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Film Review: “Marlowe” Breathes Color into Neo-Noir”

Written by: Heidi Shepler | February 16th, 2023

Film poster: “Marlowe”

Marlowe (Neil Jordan, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.

The most famous incarnation of the character Philip Marlowe—hard-boiled, philosophical, femme-fatale-immune detective—is in Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep. Neil Jordan’s new film Marlowe is an adaptation of Benjamin Black’s 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. It features an older, more mature Philip Marlowe, here played by Liam Neeson (The Ice Road).

The film opens true to genre, with a beautiful, mysterious woman entering the private eye’s office. She asks for help but is evasive with the details. Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger, In the Fade) is an heiress married to a possessive idiot, and her lover is missing. She’s willing to answer Marlowe’s questions about her relationship with Nico (François Arnaud, She’s in Portland) but slams the breaks any time the conversation turns toward her mother, retired actress Dorothy (Jessica Lange, Wild Oats).

Liam Neeson in MARLOWE ©Open Road Films

The plot also is also in keeping with classic noir thrillers: it twists and turns like the perilous roads above Los Angeles. Layer after layer of blackmail, prostitution, and drug-running are uncovered. The betrayals are many, and Marlowe’s friends are few. Neeson’s performance as Marlowe is subtler than the genre usually allows; he leans into the sensitivity and empathy of the character, without sacrificing Marlowe’s courage, integrity, and occasional righteous indignation. This is a difficult needle to thread, but Neeson pulls it off beautifully. Marlowe is better than (almost) everyone around him not because he is smarter or stronger, but because he genuinely cares about people.

The supporting cast are also a joy to watch. Alan Cumming (After Louie) is fantastic as Lou Hendricks, the smarmy drug dealer whose lofty southern accent does nothing to hide his total disregard for human life. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Wetlands) plays Cedric, Hendricks’ driver, whom Marlowe wisely befriends, and who is the only character besides Clare that actually understands the big picture. Danny Huston (Wonder Woman) plays Floyd Hanson, the manager of an exclusive club whose veneer of refinement masks brutal violence.

Diane Kruger in MARLOWE ©Open Road Films

But the real red meat of the film is in the relationships between Marlowe and Clare, Marlowe and Dorothy, and the mother-daughter dynamic between Dorothy and Clare. Despite how large their characters loom, Lange and Kruger both feel underused. This is the only area in which the film suffers in updating the noir genre. Clare is stilted, playing unimaginatively to type when she croons at Marlowe to ‘call her Cavendish, without the Mrs.’ while Marlowe looks at her as though spiritually exhausted. By contrast, her last scene in the film is fascinating and effortless, because we finally understand her motivations. Lange is impressive as the aging actress who has been dangerously underestimated her entire life, but she’s not given much to do apart from being an irritant to Clare.

Marlowe is visually lush, with all the superficial beauty and subconscious ugliness one could wish for in a noir film. Likewise, while not always perfect, there are plenty of witticisms and clever turns of phrase, especially from Alan Cumming and Danny Huston. In these and other ways, the film is a worthy addition to the tradition of Philip Marlowe.

Alan Cumming in MARLOWE ©Open Road Films

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