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Mitchum Plays Marlowe

March 30, 2010

Browsing Roger Ebert’s archive of film reviews at the Chicago Sun-Times I came across a 1975 review of Dick Richards’s adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely. Robert Mitchum, who plays Marlowe, was 57 years old at the time. He was too young for the role in the 1940s, when Dick Powell chose to revitalize his career playing Marlowe in the stylish 1944 Edward Dmytryk adaptation, Murder, My Sweet. Back then Mitchum was making a name for himself in B-Westerns and would probably not have matched the performances of Powell or of Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s 1946 classic, The Big Sleep. But by 1975 Mitchum was a perfect Marlowe, with his hang-dog expression and tough, world-weary eyes. Where Bogart made Marlowe a real tough guy, we can imagine Mitchum as a Marlowe who is genuinely “tired and full of no coffee”. He was so perfect in fact that he was persuaded to star in Michael Winner’s bungled, transplanted adaptation of The Big Sleep (1978). There Mitchum looked the part, but the film was a mistake.

Roger Ebert’s review of Farewell, My Lovely is glowing. It is worth remembering this often overlooked film as one of perhaps three adaptations of Chandler’s work that manage to do justice to Chandler’s vision. Late in his career Mitchum was a truly great Marlowe. Worth a read:

Los Angeles, 1941. A run-down street of seedy shop fronts and blinking neon signs. Music from somewhere features a lonely horn. The camera pans up to a second-story window of a flophouse. In the window, his hat pushed back, his tie undone, Philip Marlowe lights another cigaret and waits for the cops to arrive. He is ready to tell his story.

These opening shots are so evocative of Raymond Chandler’s immortal Marlowe, archtypical private eye, haunting the underbelly of Los Angeles, that if we’re Chandler fans we hold our breath. Is the ambience going to be maintained, or will this be another campy rip-off? Half an hour into the movie, we relax. “Farewell, My Lovely” never steps wrong.

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