Directed By: Neil Jordan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, Diane Kruger
Plot Summary: Marlowe, a gripping noir crime thriller set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, centers around a street-wise, down on his luck detective; Philip Marlowe, played by Liam Neeson, who is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress (Diane Kruger), daughter of a well-known movie star (Jessica Lange). The disappearance unearths a web of lies, and soon Marlowe is involved in a dangerous, deadly investigation where everyone involved has something to hide.
Raymond Chandler created private eye Philip Marlowe in the early ‘30s. By doing so, he birthed what would be among the most iconic fictional crime solvers, but unlike Holmes or Hercule Poirot, there is something decidedly American about Chandler’s creation. When most people think of a typical noir private eye, donning a trench coat with a certain world weariness, they are most likely thinking of Marlowe, more specifically, one of the more famous film adaptations, The Big Sleep. Over the years, many actors, including Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, and Elliott Gould, would play the iconic character in films. Each actor brought something completely different and interesting to the role and effectively added to the myth and inner workings of the detective that goes far beyond Chandler’s written words.
Being very familiar with Marlowe and both his fictional adventures and on-screen depictions, I wanted to give the new film, Marlowe, a fair shake. After all, on paper at least, Liam Neeson is an interesting choice to take up the mantle. The actor certainly has the look and even presence for the role. However, with such big shoes to fill, Neeson does an embarrassing job as the titular private eye.
Marlowe isn’t so much a bad film, as it is a disrespectful one. It’s baffling because it seems as though there were some attempts at crafting a solid noir, at least from a world building standpoint. Although, credit should be given to the art department, production, and costume designers for making everything feel authentic and lived in. Sadly, while the world may have felt complete, it is wasted on a bland outing.
The biggest issue with Marlowe is that its mystery is not very engaging. At nearly two hours, the movie is a rather dull affair. Say what you will about recent big swings like Babylon and Elvis, but be damned if they aren’t entertaining spectacles. Marlowe also gets some very basic level Hollywood details wrong. For example, Marlowe interviews an actress between filming a gangster film (which weren’t really popular anymore in the later ‘30s), all while she wears this goofy looking gory eye effect. Not only is this distracting as hell, but film buffs will know that realistically, the Hays Code would not allow such an effect to be shown. This seems minor, but it’s sloppy things like this that are needless and only take the audience out of the moment.
The haphazardly thrown together mystery isn’t helped by the performances in the film. Frankly, Neeson completely misses the mark as the famed detective. There is something to be said about wanting to downplay Marlowe. Yet, the once serious Oscar nominated actor turned action star, utterly sleepwalks through his scenes. The only time Neeson seems to activate is when he is fighting goons like he’s in one of the Taken movies instead of a ‘30s noir thriller. Even heavy hitters like Diane Kruger and Jessica Lange only seem to be in this for the paycheck. You can’t totally blame the actors, given the dialogue they had to work with.
It’s strange to remember that Neeson was once in movies like Schindler’s List, and Neil Jordan was a highly sought after director who ironically made the excellent neo-noir, Mona Lisa. If you hear a sort of grinding sound, it may just be poor Raymond Chandler spinning in his grave. While the film is nicely shot and has a stellar production design, its plodding mystery and lackluster acting make it feel hollow. The only really mystery here is why anyone even bothered.
Marlowe is currently playing in theaters courtesy of Open Road Films.
While the film is nicely shot and has a stellar production design, its plodding mystery and lackluster acting make it feel hollow.
Big film nerd and TCM Obsessed. Author of The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema from Schiffer Publishing. Resume includes: AMC’s The Bite, Scream Magazine etc. Love all kinds of movies and television and have interviewed a wide range of actors, writers, producers and directors. I currently am a regular co-host on the podcast The Humanoids from the Deep Dive and have a second book in the works from Bear Manor.