A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2023


2023, R, 110 mins.

Liam Neeson as Philip Marlowe  /  Diane Kruger as Clare Cavendish  /  Jessica Lange as Dorothy Cavendish  /  Danny Huston as Floyd Hanson  /  Alan Cumming as Lou Hendricks  /  Ian Hart as Joe Green  /  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Cedric  /  Daniela Melchior as Lynn Peterson  /  Patrick Muldoon as Richard Cavendish  /  Colm Meaney as Bernie Ohls

Directed by Neil Jordan  /  Written by William Monahan, based on the novel by John Banville



So many talented actors have played Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective Phillip Marlowe throughout cinematic history that it becomes rather hard to keep track of them all.  The most noteworthy and famous of the lot would easily be Humphrey Bogart in 1946's THE BIG SLEEP, but let's also not forget about Elliott Gould in 1973's THE LONG GOODBYE or Robert Mitchum twice in 1978's FAREWELL MY LOVELY and 1978's THE BIG SLEEP.     

We can now add Liam Neeson to the mix in MARLOWE, which is not based on any Chandler work, but rather is adapted from the 2014 novel THE BLACK EYED BLONDE by John Banville (writing under the pen name Benjamin Black) that had been sanctioned for creation by Chandler's own estate.  Add in Neeson's MICHAEL COLLINS director in Neil Jordan and THE DEPARTED's screenwriter in William Monahan and MARLOWE is left with an impressively high pedigree of talent on board.  One of the problems, however, with making another Marlowe-led film noir is in finding fresh and novel ways to work within this well worn genre.  MARLOWE, somewhat disappointingly, doesn't try to stray too far away from conventions and is not really much of a modern-day re-invention of the character...but...that's okay.  What we're left with is a handsomely produced, well acted, and modestly enjoyable mystery yarn that gets the job done.  And the ripe 70-year-old Neeson - who initially may seem like an unlikely choice for the role, and especially at this late stage in his life and career - emerges as an inspired choice for this classic gumshoe.  And the actor can certainly play battle-hardened, world-weary, and charmingly understated parts in his sleep. 

MARLOWE does make a few concentrated efforts to update the titular character because of Neeson's involvement.  Whereas previous iterations of Marlowe have been played far younger, Jordan's film concerns an aging sleuth that is an Irish expat and served tours in World War I for a regiment in the British Army.  He's also a former LAPD cop turned, yes, private detective.  It's 1939 and Marlowe - in classic film noir tradition - awaits for his next client to enter through his office doors with a new assignment proposal.  She is a beautiful heiress named Clare Cavendish (Dianne Krueger, very well cast here), who approaches Marlowe to look for her missing lover, Nico (Francois Arnaud), who has gone missing.  She wants very little to do with her husband and especially her domineering and unloving mother, Dorothy (Jessica Lange).  Marlowe quickly decides to take the case, but very soon he discovers that Nico - a prop master for a local film studio - is not missing, but dead.  Apparently, he got drunk, stumbled outside onto the streets from the Crobata Club, and had his head accidentally run over and crushed, leading to instant death (yeah...yuck).     

So...case closed...right?   




Marlowe smells that something is not quite right with this explanation of the events, so he starts to dig in deep through L.A.'s underworld and higher ups in the film industry so he can get some concrete answers.  He has very few allies that help him, and even ones that he does have on the inside - like friend and homicide detective Joe Green (Ian Hart) - don't seem too keen on reopening a missing person's case.  Obviously, this is a Phillip Marlowe mystery thriller, so there's no way he'll ignore his deeper inquisitive impulses to move forward.  Throughout his investigation he comes into contact with a rich motley crew of colourful personalities, seedy lowlifes, and rich and connected people, like flamboyant gangster Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming), his chauffer and bodyguard in Cedric (a scene stealing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Nico's sex trade dealing sister, Lynne (THE SUICIDE SQUAD's Daniela Melchior), and, most ignorantly, a super sleazy and corrupt night club owner, Floyd (Danny Huston, whose casting alone tips off that this will absolutely be a bad guy, but also serves as a bit of sly meta referencing, seeing as his father in John played an almost identical role in one of the greatest of all period detective thrillers CHINATOWN all those decades ago).  As Marlowe plunges deeper and deeper into the sordid underbelly of his city, he uncovers clues that shake his investigation to the core and, naturally enough, all come to a dangerous head in the final act of the picture, putting his life in puerile in the process.  

