Like a Quality Violin, Philip Marlowe Gets Better with Age

This was written during the second semester of my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins University for Hard Boiled Fiction and Film Noir with Dr. John Irwin.

Carlos Macasaet
Dr. John Irwin
9 April 2003

Like a Quality Violin, Philip Marlowe Gets Better with Age

The years 1967 – 1976 witnessed the rise of a neo-modernist movement in American film. The films depicted confused characters wandering aimlessly through situations beyond their comprehension and control. They were self-reflexive and analysed the relationship between representation and reality. This ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ in turn witnessed a resurrection of film noir. (Spicer 130-133) Following the creation of two other retellings of hard-boiled detective fiction, The Long Goodbye in 1973 and Chinatown in 1974, writer David Zelag Goodman and director Dick Richards collaborated in 1975 to tell the story of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940). Although the film is set in the same 1940’s America as the novel, it differs from other film adaptations of hard-boiled detective fiction. The classic antecedent films noirs to Farewell, My Lovely such as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of the same novel, Murder, My Sweet, focus on the ethical paths the protagonists chose and the moral decisions they face while unravelling mysteries in a seedy and corrupt world. However, Farewell, My Lovely goes beyond testing Marlowe’s mettle in a morally ambiguous environment. It tells the story of a man searching for meaning in a dynamic world where the only constant is death.

The film opens with a sleazy saxophone theme that recurs throughout the movie. Images of the night city follow in which the background is completely black and the only illumination is from bright neon lights. Although shot in colour, the images seem as if they may have been shot in black and white then coloured during printing.

This sequence, reminiscent of the film noir tradition, establishes the noir city in which crime and corruption are commonplace. It also prepares us for a film that makes no effort to cover up the gory full-colour details of 1940’s desperation and corruption with the romantic veneer sometimes accomplished, intentionally or not, with black-and-white film stock. Although it was shot in colour, Farewell, My Lovely achieves very dark undertones. Many scenes take place at night or indoors with every shot illuminated artificially producing the same chiaroscuro effect as their black-and-white predecessors. The scenes that take place during the day are often equally noir as they show the biting reality unmasked by hard-boiled iconography. In addition, filming Farewell, My Lovely in colour emphasises in a new way, a world in which moral decisions are not simply black and white.

Marlowe opens with the line: “this past spring was the first that I felt tired and realised I was getting old. Maybe it was the rotten weather or the rotten cases I’ve been getting lately – chasing after women’s husbands then chasing after the women to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am getting tired and growing old.” This establishes for the viewer a Philip Marlowe that is very different from the one in The Big Sleep. Robert Mitchum, 58 years old at the time the film was made, portrays a Philip Marlowe making the transition from middle to old age. This is the final chapter in the story of Philip Marlowe: Private Detective.

Throughout the film, Marlowe makes comments alluding to or explicitly referencing aging and his tiring. “Thanks Nulty, but that’s not what I need right now. I need another drink. I need a vacation, a house in the country. Everything I touch turns to shit. I’ve got a hat, a coat and a gun and that’s it.” However, it image of a tiring and aging Marlowe is best illustrated through the narrative he provides to the viewer as well as Detective Nulty. He speaks with an air of lethargy – like a man who has been through so much and must now go to lengths to explain it all. He delivers hard-boiled lines from the Chandler novel laconically and nonchalantly. In this way, he portrays a Marlowe who is more mature and who has gone through the trials of life and is now living to tell of them. He is smooth talking but not as suave as Bogart’s Marlowe of The Big Sleep. However, occasionally, he speaks with a melancholy spirit reminiscent of the old days.

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe was driven by the idea that the rules of chivalry might still have meaning. It was his holy grail and he was like Don Quixote. In Farewell, My Lovely, after Judge Grayle catches Marlowe kissing his wife, Helen says to him, “My, you’re old-fashioned, aren’t you?” Marlowe responds, “only from the waist up.” Philip Marlowe has grown intellectually from the time of his life in which The Big Sleep takes place. His narration bares the ideologies of a more chivalric time, but Marlowe himself has become disenchanted by the Los Angeles he has had to fit into. By now, his chivalric code for self-conduct has broken down and the tiring old man searches for new meaning in his life.

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe struggled to justify his way of life in the context of a corrupt world. In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe struggles to find meaning in a world where nothing is constant and where he is always questioning people’s motives.

After Moose Malloy sets the plot in motion with the first murder, Nulty asks Marlowe to have Moose contact him to sign a deposition. Later, he is told to lay off of the case, however, Nulty persists to question him about Moose’s whereabouts. He later learns that other people he had encountered were just using him to find Malloy. Helen Grayle contracts Marriott and Jessie Florian to surreptitiously determine Malloy’s location through Marlowe. She also employs the services of Frances Amthor and Laird Brunette who use more direct methods of convincing Marlowe to find Malloy. Helen Grayle herself does not ask Marlowe to find Moose. Instead, she puts up an act for him to prevent him from learning of her past and to get him on her side. In the end, the only person involved that Marlowe can really trust was Moose Malloy. Although he is self-centred and non-sympathetic, his intentions are clear – he just wants to find Velma. Malloy made no attempt to hide anything from Marlowe except for his whereabouts.

In the film, Richards uses two mechanisms to inform the viewer of the distrustful nature of the film’s setting. These are the portrayal of certain characters as being out of their time and the use of faulty narration.

