In Neil Jordan’s stylish retro-noir Marlowe, set in 1939, Liam Neeson portrays Raymond Chandler’s legendary Philip Marlowe as a weary old gumshoe who can still batter or trick his way out of perilous situations without breaking a sweat. So why is he the most anxious Marlowe yet?
Look no further than Mrs. Clare Cavendish, the creamy-complexioned upper-class client whose breathy undertone and apparent availability play havoc with Marlowe’s composure, so intent is he on chastely maintaining his integrity. Played to faux-ladylike perfection by Diane Kruger, Clare is less icy and potentially more fiery than most Hitchcock blondes. Or is it all an act? Marlowe doesn’t do his due diligence when he agrees to find Clare’s missing lover.
Marlowe is based on The Black-Eyed Blonde, a 2014 novel written by John Banville’s hard-boiled alter ego, Benjamin Black. Sanctioned by the Chandler estate, the book “fluidly and easily approximates” Chandler’s voice, Jordan, 72, tells me, and “the murk of L.A. that Marlowe, with his huge intelligence and soul, keeps having to descend into.”
Mysterious, Manipulative … Modernist
Kruger was born 46 years ago in Algermissen, a West German village where “we didn’t have a movie theater,” she says in a Zoom call from Paris. She admits to being a neophyte in the Chandlerverse.
Her notion of the femme fatale is derived from the Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef films she used to watch on TV with her grandmother after school. Classic American film noir’s deadly women “feel like they’re so different from me or what a modern woman is today, right?,” Kruger says. “They were mysterious and manipulative, so I thought it was interesting that Marlowe should have a slight modernist, feminist twist.”
Kruger is referring to Clare’s capacity for coming out on top, despite being an “unstable” woman stunted by her pernicious relationship with her mother, Dorothy, a wealthy former silent-movie star played by Jessica Lange, who used to pass off Clare as her sister. The two are locked in a sexual rivalry that involves Dorothy’s former lover “the Ambassador,” their affair clearly inspired by Gloria Swanson and Joseph Kennedy.
In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) suppressed his desire for Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor)—a dame as seductive, deadly, and Irish as Clare—to have her put away for murdering his partner. Marlowe’s lenient attitude to a similar crime committed by Clare would probably please the feminist film critics of the 1970s who first championed the femme fatale’s “agency.”
Asked how she judges Clare’s cold-bloodedness, Kruger says, “Do we have to play a morally correct character every time? I don’t think so. You could argue that it’s just as morally incorrect for Marlowe to let me get away with it. I mean, we’re not trying to make a political statement—it’s just a movie.”
Jordan offers a romantic reason for Marlowe’s moral incorrectness. “At the start of the movie, he’s looking out the window at a woman typing across the way that was very important to Liam as he was playing the part, because Marlowe has a memory of a lost love.” A phantom materializing in his office, Clare stirs that memory even more. Marlowe’s so blinded, she “plays” him effortlessly.
As if to emphasize Marlowe’s sentimental side, Jordan mentions that his wife, Brenda Rawn, played the typist, and he hints that the shot of her recalled for him the women in Edward Hopper’s noir-tinged paintings. Whether Marlowe’s got a lonely typist or a Clare Cavendish in his sight line, he’s a man forever fated to murmur, “Farewell, my lovely.”
Marlowe is in theaters now
Graham Fuller is a New York–based film critic