From the 1930s through the 1950s, Raymond Chandler was the definitive voice of the American crime genre. His work in literature would go on to influence the the golden age of crime films, shaping film noir. The Marlowe Files is a monthly series looking at Chandler’s novels and film adaptations starring his famous detective Philip Marlowe. This month, we look at the evolution from film noir to neo noir with MARLOWE, the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister.

Film noir is perhaps the most iconic film movement in the history of American cinema. People may not know the term “film noir,” but they know its trappings. The cigarette smoke wafting through the air; the Venetian blind lighting; and the detective, the crook, and the femme fatale, are all necessary components for a true noir. The post war boom of film noir created a plethora of iconic films.  Aesthetically, there’s something about black and white film stock that screams noir. Unsurprising, as film noir literally translated from French means “black film.” Therefore, when film went to color, noir was snuffed out.

Though aesthetics alone do not make a film movement. In Carl Richardson’s book Autopsy: An Element of Realism in Film Noir, he argued that the murky morality of film noir created a tangible reality. To Richardson, true noir is defined by realism, not appearances.

“[Film noir] foregrounded pessimism and existentialism…film noir, in effect, underscored the the difficulties Americans experienced in having to give up unrecognizable dreams in deference to harsh truths…pessimism freed these films from the prison bars of cheery optimism and made them more in tune with a world much darker than movies could ever approximate.

Richardson argues that noir died in the the 60s, but he also says that noirs are fueled by pessimism. The Little Sister is a novel boiling with pessimism. Plus, it’s hard to imagine a time where America walked the line between optimism and pessimism more than the year of MARLOWE’s release, 1969. America had turned its hopes to space as man walked on the moon for the first time. As our eyes were turned towards the stars, American troops began withdrawing from Vietnam, another blow to morale caused by that quagmire. 

MARLOWE, with all of these factors, could be considered a noir if it hadn’t been released outside of the life span (1930s-1950s) of classic noir. The film adapts Raymond Chandler’s 1949 novel The Little Sister, a novel chock full of cynicism in a time of supposed optimism. The Little Sister was published as America’s post-World War II boom was getting underway. The source of Chandler’s cynicism comes in the form of one of his favorite punching bags: Hollywood.

The film, directed by Paul Bogart, shares some of that cynicism of the novel but has a glib tone as well. It’s that tone that signifies something new brewing in the cinema of the 60s and 70s. Largely forgotten now, MARLOWE not only walks the line of America’s philosophical outlook but its artistic output as well. In MARLOWE, we can see the cinematic growing pains from film noir to its contemporary offspring, neo noir.

Chandler and Hollywood

Marlowe The Little Sister

MARLOWE centers around a missing person case. Young Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), the little sister of the novel’s title, is looking for her brother. Initially, Marlowe (James Garner) assumes that her brother is just another Midwest traveler who went native with the hippie scene. He soon unravels a deeper conspiracy involving pictures taken by the brother of film starlet Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt). These peeping tom pics take on a new level of danger when Marlowe discovers that Mavis’ romantic partner in the photos is hitman Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wyant).

With the exception of a few tweaks, MARLOWE is a faithful adaptation of The Little Sister. This faithfulness helps it to succeed as a noir on a basic level. However, the film seems toothless compared to its source material. It’s no surprise that a studio adaptation would omit Chandler’s diatribes against Hollywoodland. In a 1945 article for The Atlantic, Raymond Chandler described his view on the motion picture biz:

The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.”

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Chandler found writing screenplays to be devoid of artistic merit. He likely saw himself as his hero Marlowe. He was paid to do an exhausting job for a client that would hate the outcome. For his troubles, he’d end up with a few bucks and a bruised ego. In fact, he would use his detective in The Little Sister to unleash a brutal tirade against LA as a whole:

“Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood–and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail-order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.”

In addition to lacking the bite of Chandler’s prose, the look of the film is devoid of realism. MARLOWE is shot almost entirely on sets with bland lighting, making the entire production look like a high budget television show. Once again, there’s just something about black and white that helps film noir to maintain its realism. In spite of this, MARLOWE does manage to capture the postmodern nature of neo noir. That glib attitude and that hint of cynicism foreshadow a new direction in film that would celebrate the deconstruction of old styles.

