Robert Mitchum was a high-mileage/hard-miles 57 when he took on Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe in 1975’s “Farewell, My Lovely,” a character immortalized by Bogie in “The Big Sleep” in a story of that had been filmed twice before, in the film noir-mad 1940s.
He wasn’t too old to take the part, but he looked it.
But there’s nostalgia value in seeing a genuine big-screen tough guy tackle a story and a genre one more time. And if the movie is a lot better looking — lurid, neon and shadows design, a properly seedy 1941 Los Angeles — than scripted or acted, well there’s a reason we remember Dick Richards as a creator of iconic TV commercials of the ’60s, and not for his movies — “March or Die,” “Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins” and “The Culpepper Cattle Company,” and this one.
Mitchum’s weathered voice-over narration decorates the festivities and gives it the world-weariness that Chandler all but perfected. Voice-over is an awful crutch for a filmmaker to lean on, but of all the gin-joint films in all of the cinema, the movies where it works best are Chandler adaptations.
“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” “The house itself wasn’t much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler building.”
But there’s “world weary” and there’s “enervated,” and that’s where “Lovely” sits on the “too-many whiskies/too-many-smokes” end of the spectrum.
Marlowe is hired by an ex-con, Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran, one of Terrence Stamp’s villain-accomplices in the “Superman” movies) to “find my Velma.” She was “a girl” at a club he used to frequent before he went to prison for armed robbery. Now the club’s become an African American hangout, and Marlowe finds the Velma trail cold, even before Moose kills the Black owner of the joint, trying to beat answers out of him.
But Marlowe isn’t in a position to blow off the man mountain/client. He meets with an alcoholic widow of the previous owner (Sylvia Miles, who steals the movie), a nefarious local shaker and mover (Anthony Zerbe, oily as ever) and the obligatory “femme fatale,” the arm candy of a rich old judge, played by a very young Charlotte Rampling.
Mitchum’s Marlowe takes the usual Marlowe beatings and clubbings, gets kidnapped by a madam and drugged, dodges bullets hither and yon, drinks too much whisky and gets too little help from the one old school “honest” cop (John Ireland, not at his best) and his corrupt underling (Harry Dean Stanton).
Sly Stallone has a non-speaking supporting part as a mug, probably his fate had he not written “Rocky” and blown up the next year.
Rampling, almost 30 years younger than Mitchum, vamps up her Bacall-smitten-by-Bogie homage, although by the ’70s this sort of pairing — even for an acknowledged gold-digger character — was becoming a head-scratcher.
The film’s post civil rights era racial attitudes don’t tidy up Chandler entirely. The “N” word is dropped, and the lack of police interest in a Black man’s death is both ancient and up-to-2021 modern.
But for all that, for all the residual goodwill any classic film fan feels for Chandler, Mitchum, Ireland et al, the picture’s as stiff as last week’s pancakes
The Dick Powell version of this story is still the definitive one. “Murder My Sweet” (1944) it was called, and it still crackles, while this version never manages more than a creak.
MPA Rating: R, for violence, nudity, profanity
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, Jack O’Halloran, Harry Dean Stanton, Sylvester Stallone, Sylvia Miles and Anthony Zerbe.
Credits: Directed by Dick Richards, script by David Zelag Goodman, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. An Avco Embassy release on various streaming services
Running time: 1:35