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Marlowe (2023): Lost in Translation

Jordan is a competent director and Neeson a great actor, but Marlowe had a contextual mountain to climb and sadly just does not get there.

Marlowe (2023), Madman Entertainment.

“As honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style.”
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Neil Jordan’s modern retelling of the classic noir detective Phillip Marlowe has big shoes to fill. We have already had some incredible adaptations of Chandler’s original from the classic Bogart film The Big Sleep (1946), all the way to a modern-day Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). While its production value makes it nostalgic and charming at points, Marlowe (2023) never lives up to its peers — it may be that a good noir film is just hard to make in the 21st century. 

The bright colour palette and surrealist scenes make it difficult for the film to effectively mimic the gritty noir atmosphere often essential for the audience to be drawn into the murder mystery. At points, the film feels more like Knives Out, trying to be a parody of the whodunit genre rather than a serious entry. Shots of Marlowe casually playing chess or drinking whisky with a brooding expression come off as tacky. 

However, by not committing fully to parody, the film loses its chance to have wide appeal. Characters use anti-Latino slurs common to the late 1930s, as the director attempts to explore the very complex relationship Los Angeles and its population have to Mexico. The rise of immigration over the border prompted a wave of race riots and xenophobic attacks across the 30s and 40s. In my view, this dark side of the script is necessary for a genuine period piece to work but for that confronting and uncomfortable reaction to make any sense it cannot be inconsistent. Anyone who wants to read a text that leans into the setting better should look at James Ellroy’s LA Quartet series. 

The casting choices are also suspect. While initially Liam Neeson might seem like a good star with his background in action films and his genuine, intimidating stage presence, he is missing the most important aspect of a good noir protagonist — an internal struggle. Bogart was not great because he was imposing, he was great because he was soft, sentimental, and, to a certain extent, broken. Neeson has all the physical markers of this archetype, he lives alone and lives for his work, but his acting presence is too chiselled and stable to stick the landing. No matter how much the script tries to force it on Neeson — with one character even telling Marlowe in the film “You’re very perceptive and sensitive…” — the audience never quite sees Neeson’s interior and whatever pain it may hold.  

Finally, the pacing of the film often feels too fast. The noir genre relies on a slow burn. The plots of Chandler’s novels are so excellent because they are slow enough that the tension from each page comes from the interactions of characters, not always the mystery itself. Jordan often seems too focused on getting through a complex plot instead. 

Guy Lodge summed up the movie’s lack of focus on character and internal nuance well when he wrote in his review for Variety that it was “Less a Big Sleep than a Major Snooze”. Jordan is a competent director and Neeson a great actor, but Marlowe had a contextual mountain to climb and sadly just does not get there. 

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