’s 58th birthday, but not knowing that fact while I was watching the movie, I would’ve guessed he was even older.

Luckily, having an older actor in this role might be the film’s greatest triumph. Mitchum brings a world-weary eye to the proceedings and moves through his surroundings a bit slower, but with all the confidence of someone who’s seen just about everything. His presence speaks volumes about Marlowe’s credibility to any number of people with whom he interacts: clients, criminals, information sources, or LAPD detectives. And he still has that knack for the witty comeback:

Marlowe: A lot of us in the DA’s office used to think of him as a hood.

Helen: What did the DA think?

Marlowe: He thought I should leave the DA’s office.

Unfortunately, however, the film is otherwise pretty short on triumphs. Whereas “The Big Sleep” and “Murder, My Sweet” have an element of crackling suspense, this movie left me feeling not much of anything in particular. It just sort of comes and goes without much intrigue. Charlotte Rampling is certainly seductive as Helen Grayle, the story’s femme fatale. However, her performance seemed too one-note to me. To me, there was never any doubt she had bad intentions. It would be easy to be charmed by her beauty, but after the first meeting, if Marlowe couldn’t tell she was 100% trouble, he’d be a pretty poor detective.

Another thing that struck me when comparing this to “Murder, My Sweet” is how much more clearly some plot elements are spelled out. In the former film, plot details are not spoken clearly by the characters. Instead, you have to piece things together through bits of the rapid-fire dialog. In this film, though, I counted a number of times where Marlowe or his scene partner is clearly just explaining to the audience what happened, or what the upcoming plan is. Maybe this was an effort to make what was an admittedly complex plot in “Murder, My Sweet” a bit more digestible, but honestly, I couldn’t help but feeling this was dumbing down the material. Is this a reflection of the audience of the times? If they had to do this for moviegoers in 1975, you can see why the only movies that make big money today feature a lot of guys wearing tights. Whatever the case, it’s just bad writing.

There’s some debate on the internet as to whether director Dick Richards is trying to play it completely straight here, or whether there is some intentional campiness going on. To me, it seems abundantly clear that Richards is playing it straight. I think that may be part of the problem here. You already have a very well-executed version of this story from the heyday of film noir. You’re setting your movie in the same period as the original, even though it’s 30-plus years down the road. And you’re playing the material totally straight. What is there to be gained? Other than some small story choices, what have you updated? Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” at which we’ll be taking a look later in the marathon, takes this exact risk and pulls it off. But in “Farewell, My Lovely,” the whole thing adds up to little more than an exercise. Mitchum’s performance is the saving grace, but it’s not enough to save the entire picture.