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Review: Marlowe (2023)

Marlowe (2023)

Directed by: Neil Jordan

Premise: Based on the book The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville. Private detective Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson) is hired by an heiress (Diane Kruger) to investigate the disappearance of her lover.

What Works: Philip Marlowe is a private investigator created by Raymond Chandler. The character was a fixture of hardboiled detective fiction published in the 1930s and Marlowe appeared in stories by other writers, among them John Banville’s 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde (published under the nom de plume Benjamin Black) which was the basis for the 2023 movie Marlowe. This picture is set in 1930s Los Angeles and it captures the era well. The set design and costumes look of their era and the world of the film has a grimy, backroom feel. The peak of Hollywood’s film noir boom occurred during the Production Code era which prevented those films from getting too deep into the moral ambiguity and decadence of the subject matter. Marlowe incorporates those qualities and does so in a way that gives the film some credibility and organic texture but without coming across exploitative. The other outstanding quality of film noir was its droll dialogue and Marlowe has quite a bit of that. The script was cowritten by William Monahan, who wrote The Departed, and the dialogue possesses wit and a mordent sense of humor. Liam Neeson is cast in the title role and it’s a good fit for the actor. Neeson has the physicality required for the part but Neeson also projects intelligence and weariness that gives the character a sense of history and experience. Also notable are Alan Cumming as a shady nightclub owner and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as his right-hand man. Cumming gets some great dialogue and Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character emerges as an ally of Marlowe as they recognize the corruption around them.

What Doesn’t: Movies of this sort create tension by offering an involving mystery. That’s the weakest element of Marlowe. The conflicts barely escalate and the stakes of the story are low, in part because everyone is terrible, including the missing person. There is no wrong being righted or innocence being avenged. That moral ambiguity is a regular part of film noir but the mystery itself is not very compelling. The picture also suffers from a few too many characters. A lot of people get just two or three scenes and they don’t have the space to become interesting characters or participate meaningfully in the action. Marlowe is also lacking in visual style. The fight scenes aren’t very exciting and a lot of the movie is shot with an ugly yellow tint.

Disc extras: None.

Bottom Line: Marlowe creates an interesting enough world for its characters to occupy and the filmmakers have a feel for this genre. The story world isn’t populated with characters or conflicts that are very compelling. If this is to be the first entry in a series it could lead somewhere interesting. The elements are in place, it just needs a better story.  

Episode: #962 (August 27, 2023)