Like Chinatown, which was released a year prior, Farewell, My Lovely paid much attention to the period detail. However, when Lindsay Marriott appears for the first time, Marlowe is struck by the scent he is wearing. His description of the scent seems to imply at first that the man goes to great lengths to make himself presentable – much like Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon. However, the viewer cannot help but wonder if the person Marlowe is describing is the same as the one on the screen. The suit that the Marriott on the screen wears is wrinkled, unlike the well-dressed Joel Cairo. The most striking feature, however, is the way in which his shirt collar folds over his jacket. It resembles a 1970s leisure suit more than a 1940’s period costume. Marriott further brings attention to the fact that he is out of place during his conversation with Marlowe. He perspires and fidgets with the things on the desk. While this does serve to illustrate the false pretences of his visit, it also makes one wonder if an actor for a contemporary film suddenly replaced the actor trained in 1940’s period acting set to play Marriott.

The other character that is out of her time is Helen Grayle. Many fans of film noir comment that Charlotte Rampling, who played Helen, is not as pretty and does not move with the same poise and grace as a traditional femme fatale like Lauren Bacall. This is because she has the mannerisms of a 1970s woman. Contrary to the feigned innocence in the gait of traditional femmes fatales, Charlotte Rampling walks confidently and with seduction foremost in her mind. In seducing Marlowe, she makes no attempt to hide her intentions. She drinks like a man. Finally, the way she wears the jade necklace with her red dress seems more contemporary than period 1940s.

On a side note, this characterisation of Helen Grayle suits the role very well. Charlotte Rampling might not be as pretty as the other femmes fatales, but she is more seductive in her banality. Velma Valento was a “whore from Amthor’s”. She was not brought up in a rich family to be a lady like the Sternwood daughters of The Big Sleep or like Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity.

By showing these characters who come from the contemporary period as opposed to the 1940s in which the film is set, Richards sends a warning to the viewer – as if to say that this film is not to be trusted. Like Marlowe, the viewer begins to question things as they are presented to him or her.
As in the novel, Farewell, My Lovely, is told by Philip Marlowe in the first person through the use of flashback. This helps to establish mystery. With the opening line, Marlowe addresses the viewer. Then he makes a call to Nulty and when Nulty comes over, the viewer hears the narration as it is told to Nulty. The commissioner had told Nulty to bring Marlowe in and so when Marlowe addresses Nulty, the viewer is put on guard. Marlowe is not necessarily inclined to tell the facts as they were to this police officer. In addition, it has already been established that this story is being told by a man who is approaching old age and tiring. His mind is likely more focused on what will happen after his narration of the events. All we have is Philip Marlowe to attest to the veracity of the story he is telling.

There are faults in Marlowe’s story that should cause one to doubt his claims. One is in the way Marlowe describes Moose Malloy. The Moose that the viewers see is a dumb oaf. This is likely how Marlowe thought of him. However, Moose was likely much smarter than Marlowe made him seem. After all, Moose was able to elude Marlowe, the police and Brunette’s people the whole time. Another fault in the narration appears in the way the hotel clerk at the Crescent Hotel is portrayed. The actor seems to be overacting. This is similar to the way Chandler spells out the way the clerk pronounces his words in the novel. It gives the viewer a glimpse of the way Marlowe remembers the event. One last fault in the story occurs when Sylvester Stallone’s character shoots Frances Amthor. Marlowe was drugged at the time and ready to collapse, so his memory cannot be trusted entirely. Indeed, the thug would have never shot Amthor from that angle because she was right in front of Doris. Doing so would have killed Doris as well. These faults in the storytelling only confirm a lack of faith in an accurate portrayal of the events. Richards uses this fact to signal to the viewers that reporting of facts can turn out to be subjective. However, the viewers must trust Marlowe because his testimony is the only one available.

In the film, Marlowe constantly finds himself misplacing his trust and the consequence is always an attempt on his life or some other attempt to harm him. On top of this is an atmosphere of crisis introduced in the film when Georgie reads the headlines regarding Hitler’s advances in Europe. This atmosphere is then brought to the foreground at the end of the film when Marlowe reads the headline that says “Tokyo”. In the same scene, a sailor and his girlfriend are seen cherishing their moments together before the sailor has to ship out – mirroring the scene at the beginning of the film when the 15-year-old girl that Marlowe fetches is dancing with a sailor. It is as if even if one could avoid misplacing trust, there is still the feeling of impending doom while the United States prepares to go to war.

Marlowe’s distraction from this world is baseball – particularly following Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. But in the end, “Bagby and Smith, a couple of run of the mill pitchers stopped DiMaggio.” At the beginning of the film, he exclaimed that he envied DiMaggio because “he got to hear children cheer, not cry.” It is in this way that he is able to find solace. Marlowe chose a profession that entrenches him in the seedy world of desperate people so that he can do his portion to make the world a better place. However, as he grows older, he realises that there is less and less he can do. At the end of the film, even though he is very tired, there is still one last act of chivalry he has left to perform. He gives the 2,000 dollars to the widow of Tommy Ray in order that their son, Andrew, will have some faith in humanity and will always be able to cheer for baseball.

Works Cited

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Essex: Pearson, 2002.


Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez and John Hillerman. Paramount Pictures, 1974.

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Vintage 1992.

—. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porder Hall and Jean Heather. Paramount Pictures, 1941.

Farewell, My Lovely. Dir. Dick Richards. Perf. Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland and Sylvia Miles. AVCO Embassy Pictures 1975.

Murder, My Sweet. Dir. Edward Dmytryck. Perf. Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger and Mike Mazurki. RKO Radio Pictures Inc., 1944.

The Big Sleep. Dir. Howard Hawks. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers and Dorothy Malone. Warner Brothers, 1946.

The Long Goodbye. Dir. Robert Altman. Perf. Elliot Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell and Henry Gibson. United Artists, 1973.

The Maltese Falcon. Dir. John Huston. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre and Barton MacLane. Warner Brothers, 1941.

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