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DVD Review: Marlowe

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Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe receives a makeover courtesy of TV director Paul Bogart and Oscar-winning writer Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, Charly) in Marlowe. Although James Garner might seem miscast as the hard-boiled detective to some folks, Garner’s cynical portrayal of Marlowe reminds us that Marlowe is a distant cousin of Jim Rockford and Maverick, two of Garner’s most popular TV characters.

Featuring a top-notch supporting cast including Carroll O’Connor, Bruce Lee, William Daniels, Rita Moreno, and Gayle Hunnicutt, Marlowe finds the detective trying to tie together two very different cases that seem to overlap in peculiar ways. Hired by Orfamay Quest (Sharron Farrell) to find her missing brother (Roger Newman), Marlowe finds, instead, two murder victims with ice picks driven into the back of their necks, a hallmark of gangster Sonny Steelgrave (H. M. Wynant). When Marlowe discovers that Steelgrave’s girlfriend (Hunnitcutt), a model, paid a visit to the last victim (Jackie Coogan) prior to his killing, he begins to piece together an unlikely and strange conspiracy.

Made in 1969, Marlowe has all the hallmarks of a 1960s film, from the polyester suits to the counterculture. Silliphant’s attempt to bring Marlowe into the late ’60s is largely successful and that’s due primarily to Garner’s deft, cynical portrayal of the detective, which although it lacks the harder edge of Chandler’s creation largely reflects the noir roots of the character. Made as MGM was struggling and on the verge of financial ruin, the film is dated but still manages to be entertaining due to the top-notch cast and their performances which prevent the film from being strictly of its time. In some ways that very dated quality adds to the charm of the film much as a ’40s film appeared dated to audiences of the ’70s.

Marlowe would be one of Garner’s last movies before returning to television in the cult classic TV series Nichols. After the stinging failure of Nichols (which, pardon the pun, garnered enough critical recognition and audience support to almost be renewed), Garner briefly returned to theaters with another MGM project, They Only Kill Their Masters, and the little-seen films One Little Indian and Castaway Cowboy before triumphantly returning to TV with his critically acclaimed series The Rockford Files.

Warner Archive, which acquired the film in the Turner buyout, does a nice job of presenting this vintage minor classic. Although there are plenty of white speckles and quite a bit of dirt visible during the main titles (due to the use of an optical printer to create the titles and a permanent part of the image), the image quality improves dramatically within a few minutes of the film’s beginning.

The main menu for the film is static with a marquee featuring the title. Chapter selections are available, a nice perk for a release like this, and Warner does a very good job of placing the chapter stops throughout the film.

The overall presentation appears a bit soft at times, which isn’t surprising given that this is a 40-year-old film and there hasn’t been any attempt at restoration for this presentation. Nevertheless, Marlowe looks quite nice given its age, and the detail looks solid enough in most scenes.

Although the colors don’t exactly pop they are fairly true to what a vintage film would have looked like shot around the time of the introduction of faster, grainier film stocks. Marlowe has a nice layer of grain which is fairly typical of a late ’60s/early ’70s film. Skin tones look nice throughout. I can only imagine what the film would have looked like if Warner had not released this as part of their Archive series. Typically films do not undergo a digital restoration as part of Warner Archive as the films are seen as having too limited an appeal, although they do get the best transfer possible from the best existing elements. It’s evident that Warner gave Marlowe quite a bit of TLC to make sure that it looked its best even if it didn’t warrant the digital facelift that other films from the same era are receiving for DVD and Blu-ray.

The audio sounds quite nice. The mono soundtrack is quite clear with little to no additional compression added to the audio track, and dialogue remains crystal clear.

The one flaw that I often find with the Warner Archive presentations is the lack of subtitles in English. Many of these films are geared towards film collectors and an older audience that fondly remembers many of these minor cult classics. It would behoove Warner, considering the price often charged for these titles, to add subtitles to each of their Archive releases.

Special Features

The only extra that we get is the original theatrical trailer, and if you wonder how bad the film could look and how much care went into making sure this transfer looked as handsome as possible, take a look at the trailer which, by comparison, is worn and washed-out looking. Since the options for the trailer were somewhat limited you can imagine that Warner auditioned a number of prints of the film to come up with the combination that showed the film off to its best advantage.

Final Words

Although Marlowe doesn’t measure up to the best films that Garner made in the 1960s (The Great Escape, Support Your Local Sheriff!, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Hour of the Gun, and the anti-war classic The Americanization of Emily), the film more than holds its own when compared to some of the other films that Garner made at the time. His performance is as always top-notch and involving, with the wry, self-depreciating, and cynical sense of humor that make many of the characters he played almost like anti-heroes.

Warner Archive does a very good job of presenting this vintage film. Marlowe hasn’t looked this good since it was released in the 1960s and could only be improved upon with a digital facelift to eliminate the various blemishes typical of a film from this era.

Marlowe is recommended especially for fans of Garner’s The Rockford Files.

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  • Suzanne Moore

    Thank you for a thoughtful and all round excellent discussion of “Marlowe.” I saw the film when it was first released and enjoyed it very much. It is indeed a “preview” of “Rockford Files.”