Sunday, December 07, 2014

MARLOWE (1969) - Paul Bogart

Of all the filmed Philip Marlowe incarnations I've seen, this one may be the breeziest. A pre-Rockford Files James Garner (fantastic, R.I.P.) plays the eponymous dick, gliding through crime scenes and dropping more quips than picking up clues. The character's dry humor is foregrounded, everything else (suspense, melodrama) rides backseat. The Long Goodbye had its light moments (practically the first half hour), but there's always a sense of danger in Altman's constantly zooming lens, something to remind you that, though Marlowe has a wisecrack for every situation, these situations are still matters of life and death. In this version of Marlowe, with its TV-friendly framings and obvious production sets, you're not even too worried when Garner goes head to head with Bruce Lee.

This may be a sign of the times or just evidence of lesser directing. Paul Bogart is no Robert Altman. But then Philip Marlowe smack dab in the Age of Aquarius does warrant a lighter touch. As in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe's a walking anachronism here, a '40s throwback that doesn't quite fit. The direction (and Stirling Silliphant's solid script) doesn't quite push it to the breaking point of parody, but there are humorous moments of culture clash, whether it be Garner visiting a hippie drug den in the opening murder scene or being dosed unconscious in a doctor's office with what seems little more than a marijuana cigarette. All in all, it's not a bad take on the material, Marlowe Light as in Marlboro Light, though this Marlowe rarely smokes. Garner's not even much of a boozer here. He takes a few nips from a whiskey bottle in his mini-fridge now and then. That's about it.

And what about those early Bruce Lee scenes? After all, that's the only reason most people remember this film. Like everything else in Marlowe, they're generally played for comedy. As a henchman who comes to shakedown the nosy dick, Lee fumbles out some awkward lines then proceeds to karate chop and high-kick Marlowe's office to shreds as an amused Garner looks on. Later, when the pair run into each other again at a restaurant atop a high building, a hand-to-hand fight begins to brew until Garner impugns Lee's manhood, suggesting that the kung-fu master is "maybe a little too light on his feet." This sends the young Dragon into such a rage that he flying kicks himself right off the edge of the roof. Suggesting Bruce Lee's "a little bit gay is.apparently all it takes. If only the hundreds of other opponents in his later films knew, they could have saved themselves a world of pain.

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