James Garner passed away in mid-July at the age of 86. The star of TV's Maverick and The Rockford Files, he's also a scene-stealing member of a great ensemble in one of my two favorite movies, The Great Escape. In a tribute to Garner's impressive career, Turner Classic Movies aired a 24-hour marathon of some of Garner's best -- but NOT The Great Escape -- allowing me to catch up with 1969's Marlowe, a flick I'd never even heard of.
A private detective working in Los Angeles, Phillip Marlowe (Garner) will take just about any case that presents itself in his office. His most recent case though is providing some problems, but not the one he would think. A small-town Oklahoma girl, Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), is worried that something happened to her brother who's gone missing for first a few days and then more than a week. Marlowe looks into the case but doesn't think there's too much to look into, telling Orfamay to go back to Oklahoma and things will figure themselves out. They don't though. Looking into one last lead, Marlowe finds a man he interviewed with an ice pick buried deep in his neck. The next day, another source turns up dead via the exact same fashion. What exactly has Marlowe gotten himself into? Has he gone too far?
From famed noir author Raymond Chandler, the character Phillip Marlowe is synonymous with tough, hard-edged film noirs, both written and on the big screen. The name became even more recognizable when Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in 1946's The Big Sleep. It is a great, lasting character that's been played by several famous actors. Made 15 years after the heyday of the film noir genre, 'Marlowe' then is an interesting development for the character. Movies by the late 1960s could get away with more and in far more aggressive fashion. But all that said, is this 1969 neo-noir from director Paul Bogart and based off a Chandler novel any good? Well, I'm not a huge fan.
When you look at James Garner's career filmography, I can't really identify one singular role. Yes, he's excellent in The Great Escape. He was good to very good to great in more than a few movies, but he didn't have that one AMAZING performance in a classic film. None of that is a negative. This was a reliable, steady actor who was almost always incredibly likable on screen, and I'm always glad to see him pop up in credits. That's what type of performance this is. His Marlowe is a little worn-out, but still stubborn to a fault and always looking for answers. He's not below some under-handed shenanigans to get the job done and let it be known, he's very good at being a private detective. As the story develops, Garner's Marlowe becomes almost the straight man to all the craziness that he discovers. It's a part that sure seems like a big influence on The Rockford Files, Garner always ready with a quick, disarming and charming smile that can quickly turn into a disgusted shrug.
Beyond Garner though, the movie is a bit of a mess. The supporting players are recognizable but not necessarily interesting unfortunately. One of the first suspects Marlowe starts to look into is a rising TV sitcom star and all-around sex symbol Gayle Hunnicutt who looks worried all the time and refuses to cooperate. There's also Farrell as the shrill, whiny country girl who keeps after Marlowe. In the more interesting department, Rita Moreno plays Dolores, a high-class dancer/stripper, friend of Hunnicutt's and possibly interested in Marlowe. Her striptease at the end is pretty scandalous for the times and ends up being a somewhat reasonable reason to stick with this one. Because we need someone stupid to make Marlowe look good, Carroll O'Connor and Kenneth Tobey play detectives always one step behind the case. Also look for future Mr. Feeney, William Daniels, in a small part and Bruce Lee even gets a chance to show off his athleticism and karate ability as a henchman sent to intimidate Marlowe.
For all the good things that could have been though, they just don't add up. I liked the locations, but there wasn't enough of them. The tone of the story is all over the place from a phone routine that seems more appropriate for a James Garner/Doris Day flick than a hard-boiled 1969 film noir. The same for a fight scene when Marlowe dispatches a villainous killer after him. The payoff is almost laughable, playing like a comedy spoof as opposed to what it is. As the story develops, one layer of the onion is revealed one after another to the point I wasn't sure who did what and to whom by the end of the movie. There's a twist, a reveal, a payoff, and I felt like I missed it entirely. Who killed who for goodness sake?!?
So, Mr. Garner, I'm sorry to see you go. You were one of my favorites. Onto The Great Escape!
Marlowe (1969): **/****