Liam Neeson stars as Raymond Chandler’s famed private detective in Marlowe, a sumptuously-designed, beautifully-shot, but sleepy and ultimately unsatisfying mystery now available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, Apple TV+, and other streaming services. Director Neil Jordan adapted the John Banville novel The Black-Eyed Blonde, a new 2014 story featuring Chandler’s original character.
As Marlowe himself, Neeson may not be as iconic as Humphrey Bogart, who played Marlowe in the 1946 classic The Big Sleep, or as flippantly charismatic as Elliott Gould in 1972’s The Long Goodbye. Still, the Taken star delivers an agreeably low-key performance as an aged detective haunted by long-ago service time in WWI and far too weary for the affairs of the Hollywood elite he now finds himself involved in.
Marlowe opens, as these stories tend to do, with an attractive blonde who slips into the detective’s office. It’s the eve of WWII – “Hitler tells Britain that Czechoslovakia is a done deal,” we hear over the radio – and the woman is Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), wealthy daughter of a famous actress, who hires Marlowe to track down her runaway lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud).
Neeson’s detective couldn’t care less for the tale Clare spins; “get to the point,” he barks at her. But he takes the case because it’s a paying job, and we get the impression he doesn’t have anything better to do. Soon, Marlowe finds himself caught up in a full-fledged mystery involving her husband Richard (Patrick Muldoon), mother Dorothy Quincannon (Jessica Lange) and her beau, the U.S. Ambassador to Britain (Mitchell Mullen).
The case brings him up to an exclusive nightclub owned by Floyd Hanson (played by Danny Huston, so we know he’s up to no good), across Petersen’s sister Lynn (Daniela Melchior), and into the arms of crime boss Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming) and his benevolent driver Cedric (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
And as Marlowe digs deeper into shady underworld doings, he gets an assist from his old friends in the Los Angeles Police Department, played by Ian Hart and Colm Meaney, who appreciate not having to get their own hands dirty.
All the ingredients are here for a satisfying mystery, but just like its main character, Marlowe doesn’t give a shit. This is a mostly an agreeably old-fashioned detective story, but the so-what attitude towards the mystery, a la The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice, is bitterly anachronistic. That’s odd, since Marlowe was written by director Jordan alongside the great William Monahan (The Departed, London Boulevard).
There’s a certain point here where Marlowe should break: where this hard-boiled Chandler detective who couldn’t care less about the case he’s investigating is forced to reconcile with the innocent victim he failed to protect, get serious, and enact revenge. And while something like that does happen within the narrative, it never really happens in spirit.
While Jordan doesn’t care about the mystery at the center of his story, however, he delivers a breathtaking presentation: Marlowe looks absolutely gorgeous, with first-rate period detail fully transporting the viewer to late 1930s Los Angeles. Even the interiors, flooded with soft light through Venetian blinds, capture a kind of filmmaking that we just don’t see any more.
While this mystery doesn’t come near the Chandler classics, it does have something to offer, and falls more in line with a pair of 1970s remakes starring Robert Mitchum as the private detective. With appealing production design and cinematography, flavorful performances by a first-rate cast, and an enjoyable take on old-man Marlowe, there’s enough here to warrant at least a mild recommendation.