From Noir to Neo

Marlowe The Little Sister

As noir changed to neo noir, Hollywood’s Golden Age shifted into the New Hollywood movement. Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE, released in 1967, was the first indicator of a new style of filmmaking. The film’s violent ending shocked many critics of that time. The ending seems tame by today’s standards, but prior to 1967, the content of many films was shackled by The Hays Code. The Hays Code was an even more puritanical version of the modern MPAA. The Code dictated which content would or would not be permissible in filmmaking.

As Bob Mondello explained on NPR, a self-enforced code tends to become an ineffectual one. Time inevitably changes moral standards, but well-crafted art can move the needle further. Mondello identifies films like Otto Preminger’s THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, which featured a character struggling with drug addiction. The film would become a success in spite of the Hay Code refusing to condone the film. Another film Mordello identifies as a killer of the Hays Code is Billy Wider’s classic SOME LIKE IT HOT. As Mordello states:

“The film’s plot was a veritable catalog of once-forbidden topics — gambling and racketeering to get the plot going, a booze-swilling Marilyn Monroe to keep it going […] the code was dead, whether Hollywood admitted it or not. And judging from attendance at the nation’s theaters, it was not much missed.”

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There was no longer a body that insisted on keeping anything sacred. With that freedom, filmmakers of the New Hollywood movement set out to deconstruct many of America’s archetypes. From that movement, noir would be reborn as neo noir. In his essay, A Darker Shade: Realism in Neo-Noir, Jason Holt agrees with Carl Richardson that realism is a key component of noir. He also posits that the morally ambiguous nature of films from the New Hollywood movement make that realism more pronounced. I would argue even further that all neo noir has to contain an element of deconstruction. A neo noir film dabbles in realism but also upends audience expectations by subverting the cliches of classic noir films. Realism practically necessitates deconstruction. It is an intentional effort to tear down romantic, idealized archetypes to expose the murky morality beneath.

Deconstructing MARLOWE

Marlowe The Little Sister

The best way to look at the deconstruction of the detective archetype in MARLOWE is to look at another neo noir, CHINATOWN. First, it’s worth noting the major differences in tone of MARLOWE and CHINATOWN. CHINATOWN is an agonizingly dark film. Sure, Jack Nicholson’s inherent charm as Jake Gittes adds levity to the movie, but the hopeless battle of Gittes against the power structures of LA is quixotic. Gittes is a David against an unbeatable Goliath in the form of LA’s rich and powerful.

MARLOWE is a lot more tongue-in-cheek than earlier film noirs. The film has a wry, raised eyebrow as if to say “isn’t this all a bit silly?”  A strung out drug addict who threatens Marlowe at gunpoint to warn him off the case in the novel is replaced with a character named Winslow Wong (Bruce freakin’ Lee in an early American film appearance) who cartoonishly destroys his office. When Marlowe reveals to Orfamay the grisly details of her brother’s murder, a confused woman awkwardly stands between them mugging to the camera.

In the essay “CHINATOWN and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films,” author John C. Cawelti explores the different forms genre deconstruction takes. The forms range from burlesque (outright parody), nostalgia, demythologization, and affirmation of myth. MARLOWE functions as a burlesque for the majority of its runtime. It doesn’t dip into Mel Brooks-ian parody, but there is a feeling that Bogart isn’t taking this too seriously.

Therein lies a major component of its deconstruction. Often noir films have humor; every hard boiled detective has snappy one-liners all ready to go. Yet those films still have dramatic weight. In MARLOWE, the filmmakers basically admit that Chandler’s plot is too convoluted to decipher. 

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When Cawelti discusses CHINATOWN, he says it “uses both humorous burlesque and nostalgic evocation as a basis for its devastating myth.” CHINATOWN has comedic elements for sure, again in Nicholson’s performance, but few would call it a laugh riot. In fact, it plays much more like a traditional noir for much of its runtime until the dark revelations leading to the ending. MARLOWE manages to upend expectations just with its setting.

Before MARLOWE’s release in 1969, the last Philip Marlowe film was 1947’s THE BRASHER DOUBLOON. Rather than putting Marlowe back in the 40’s, the filmmakers chose to update the time period of the novel to 1969. In a way, Marlowe feels like a man out of time. His grey suit is contrasted with the liberated hippies of the west coast. The 60s are dashing by him too fast, but he fights his valiant fight anyway. 

