“Begin at the beginning, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” femme fatale Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) coos at private eye Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson) as she employs him to find her presumed-dead lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). While the beginning of Marlowe shows potential, the neo-noir film resorts to tired tropes instead of finding new twists on an original classic.
Marlowe was originally released in 1969, with James Garner portraying the titular detective. Several other actors took on the role in later iterations, including Robert Montgomery. In the 2022 remake, Liam Neeson depicts the misanthropic Philip Marlowe. Marlowe steps in to unravel an intricate plot of deception and treachery at the behest of his new client, Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger). Marlowe hobnobs with rich film executives and sinister criminals against the razzle-dazzle of the 1930s Hollywood scene. As a simple job becomes a deadly whodunnit, Marlowe relies on his wits to find the culprit before the culprit finds him.
Marlowe has the DNA of the noir films it pays homage to. A cynical detective, a beautiful, aloof femme fatale, and bumbling, nefarious villains round the cast out. It’s a crime drama with clues, twists, and a tidy ending. Stark lighting choices are present throughout the film. Most of the scenes appeared awash in sepia-tones, almost as if the audience is watching a faded film reel. Like its film noir predecessors, Marlowe takes place in 1939, with World War II looming in the backdrop.
The noir slang is present and accounted for, from beanshooters to broadsheets. Characters take on 1930s vocal pacing and affectations with gusto. As characters are slinging one liners back and forth, some of the Depression-era slang sticks in the dialogue, keeping the audience a beat behind.
Some of Neil Jordan’s direction and blocking hit the mark. He uses multiple car shots, emphasizing the car’s significance as a murder weapon. One notable shot depicts the neon lights of the Cabana nightclub reflecting into a puddle that gets interrupted when a car drives through it. The blocking in the interview scenes gives unique insights into the suspects and keeps the question-and-answer dialogue from feeling too repetitive.
While many of today’s mysteries are fast-paced psychological thrillers, Marlowe beckons to simpler times. A trustworthy detective points out inconsistencies and unravels unreliable narration as it’s given. However, Marlowe painstakingly exposes his logic and reasoning as he puts clues together. It leaves little work for the audience.
Marlowe works better as a satire of the noir genre than a remake. The characters’ over-the-top affectations and gestures harken back to noir classics, but read as exaggerated on screen. Characters lighting up cigarettes in each scene became distracting. Clare’s suggestive dialogue is over-the-top and drips with corniness rather than nostalgia. When she asks Marlowe just how private his investigations are, the double entendre feels tired. Instead of taking opportunities to inject comedy or to invert classic detective tropes, the plot and dialogue have a profound feeling of déjà vu.
The over-the-top fight scenes have cartoonish quality. It’s almost surprising not to see “POW! BAM!” floating above each villain Marlowe bowls over.
The ending feels like a missed opportunity. It has a splashy cinematic display, but the payoff is not worth the meandering plot. One of the closing scenes takes place in a motion picture lot when Marlowe comments on the motion picture industry to his comrade-in-arms Cedric (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). The scene comes off meta, like Neeson is telling the audience they’re watching a movie when he should show them.
Neeson’s Marlowe has the tired posture and gravelly growl befitting of a grizzled detective. However, he doesn’t stand out amid other notable movie detectives. He lacks the polished pomposity of Hercule Poirot and the quirkiness of Sherlock Holmes. Alan Cumming provides humor as crime boss Lou Hendricks, but his villainy is over the top for the subtlety of the noir genre.
Jessica Lange brings life to the slow, trudging storyline. She dazzles as the positively devilish movie starlet Dorothy Quinn Cannon. The enthusiasm Lange displays as she leans into the role shows she’s having the time of her life. She cackles with delight, pouts with conviction, and smirks with just the right amount of conceit.
The set and costumes are equally noteworthy. Costume designer Betsy Heimann, known for Pulp Fiction (1994) and Almost Famous (2000), preserves the spirit of 1930s fashion and style, while using pops of bold colors. The color palette Heimann uses in costume creation helps the characters stand out amid the sepia-toned background. The art and set direction, overseen by Mani Martínez and Deborah Chambers, was well executed. Marlowe’s Bay City, 1939 setting is vivid without feeling overdone.
Dorothy Quinn Cannon purrs, “The key to Hollywood is knowing when your game is up.” It looks like Marlowe could take a lesson from her ledger. Just because Hollywood wants another remake, doesn’t mean it needs one.