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 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 fast forward a few decades, to remakes of classic Marlowe films starring Robert Mitchum.

The history of cinema is a history of the world. As cultures evolve, so too do our stories. In an earlier column for this series, I discussed how the film MARLOWE (1969) pushed the iconic into the contemporary world of neo-noir. The film was a mixed success, but it marks a turning point in the cinematic career of Chandler’s detective. The abolishment of the Hays Code and the growing New Hollywood movement meant standards were changing. Marlowe in the 1970s is a study of these changes.

This decade gave us one of the most beloved Marlowe adaptations, Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE. But we also got two remakes: FAREWELL, MY LOVELY in 1975 and THE BIG SLEEP in 1978. (Never let it be said that remakes and sequels were only a blight on modern Hollywood.) These films make for an interesting counterpoint to MARLOWE. Films were evolving in terms of content, as well as what audiences expected from adaptations of Chandler’s novels. And yet, both remakes keep a reverence for the past, primarily in the form of their star: Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum as Marlowe

Robert Mitchum

Perhaps the most interesting bit of trivia regarding these two films is that Robert Mitchum is the only actor to play Marlowe more than once on film. In an interview with Mitchum, Roger Ebert acknowledges that he has all the necessary tools to play Marlowe. At age 57, Robert Mitchum was a well-established presence in Hollywood, and one of the oldest actors to portray Marlowe.

FARWELL, MY LOVELY’s opening draws for us an aging Marlowe — just as Mitchum’s type of actor is aging out of the New Hollywood movement. Mitchum continued to work through the ’90s, but he was an icon of old Hollywood. Mitchum stands out in a more authentic looking film; the real world has pulled him out of the world of cinema. 

Gone is the artifice of sets and sound stages. Marlowe is surrounded by the verisimilitude of real cars and pavement beneath the soles of his shoes. In addition, without the Hays code, films could explore the seedy elements of Chandler’s work without restrictions.

The subtext of drug use and pornography is no longer lingering at the corners of the frame. Gunshots no longer result in harmless bursts of smoke, but rather bright red blood stains. Sex and nudity abound, and all our hero can do is look upon the chaos and sigh.

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However, realism is not enough for an atmospheric noir. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY’s greatest crime is that its aesthetic is not as effective as its star. The film seems to use lighting only from sources in the room. While that certainly reinforces the realism, it gives the whole thing a cheap looking gloss, like the cinematographer bailed the day of the shoot.

Even Mitchum seemed less than thrilled by the direction. In the Ebert interview, he said, “They hired a director, Dick Richards, so nervous he can’t hold his legs still. They have all the hide rubbed off them.”

Intentional or not, casting Robert Mitchum seemed like a commentary on the slow death of the traditional noir. Mitchum is adept at being a Marlowe for the noir age, but not the modern one. “I’ve got a hat, a coat, and a gun, that’s it,” he comments in the film. He excels at playing a Marlowe at the end of his rope but isn’t quite modern enough for neo-noir.

Mitchum shows us the noble hero trapped in a world that can not be changed by his gallantry. Even Marlowe’s boyish belief in Joe DiMaggio breaking his hit record can only end in tragedy. The heroes of yesterday inevitably fade under the crushing weight of time.

The Big Snooze

Robert Mitchum

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY certainly would make an excellent starting point for a series of darker Marlowe adaptations. Imagine multiple films about a Marlowe who is getting older but still has to rub two bucks together fighting off darkness in a corrupt world.

THE BIG SLEEP (1978) does not, sadly, live up to this potential. Director Michael Winner changes the setting from Los Angeles post-WWII to London in the 1970s. While the year doesn’t matter, Marlowe outside of LA feels a lot like a fish not only out of water but out of this galaxy completely. Marlowe is LA, and unless removing him from the city of angels has a larger thematic point (spoiler alert: it doesn’t) then it shouldn’t be done.

While THE BIG SLEEP is certainly a more faithful adaptation than Howard Hawks’ original, few would say it’s a better one. Realism is not bad, but when realism is not paired with artfulness, you end up with an uninspiring work.

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The Dying Detective

The filmmaking is especially poor in this one, too. While the cinematography in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY wasn’t the best, THE BIG SLEEP looks like a bad television show. Scenes seem to linger on daytime London, and it just doesn’t feel like true noir. There’s no lingering shots of the city at night, no neons or flickering street lamps, just stale mid-day lighting in nearly every scene. Mitchum puts in the same decent performance as FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. However, the film around him fails to live up to his performance.

This time, fellow aging Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart, who plays General Sternwood, joins Robert Mitchum. Once again, these Mitchum films use a beloved star of classic Hollywood as a way to convey dignity and sophistication. Contrast earnest Stewart with the more unhinged performance of Candy Clark as his daughter Camilla, and you immediately understand the generational conflict between the two.

The change in time period seems like an attempt to capitalize on the style of THE LONG GOODBYE with none of the skill to go with it. Granted, some elements are interesting. One minor antagonist, the Brown Suit Man, seems like he escaped from a David Lynch film and gave the film a needed dose of surreal menace.

Robert Mitchum in Retrospect

THE BIG SLEEP’s final lines end up being its own epitaph. After this, Marlowe would never again appear on the silver screen. There would be television films and TV series adaptations of the great detective, but Marlowe would be sleeping his own big sleep in the realm of cinema for decades.

Mitchum is not to blame for this. He deserved a better film around him. Perhaps that’s the tragedy of Mitchum’s Marlowe: he’s a square peg in a round hole. He stands between two eras of cinematic history, but he’s too modern for one, while too much of a throwback for another. This type of Marlowe couldn’t exist anymore. It had to evolve primarily because what preceded these films — THE LONG GOODBYE — both evolved and killed the film noir.

Next Case: We look at Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE and explore how you deconstruct a genre and if you can ever put it back together again.

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