Forget it, Marlowe; It’s Hollywood

The most neo noir element of MARLOWE ironically comes from The Little SisterHolt identifies the ineffectual detective as a key component of neo noir, specifically pointing out the ending of CHINATOWN as an example. “While less capable, less admirable than their classic-era prototypes, they are for that reason more realistic.” In fact, both MARLOWE and CHINATOWN have somewhat similar endings. Our heroic gumshoe, defeated by a shocking death, heads off into the night on the mean streets of LA, forced to accept the cold injustice of the world.

In CHINATOWN, Gittes uncovers the plot by Noah Cross and the incestuous abuse he committed on his daughter. By the end of the film, Cross ostensibly wins. Gittes is unable to protect his client, and Cross will get away with all of his corrupt crimes. It’s a suitably tragic ending for an equally tragic film.

Holt incorrectly states in his essay that Marlowe is merely a “classic-era prototype,” not a neo noir figure. By the end of the both MARLOWE and The Little Sister, Marlowe too becomes the ineffectual archetype. Marlowe learns the seemingly innocent Orfamay was willing to let her brother die in order to extort money from Mavis Wald. While Mavis’ roommate Dolores killed Steelgrave out of jealousy. Marlowe finds little justice by the end. Everyone either destroys themselves or someone else.

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MARLOWE, following the plot of The Little Sister, does not intervene to save Dolores once it becomes clear she will be a target for murdering Steelgrave. Marlowe allows the universe, even with all its cruelty, to create some semblance of justice. In MARLOWE, our heroic detective doesn’t stop an obvious assassin from murdering her on stage during a burlesque show. She literally dies during a burlesque performance, reinforcing that MARLOWE is itself a burlesque version of a hard-boiled detective story, and thus, a neo noir.

Bringing Marlowe to Life

For all of its deconstruction of Chandler’s work, MARLOWE contains perhaps the perfect summary of the Philip Marlowe character. Marlowe, drink in hand, explains he is “unassailably virtuous, invariably broke.” Marlowe is the knight, not in shining armor, but in a well-worn suit. Chandler’s version of Marlowe would likely never be so self-aware, but this James Garner imbues this version of the detective with a sardonic edge further deconstructing the archetypal detective.

Garner’s affable every man quality is reminiscent of post-modern heroes like John McClane or Han Solo. The put-upon good guy who will do the right thing with a snarky one-liner and more than a few bruises. Modern neo noir characters tend to be much less chatty than Marlowe (the Driver characters of THE DRIVER and DRIVE). However, Garner’s portrayal certainly shares some similar DNA to Elliot Gould’s Marlowe in Robert Altman’s classic THE LONG GOODBYE.

Garner’s performance is just one stepping stone toward full blown neo noir. It’s unfortunate that MARLOWE ends up becoming the middle child in the noir family. It’s not quite serious enough to be film noir but not quite gritty enough to be neo noir. In spite of this, the film illustrates Chandler’s timeless quality as a writer. Ultimately, The Little Sister functions better in the realm of neo noir because of Marlowe’s failings as a traditional hero.

Chandler even became a forebearer of sorts to the New Hollywood movement. His rejection of Hollywood’s creativity draining methods mirrors the same rejection by directors of  New Hollywood. Just as directors sought freedom from the studios so too did Chandler. That desire to break out from the safe expectations of storytelling is evident in The Little Sister and in MARLOWE. Without both of these works, we may not have ever arrived at neo noir, losing tons of great films and stories as a result.

Oh, and the theme song rocks:

Next Case: We look at an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler short story Red Wind starring Danny Glover. We’ll discuss race bending iconic characters and how it makes adaptations better.

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2 Comments

  1. Brian Long

    August 21, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    You’re correct sir. Thanks for keeping us honest.

    Reply

  2. Rand Raynor

    August 21, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    Nicholas Ray did not direct Bonnie and Clyde. That was Arthur Penn. Perhaps you’re thinking of They Live By Night, a fictionalized version of the Bonnie and Clyde story from 1948. That was Ray’s directorial debut.

    Reply

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