Saturday, September 19, 2009

Post-Noir: Farewell, My Lovely (1975, Dick Richards)

Directed by: Dick Richards
Written by: Raymond Chandler (novel), David Zelag Goodman (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, Sylvia Miles, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack O'Halloran, Sylvester Stallone

The work of Raymond Chandler experienced a resurgence in the 1970s, thanks to Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski's very Chandler-ish Chinatown (1974). The waning career of Robert Mitchum was also revived by two Chandler adaptations, Farewell, My Lovely (1975) {previously filmed by Edward Dmytryk as Murder, My Sweet (1944)} and The Big Sleep (1978) {previously filmed by Howard Hawks}. Though outside the traditionally-accepted film noir period (approx. 1940-1958), the 1970s provided an ideal climate for a resurgence of the style. The demise of the Production Code in the 1960s had allowed filmmakers the freedom to explore more explicit themes, usually implying an increase in language, violence and nudity. Chandler's novels – which typically dabbled in themes of prostitution, homosexuality and pornography – could now be adapted faithfully without the threat of censorship, though fortunately, in the case of this particular film, director Dick Richards doesn't overdo the sleaze. The source material is one of the few Marlowe novels I haven't read, but Farewell, My Lovely nevertheless seems a loyal interpretation of the author's style.

Philip Marlowe is the sort of role that Robert Mitchum would have nailed in the 1950s, when he always seemed to feel old and weary without actually looking it. Nevertheless – though he lacks the cocky vigour of Dick Powell, or the invincibility of Humphrey Bogart – the aging Mitchum does communicate what is perhaps Marlowe's most defining characteristic: that of a disillusioned, world-weary private dick looking for something in this world, anything, worth fighting for. In his latest case, Marlowe is hired by fearless lug Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) to find his girlfriend Velma, who vanished while Malloy was serving a prison sentence. As always, what had initially seemed a straightforward assignment soon gets Marlowe embroiled in a complex patchwork of deceits, murders and double-crossings. Crucial to the mystery is Charlotte Rampling (emulating Lauren Bacall) as the adulterous wife of an old millionaire, and Oscar-nominated Sylvia Myles as an alcoholic performance artist. Also look out for small roles from Harry Dean Stanton as Det. Rolfe, and Sylvester Stallone as a lustful thug.

Farewell, My Lovely does a fine job of translating Chandler's pessimistic vision of urban decay and human depravity. The 1940s adaptations are, of course, superbly entertaining, but most of them – particularly The Big Sleep (1946) and Lady in the Lake (1947) – are clearly filmed on a pristine studio set, somewhat offsetting the grittiness of Chandler's characters and plot. Richards' film, to his credit, is incredibly ugly. Aside from Helen Grayle, whose sprawling mansion suffers next to Buckingham Palace, most of Marlowe's witnesses live in appalling squalor; even his own office is drab and bathed in shadow. Yet, despite the unpolished milieu, Farewell, My Lovely most assuredly has a heart. Marlowe's wordless interactions with the son of a penniless musician help us see beneath the detective's front of indifference, hinting at his admiration for the honest working-class, and his fervent distaste towards the decadence of the wealthy. When offered his own wealth, Marlowe unthinkingly surrenders it to someone he deems more worthy, a touching but cheerless ending to a film steeped in the unpleasantness of human existence.

Currently my #6 film of 1975:
1) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)
2) Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa)
3) Love and Death (Woody Allen)
4) Pasqualino Settebellezze {Seven Beauties} (Lina Wertmüller)
5) Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
6) Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards) *
7) Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)
8) Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones)

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