Liam Neeson is back in the atmospheric 1930s-set crime caper "Marlowe," based on the book by John Banville, a screenplay by William Monahan and directed by Neil Jordan (that also stars Colm Meaney).
Talk about an Irish fest - and how refreshing to catch a new movie that reminds us how they used to make them - which "Marlowe" certainly is.
Set in Tinseltown in the 1930s, the story is based on "The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel" by celebrated Irish writer Banville, with a screenplay by award-winning Irish American screenwriter (of "The Departed") Monahan and Jordan himself.
"Marlowe" begins with Irish American heiress Clare Cavendish (“Clare like the county,” she says) who is equal parts ravishing and deadly.
Played by Diane Kruger, it's clear from her first appearance there is far more to her than meets the eye, which world-weary gumshoe Marlowe (played by Neeson) intuits during their first consultation.
Cavendish reveals she has a no-good paramour named Nico Peterson (played by Francois Arnaud) who has gone missing. She'll pay Marlowe handsomely to have him found.
What her real interest in this womanizing, 'evil-incarnate' player really is isn't immediately obvious, but that pulls the audience in, as does Kruger's all-electric screen presence.
Film noir detective flicks have been a Hollywood staple since the days of Humphrey Bogart and in "Marlowe," Neeson is a gumshoe for our own fraught times. Sensitive, smart, and impossible to hoodwink, he plays to his screen strengths in this wisecracking and world-weary role.
Neeson's Marlowe is an Irish immigrant and former World War One soldier in the Royal Irish Rifles. A former LAPD cop who's lost his badge and taken up detective work, he has a reputation for solving the toughest crimes.
As Clare's brilliant but untrustworthy mother, Jessica Lange plays former Hollywood it-girl Dorothy Cavendish, who is as familiar with the works of James Joyce as she is with the dubious machinations of Hollywood.
Lange's character has a toxic competition with her daughter for the attention of her Hollywood producer husband now about to be ambassador to the Court of King James. A former bootlegger who hit the big time, the Kennedy echoes are unmistakable, as is the suspicion of the rough work that undergirds his fortune.
What director Jordan delivers is a hugely atmospheric and stylish period drama that pulls you in from the first frame. The skillful use of computer animation to bring to life 30's Hollywood boulevards, the neons and billboards and passing motors, gives this film an authenticity that evokes its era artfully.
But it's Neeson's performance as a hardbitten detective that makes the film sing. He knows he's getting too old for the kind of rough and tumble the job often demands but without his badge and pension what choice does he have?
The scenes where he takes on the tough guys are convincing and often surprisingly funny. After he knocks one guy out he picks up a chair and shrugs “f—k it,” then breaks it over his back to keep him out cold. This kind of lived-in character note brings his "Marlowe" to life and makes you root for his good guy in a bad world persona.
The plot of the film has other plots concealed within its lines, of course. It turns out that the pronounced dead Nico Peterson is still very much alive, as Clare Cavendish suspects, and that the spider's web of intrigue only builds from there.
Crime has always been the dark underside of the American Dream and this film takes a deep dive into the compromised lives and actions that support it. No one is a piece of virtue, but almost no one is entirely composed of, as Alan Cumming's entertaining character Lou Hendricks calls it, “tarantulas.”
Instead, this L.A. is a fallen Eden, a place where innocence and promise curdle faster than milk in the sun and where wisecracking cops like Bernie Ohls (played by Colm Meaney) and Joe Green (played by Ian Hart) have had a belly full of seeing enough.
Jordan keeps things loose and funny – as well as unsettling - as the film unspools, focusing on the palm trees and all the neon-lit glory but reminding us how Tinsel town got made. “Why this is hell nor am I out of it,” says the wily ambassador, quoting Doctor Faustus, as Marlowe circles the dark web of deceit and murder that has helped build his empire.
For all its dark themes, the film is an unexpected romp. Yes, it's assembled some of the most compromised and compromising people you will ever encounter, but there are exchanges between them that light up the screen.
When Marlowe grills country club impresario Floyd Hanson (played by Danny Huston, who is the image of his famous father, Irish American director John Huston) he says it must have been hard for him to witness Peterson’s mutilated body lying in the road. But Hanson replies, “I’ve seen men in more disarray than that in which Mr. Petersen was discovered,” adding that he’s a World War One veteran like Marlowe and says, “Once, after an artillery strike, I found a friend’s tooth in my whiskey glass. I drank the whiskey.”
“You're a terrible man,” says Marlowe. “I needed the whiskey,” Hanson replies. This is the kind of noir-ish dialogue that we pay the money for and Monahan doesn't disappoint.
It's good to see Colm Meaney and Neeson mix it up onscreen again and they are well-met as two seen it all cops who stand on either side of the law but work together. As Bernie Ohls, Meaney quietly looks out for his former college and reminds us of the danger Marlowe puts himself in for a paycheck.
The story changes track multiple times as Marlowe progresses but it's clear at all times who the most dangerous protagonists are. Some might grouse that the big reveal is undercut by the secondary characters, but that's to miss the point here. The lines that aren't ever crossed belong to the quietly un-buyable Irish detective, the one good man in an ocean of the unjust.
“You're a long way from Tipperary,” Marlowe says as he watches Dorothy Cavendish move through her unhappy world of great wealth and privilege. It's a funny line but it's also a reminder that Marlowe is very far from Ireland now himself, and the two Irish immigrants have taken very different and contrasting paths that tell the story in miniature.
The roles you play offscreen are as important as the ones you play on, "Marlowe" reminds us. So be careful not to get typecast or worse do it to yourself. In this film, the masks that people wear become their prisons. Only Marlowe himself emerges free in the end.
"Marlowe" is in theaters now.