World-weary gumshoe Philip Marlowe has been played most famously by Humphrey Bogart but also by James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum and sundry others. Enter Liam Neeson, 70 this year but still apparently capable of disabling five assailants at once with the right small arms and some smashable furniture in Marlowe, Neil Jordan’s frisky film noir pastiche. He’s in tough company. He also has a tough crowd – film noir purists, who are legion – to please.
The year is 1939; the setting is old Hollywood, though the film actually shot as an Irish-Spanish co-production in Barcelona. Marlowe is commissioned by Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), a dame who could cut diamonds with her teeth, to find her missing lover. Nico Petersen (François Arnaud) is – or was – a prop master at a film studio, making regular trips to Mexico to buy cheap ornaments that are a literal cover for the drugs he deals in the bowels of an ostensibly classy casino. The police say Petersen has been murdered. Mrs. Cavendish thinks not. Not so far, anyway.
Everybody wants something on somebody else, says Marlowe at one point. There are a lot of everyones here, swapping Mickey Finns and barbed one-liners; just try to keep up. Mrs. Cavendish’s mother Dorothy (Jessica Lange), a former movie star, may or may not be her daughter’s love rival – not just for the missing man but for her own business partner and for Marlowe too, if either of these gals can swing a date. In the meantime, she tries to commission him as well. And she isn’t the only schemer trying to get Marlowe on the payroll; there’s a lot of money in this town, most of it filthy.
So what about this Marlowe? Lines like “I’m too old for this,” panted in the middle of a fight, draw an appreciative chuckle from audiences, but Neeson is wearing pretty well. He can still run convincingly and has a neat way of bashing in a pane of glass with his elbow that tells you he’s done this kind of thing before. Obviously, Neeson is also his own genre. Inevitably, he brings the trappings of that genre with him, right into the heart of film noir: even in Bogie’s raincoat, he is recognizably the action guy from Taken, impassive of face and firm of fist.
So he isn’t Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, to the chagrin of some viewers, but Jordan’s film isn’t Chandler either; it is based on The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, the thriller writer who in real life is the Irish literary author John Banville. Read it as a commentary on the genre – a kind of meta-text studded with references most film-goers will pick up easily – and it all falls into place. The pacing, the use of light and the characters are illustrative: this is a film about film noir rather than the thing in itself.
It isn’t the first Marlowe film in color, but Jordan takes his color to the max, saturating it in golden light – sunshine outside and the glow of lamps inside – and then playing with that light, reflecting it from multiple mirrors, patterning entire scenes with stripes of shadow cast by Venetian blinds and sometimes peering through the refractions created by two windows in alignment. Similarly, the costumes could come from a “noir” dressing-up box. Neeson has the raincoat; Kruger has crimped bleached hair that, if nothing else, marked her out as a Bad Egg; Arnaud wears a matinee idol’s louche pencil moustache.
A good deal of writing about film noir of the ‘30s and ‘40s delves into its resonances in a world wracked by economic depression and the threat – followed by the horrible reality – of war; it is seen as a theater of anxiety. The modern parallels to those saber-rattling times are easy enough to draw, but nobody should take Marlowe too seriously. Any film featuring Alan Cumming as a gangster, so decadently and fabulously camp he seems destined to die in a frosting of pink bullets, is hardly aiming at streetwise realism.
Nor does it bear too much comparison with classic cinema, but does that matter? Marlowe isn’t perfectly hard-boiled, but it isn’t scrambled either. It’s fun and it’s fast: Information and wisecracks are packed into every minute of every scene to the point of giddiness. Casting is inspired across the board, including those actors whose accents veer dangerously towards Dublin – because what could be more redolent of old Hollywood than the echoes of exile? The sunshine is glorious, the palm trees reach the sky, ice cubes clink in crystal glasses and anyone – actually, in this story, pretty much everyone – can get away with murder. You might as well enjoy it.