Neeson has been - and still is even during his senior citizen years - a commanding physical presence on screen, so much so that it's kind of astounding that he has never been pegged before to play Marlowe.  The tall, lean, and brooding Irish actor acclimates himself well to the part, and thankfully, his advancing years are referenced throughout and are not hid from (after one particularly gnarly fistfight with some dastardly henchmen he catches his breath, composes himself, and lets out a Danny Glover-esque "I'm getting too old for this" in the type of charming gravel voiced authority that only Neeson can authentically muster).  That's not to say that his version of Marlowe is some sort of indestructible Bryan Mills from TAKEN.  Far from it.  This iteration of Marlowe can still physically handle himself, but he's shown a bit worse for wear and melancholic.  He's someone that has seen so much corruption and evil that - at this stage in his life - very little of it that he witnesses seems to surprise him anymore.  Neeson brings his characteristic gravitas to the film, which is always welcoming, and he sure looks great in those period-specific suits and fedoras as well.  The more I watched MARLOWE the less I thought about Neeson's age being a distraction, and that's a testament to his finely tuned ability to sink into just about any role with ease and poise. 

Neil Jordan also makes an exquisite looking film as well, using Barcelona standing in rather plausibly and thanklessly for 1930s L.A. (that's a pretty inspired bit of movie fakery as far as location shooting goes).  MARLOWE is replete with wonderful costumes, ominous and shadow-fuelled cinematography, and a fine attention to production design detail that gives this film a classic old school elegance and veracity.  He has said in interviews that he used rain-drenched and neon hues of BLADE RUNNER's futuristic L.A. as an inspiration for MARLOWE, and this can definitely be noticed throughout.  The film also benefits from Monahan's adept touches in the screenplay when trying to conjure up effective cat and mouse games for Marlowe to get embroiled in, but the writer also has fun with embellishing the eccentric personalities that populate this film.  The dialogue crackles when it needs to as well, with one of my favorite exchanges occurring between Marlowe and Huston's duplicitous-minded nightclub owner.  When he tries to relay what a horrible sight it must have been to witness Nico's head getting crushed by a car, Floyd coldly replies, "I've seen men in more disarray than that in which he was discovered."  Even colder is when he further relays an old war experience: "After an artillery strike, I found my friend's tooth in my whiskey glass.  I drank the whiskey."  That's great stuff, plus it very quickly encapsulates what a thoroughly disturbing and ruthlessly amoral man Floyd is for Marlowe to deal with.   

The other supporting players fare well too, like Lang's ex-actress, who seems to display great relish in making her daughter feel horrible for her ties with Nico.  Also solid is Akinnuove-Agbaje as that aforementioned limo driver that becomes an unexpected sidekick to Marlowe during perhaps his darkest descent into his investigation.  He plays so well off of Neeson in the scenes they share that I would have no problem whatsoever with a series of more team-up films with their characters to come (that, and in the moments when both of them are called upon to defend themselves, the blood and gore count of MARLOWE gets shockingly - and, I'm not ashamed to say this - exhilaratingly high).  The elements that don't work as well here would be in regards to the unfolding of the central mystery itself, which builds towards a somewhat anticlimactic reveal that's not as eye-opening as this film thinks (it also has the unintended side effect of rendering any level of suspense beyond that point null and void).  And maybe Jordan and Monahan didn't get creative enough about taking this 80-plus-year-old character - one of the most indelible and legendary in all detective fiction - and finding novel ways of re-imagining him and his world while staying true to his literary essence.  MARLOWE plays within the larger sandbox of Raymond Chandler crime thrillers, but sometimes slavishly so and without much intrepid innovation.  

Still, I greatly enjoyed this film's top tier cast, spectacular and sumptuous art direction and overall look, and a mostly (at least for its first two thirds) tantalizing and enthralling script that kept me thoroughly invested.  MARLOWE may not be in the same upper echelon as THE BIG SLEEP or THE LONG GOODBYE, but it remains a worthy addition to the pantheon of films that have adapted Chandler's work.

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