Wednesday, October 11, 2017

NYFF ’17: Farewell, My Lovely

It is hard to believe, but Robert Mitchum was the only actor to play Philip Marlowe in more than one feature film. Even Humphrey Bogart was one-and-done after The Big Sleep (he was Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon). Chandler fans prefer to forget Mitchum’s second outing in a modern day Big Sleep remake, but his debut as Raymond Chandler’s classic gumshoe is justly considered one of the best. Fittingly, Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely screens as part of the Robert Mitchum retrospective during the 55th New York Film Festival.

Some perhaps thought Mitchum was too old for the part in 1975, but this is also an older, more reflective Marlowe. After years of working cases for twenty-five dollars a day, plus expenses, Marlowe finds himself aging out of a profession that provides plenty of enemies but no health insurance. Currently, he is laying low in a flea bag motel, trying to avoid both the cops and the bad guys. His latest case has taken a particularly nasty turn, as we shall see, in media res.

By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy, an ex-con fresh out of the joint, to find his missing lover, Velma. It is hard to say no to anyone named Moose. As Marlowe starts to follow leads on Velma, he initially gets the runaround and then people start trying to kill him. Apparently, they want to kill Moose too, but he lays low even better than Marlowe. When in doubt, Marlowe and everyone else he crosses paths with swill gallons of booze. Seriously, this could almost be Hong Sang-soo’s Marlowe movie. Frankly, as in most great Chandler movies, the plot details are a little hazy, but the noir atmosphere and 1940s period production details are to die for.

John A. Alonzo’s moody color cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, in a nostalgic, back alley kind of way. Yet, David Shire (still probably best known for his funky Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 theme) does him one better, with a dreamily bluesy crime jazz score. Featuring jazz musicians who were totally comfortable in a studio session, such as Dick Nash, Ronnie Lang, Chuck Findley, Cappy Lewis, and Larry Bunker, the soundtrack album stood on its surprisingly well (take it from me).

Of course, it is Mitchum who utterly dominates the film as a haggard, world-weary Marlowe in a performance of seemingly effortless perfection. There have been other good Marlowes (Powers Boothe was the man when it came to television), but Mitchum was the only one who could hang with Bogart.

Yet, Farewell is fully stocked with colorful supporting turns, including a wonderfully vampy Charlotte Rampling as femme fatale Helen Grayle. Former boxer Jack O’Halloran (one of the three super villains in Superman II) is absolutely terrific as Malloy, the lovestruck tough guy. Criminally underappreciated John Ireland is rock solid as the honest copper, Lt. Nulty, while Harry Dean Stanton plays the brazenly corrupt Det. Rolfe with understated menace. In terms of historical footnotes, Farewell features a young Sylvester Stallone as a henchman, crime novelist Jim Thompson in his only movie cameo as Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle, and Jerry Bruckheimer receiving his first full producer credit behind-the-scenes.

David Zelag Goodman’s adapted screenplay has an end-of-an-era vibe, poignantly heightened by the pleasure Marlowe takes throughout the film following Joe DiMaggio’s famous pursuit of the consecutive-game hitting streak record, which baseball fans know will end in frustration. Again, it is Mitchum’s narration that makes it work so well. This is simply a classic P.I. film and a representative high-point in Mitchum’s filmography. Very highly recommended, Farewell, My Lovely screens this Saturday (10/14) as part of the 2017 New York Film Festival.