Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Marlowe and Boston Strangler: Mythologies

Jessica Lange in Marlowe.

The Irish writer John Banville’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, published in 2014 and the source of the new Neil Jordan picture Marlowe, is a Raymond Chandler reset of no special distinction except a rather puzzling one. (Banville’s other output is divided between high-flown literary works like The Sea – an exquisite piece of writing – and a series of mysteries, written under the pen name Benjamin Black, that feature a pathologist named Garret Quirke.) At the climax of this tale, set in late-1950s L.A., of the disappearance of a shady Hollywood agent named Nico Peterson, which Peterson’s lover, the wealthy Clare Cavendish, has hired Marlowe to solve, a potent figure out of the gumshoe’s past, a drinking buddy named Terry Lennox, resurfaces. Lennox is the pivotal character in one of Chandler’s later books, The Long Goodbye, which begins with Marlowe’s agreeing to drive him to Tijuana, no questions asked, after the murder of his wife, and ends with the detective’s helping him to establish a new identity in Mexico. The point of The Black-Eyed Blonde, as far as I can tell, is to punish Terry – to turn him into a thoroughgoing villain. But Robert Altman and his screenwriter, Leigh Brackett (who had collaborated with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman on the most famous Marlowe film, The Big Sleep), already did that in the brilliant 1973 movie of The Long Goodbye, where Marlowe is played by Elliott Gould and Terry by the ballplayer Jim Bouton, and where the story ends very differently.

Lennox doesn’t show up at all in Jordan’s film, which he co-wrote with William Monahan (best known for The Departed) and which, among other striking alterations, has been pushed back to 1939. Jordan and Monahan’s bad guy is Hollywood, or rather the mess that pimps and dope dealers have made of it. It’s a pastiche all right, with parts that don’t remotely fit together. Marlowe is played by Liam Neeson, who is not only miscast but carries an air about him of distracted weariness. He’s also the only one of the quartet of English and Irish actors in the cast who barely seems to be trying to disguise his accent. Not that you buy Alan Cumming as a degenerate under the thumb of a bigger degenerate (Danny Huston), or Colm Meaney as Marlowe’s copper pal Bernie Ohls, but at least sound like they’re in the right locale – though Meaney looks like he isn’t too sure what he’s doing in this movie. The fourth transplant from the British Isles is Ian Hart, as another cop in Marlowe’s orbit, Joe Green, and his accent is so broad and colorful that he’s quite entertaining. No need to wonder where this guy comes from: he’s sheer Warner Brothers, or at least a parody thereof. The other players in this mélange are Adewale Akinnuowe-Agbaje as a tough chauffeur, François Arnaud as the mysterious Nico, and as for the women Diane Kruger with marcelled blonde hair as Clare, a minor actress, Jessica Lange as her much more famous mother, and Daniela Melchior as a Hispanic hooker who works for Huston. Melchior looks more like one of those ingénues in thirties comedies and musicals who comes across as a schoolmarm until someone removes her spectacles and suddenly everyone can see what a knockout she is.

What do all these characters have in common? Well, they talk in a kind of manufactured patois that must be someone’s idea – Monahan’s, I would guess – of florid film noir lingo circa The Big Sleep. When Marlowe turns down Clare’s offer of iced tea, she adds, “I can offer you anything.  It’s like The Arabian Nights around here.”  Cumming’s Lou Hendricks assures Marlowe, “I’m largely composed of tarantulas.” When the detective admits that one of Lou’s references has sounded a tinkle of familiarity, Hendricks comes back with “I don’t need you to hear a tinkle, Mr. Marlowe. I need you to hear a sonorous gong with a hunchback swinging from it.” Danny Huston has the worst clunkers: “Perhaps you know how it was and therefore is,” “Everybody in this country has been drunk since its inception,” “I’m sorry that it was not interesting to talk to you.” No wonder Huston looks even more uncomfortable than his castmates; how can any actor get lines like these out of his mouth?  And when they’re not puffed up on this sort of gab, they’re quoting Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne and Joyce.

There’s a surrealistic whorehouse scene, though since Marlowe is only pretending to be drugged (Huston has slipped him a Mickey Finn but Marlowe didn’t actually drink it) it’s not clear whose altered point of view the style is meant to represent. There’s also a scene where Marlowe interviews a starlet (Seána Kerslake) who, on break from shooting a bloody car accident on a soundstage, is still wearing gory trick make-up on her eye; that visual effect and the actress’s awful line readings make the exchange seem a whole lot longer than it is. On the other hand, there are some lovely compositions, and Lange, against all odds, manages to do surprising things with her lines and suggest a profound regret that is the only element in the movie that feels grounded in any kind of authenticity. I tend to be drawn to Neil Jordan’s movies, even some that have been ignored (Ondine) or disdained (In Dreams), but I’m damned if I know what he was up to here.

Keira Knightley in Boston Strangler.

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Boston Strangler, about the coverage of the notorious early-sixties serial-killer case by a pair of women reporters for The Boston Record American, is a conventional true-crime picture with the usual patented Errol Morris visual appendages. But its cast has been rounded out with some talented actors – Chris Cooper, Bill Camp, Peter Gerety, Robert John Burke and, ever so briefly, Luke Kirby as F. Lee Bailey. And at the center are Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as the journalists, the novice Loretta McLauglin and the veteran Jean Cole, and Alessandro Nivola as the detective Loretta befriends, Jim Conley. Not one of these three makes a single false move, and Knightley’s sharply etched performance is as quietly compelling as the best work Sylvia Sidney did in her proletarian roles in the thirties.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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