Beginning, as most noir stories do, in a detective’s office. In enters the striking heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), seeking to hire the famed private investigator Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson) to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). These familiar beats are established efficiently and with a breeze of frictionless storytelling that makes for pleasant viewing to begin a film, but makes for a shaky foundation to build a twisty detective caper. Based not on Raymond Chandler’s series of novels, but the 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville, the film feels notably modern while inside the familiar world of the famed detective, making for a unique watch.
Marlowe (2023) has the presentation early on of a Sunday matinee theatre film, which makes the sudden shift with a quite gnarly sequence in its first act even more jarring. It destabilises the film, which could be an interesting choice to move the audience into an unexpected place, but these two styles run on parallel tracks throughout the film. L.A. noir stories are often about the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood system, so these juxtaposed styles could reinforce that concept, but in Marlowe they lessen the impact of each other completely.
The performances are solid all round, especially in the smaller side characters headlined by Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming, but is let down by a lacking lead performance by Neeson, who is still within his post-Taken mode that feels out of place for a Marlowe role. While Robert Mitchum’s performance of Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) was hard-nosed and rough as sandpaper, there was still the famed character’s wisecracking and philosophising that made him beloved. Whether these changes have been ground down with this much older Marlowe is unclear, as the film focuses on addressing his age physically, not emotionally or mentally. It’s difficult to separate the previous Marlowe performances here, but it’s those changes that flatten the film as a whole.
A causal change with this flat Neeson performance is the lack of chemistry he has with Diane Kruger, which should be the igniting spark for the whole film. An underwritten femme fatale part is a staple in the noir genre, usually buoyed by the filmmaking and dynamic chemistry with the detective, neither of which are serviced to Kruger, who should be the standout element of the film.
Philip Marlowe has always been a compelling literary and screen character throughout the years due to his iron moral backbone being constantly put up against the rapidly shifting immorality of old Hollywood. This is shown in flashes in Marlowe – it will never grow tiring to see the villain attempt to bribe the unflappable detective – but the portrayal here is focused on Marlowe’s desire to either retire or return to the police force for a more stable life. While unique for a screen portrayal of the character through its source material, this forces the film into a thematically inert corner that does not make for engaging cinema.
The film’s strange mixture of modern sensibilities (graphic violence, modern dialogue, handheld camerawork) inside of a period setting makes it a fascinating but not always engaging watch. The final act devolves into a strangely modern action spectacle – equipped even with the neon-drenched scenery – that has a stronger connection to last year’s Neeson action film Memory (2022) than The Big Sleep (1946). In theory this could all work as a form of adaptation of old Hollywood noir tropes through a modern lens, but in practice Marlowe ends up a mess of contradictions that complicates what began as a charming enough Summer noir for older audiences.
Marlowe is in select theatres now.