Aging private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) is completing a case when he is approached by a man “the size of the Empire State Building”, who nonchalantly shrugs off a burst of machinegun fire from a passing car. His name is Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), onetime bank robber, now fresh out of jail. He wants Marlowe to find his long-lost girlfriend, Velma, a woman it soon transpires is either confined to an asylum or else dead. Dogged by L.A.P.D. detectives, Marlowe uncovers a web of murder, mystery and deceit, with the black widow at its centre, Mrs. Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling - looking every inch the Forties femme fatale), the seductive wife of a wealthy and powerful judge.
The next time you find yourself cursing Jerry Bruckheimer for some sub-par blockbuster, just remember he also produced this beautifully pitched homage to film noir. Aside from the many other magnificent Marlowe movies, the plot of Raymond Chandler’s novel had been pilfered for The Falcon Takes Over (1942) - part of the Falcon series starring George Sanders - before reaching the screen as Murder, My Sweet (1944) starring popular crooner Dick Powell as a Marlowe whom fans can never agree was the best or sub-par.
Inspired by the then-recent success of Chinatown (1974) - whose story-structure is indebted to Chandler - the second adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely was as much a class act as its Forties forerunner. An excellent score from David Shire, marvellously evocative production design by the great Dean Tavoularis and cinematography by John A. Alonzo, influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper, are potent ingredients in the spell woven by director Dick Richards. Having made a minor splash with The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972), this sophomore outing confirmed his talent and he seemed set to become a major filmmaker. But after an ambitious failure with March or Die (1977), Richards closed his career by getting punched unconscious by Burt Reynolds on the set of Heat (1986). If there is a criticism, it is that the film is a studied piece of mimicry instead of an attempt to breathe new life into the noir genre, a la Chinatown. Some critics went so far as to dismiss it as camp, although its tongue never strays near its cheek and the film remains a far sincerer effort than Marlowe (1969) or even Robert Altman’s intermittently brilliant The Long Goodbye (1973).
Farewell, My Lovely’s ace in the hole is in casting arguably the greatest film noir star of them all: Robert Mitchum, for whom the role of Philip Marlowe fits like a glove. While other movie stars from Hollywood’s golden era gently faded away during the Seventies, Mitchum endured throughout the decade and beyond, in part thanks to choice roles in Going Home (1971), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza (1974) and A Killer in the Family (1985), but also because his wry, cynical yet romantic demeanour retained its appeal for modern audiences. His splendidly world-weary performance turns the film into an elegy, both for a bygone era and his own iconic stardom. Screenwriter David Zelag Goodman - who worked on Straw Dogs (1971) and Logan’s Run (1976) - wisely retains Marlowe’s much-loved, hardboiled narration. Mitchum savours every wry put-down and epigrammatic observation, but also conveys Marlowe’s humanity. Ever the knight in tarnished armour, Marlowe’s cynical wisecracks mask his deep-rooted morality and social conscience. Although he swims in the sewer, Marlowe empathises with the downtrodden be they the half-African-American child of doomed jazz musician Tommy Ray (Walter McGinn), or clapped-out showgirl Jessie Halstead Florian (an Oscar nominated Sylvia Miles), with whom he shares a moving musical interlude with both clearly reminiscing about bygone romance.
The film is full of memorable characters, right down to the bit players, with O’Halloran (later the mute Kryptonian baddie in Superman II (1980)) and a scorching Charlotte Rampling (“She was giving me a look I could feel in my hip pocket”) perfectly cast. Typically, within minutes of meeting each other, Marlowe and Helen Grayle are kissing on the couch. Also typical, Marlowe endures being slapped, scratched, drugged and punched by a variety of lowlifes. Lookout for a young Sylvester Stallone as a gun-toting hoodlum who wreaks havoc at the whorehouse run by monstrous madam Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh), and for lovely Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith providing (what else?) full-frontal nudity as her favourite girl.
Mitchum unwisely returned to the role of Philip Marlowe for Michael Winner’s eccentric update of The Big Sleep (1978). More memorably in 1987, as guest host of Saturday Night Live, he played the private eye one last time in the parody sketch “Death Be Not Deadly”. That same episode also included Out of Gas - a short comedy film directed by his daughter Trina Mitchum which reunited the laconic leading man with co-star Jane Greer in a spoof sequel to their noir classic, Out of the Past (1947) a.k.a. Build My Gallows High.