If you are not clear on the distinction between an ordinary detective movie that was filmed a long time ago in black-and-white, a film noir, and a neo-noir, then you might try watching the three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Before comparing these movies, however, let’s review the novel itself.
This novel, published in 1940, is not as complicated and confusing as The Big Sleep, the novel Raymond Chandler wrote before writing this one, but it comes pretty close. So, rather than follow Philip Marlowe, the private-eye narrator, through all the dead ends and red herrings that he is subjected to before he solves this mystery, let’s consider the events as they actually occurred.
Velma Valento betrays Moose Malloy
Velma Valento is a beautiful song-and-dance girl that works at a night club named Florian’s in the fictional town of Bay City, California. That is where she comes to know Moose Malloy, who also works there. He is an extraordinarily huge man, the bouncer of the joint, and he falls madly in love with her. He robs a bank in order to have the money he needs to spend lavishly on Velma, but he makes the mistake of confiding in her. Rather than let Malloy spend that money on her a little at a time, she turns him in for the reward so she can get a lot of money all at once. After Moose is convicted and sent to prison, she quits Florian’s and goes to work as a singer at a radio station owned by Lewin Lockridge Grayle, an old and sickly man, but one who is worth $20,000,000. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $400,000,000 today.) He soon falls in love with Velma.
Jessie Florian goes to work for Lindsay Marriott
Several years later, Mike Florian dies. He was the owner of the nightclub where Velma worked, and he leaves the place to his widow Jessie. But as the neighborhood has been going downhill, she ends up selling it for not much money to a black man named Montgomery. Needing a job, she goes to work as a servant for a family by the name of Marriott. One member of that family is Lindsay Marriott, who is an announcer at the radio station where Velma is employed. Apparently, it is a small world in Bay City.
One day Jessie hears Velma singing on the radio and recognizes her voice. She goes to the station and sees that she is right. She doesn’t know that Velma turned Malloy in for the reward, but she knows enough about her past to be a concern. Therefore, Velma has Marriott buy her off with an expensive radio and monthly payments in exchange for holding the trust deed on her house, which means he could throw Jessie out on the street if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut.
Velma becomes Mrs. Grayle
But it’s not Marriott’s money that is paying for all this. Velma is getting it from Mr. Grayle, whom she has agreed to marry, after telling him about her situation with Malloy. He agrees to marry her in Europe and then sell his radio station, thereby making it difficult for anyone else to track her down. She not only becomes Mrs. Grayle, but changes her first name to Helen as well.
Having purchased the silence of Jessie Florian, Velma now has to worry about Marriott, letting him have enough money so that he doesn’t have to work anymore. He becomes her regular companion, to which Mr. Grayle turns a blind eye. He has what we would now call his “trophy wife,” and that is enough for him.
Moose Malloy gets out of prison
But then Malloy, having served an eight-year sentence, is released from prison. He wants to find Velma, the woman he still loves. He buys himself a fancy suit of clothes and goes back to Florian’s. The place still has the same name because it would cost too much to buy a new sign. While he is standing outside looking at the place, he is noticed by Philip Marlowe, who becomes curious about the guy.
Malloy goes inside to find Velma, and Marlowe ends up following him in. Inasmuch as the nightclub serves only a black clientele, there is a lot of friction and physical confrontation, until Malloy ends up killing Montgomery, who pulled a gun on him.
The police are not really interested in the murder of a black man, which Marlowe refers to as a misdemeanor. But to curry favor with Nulty, the detective in charge of the case, Marlowe agrees to see if he can find Velma as a way of getting information on the whereabouts of Malloy, who took off after killing Montgomery.
This leads him to Jessie Florian. He doesn’t get far with her, but after he leaves, she contacts Marriott, telling him that Malloy is out of prison and looking for Velma, and that there is a private detective named Philip Marlowe that is also on the job.
Velma kills Lindsay Marriott
When Velma finds out about this, she decides that Marriott is the weak link to her past, someone who would probably fold if things got too hot. So, she decides to kill him. Jessie doesn’t realize that Velma has become Mrs. Grayle, so she is not a problem anymore. However, Malloy ends up killing her anyway while trying to find out about Velma. But that comes later.
Velma tells Marriott that she is worried about Marlowe and wants him killed. Marriott has come to enjoy all the money she has been supplying him with, so he agrees to do it. She gets him to go to Marlowe with a phony story about how her necklace, made of Fei Tsui jade, had been taken from her during a robbery, and now the jewel thieves are willing to sell it back for a fraction of what it is worth. The idea is to get Marlowe to go with him to a secluded place, where the exchange is supposed to occur. That is where Marriott is supposed to kill Marlowe. Instead, Velma is waiting for them. When Marlowe leaves the car looking for the jewel thieves, she blackjacks Marriott several times, so viciously that his brains end up on his face. When Marlowe returns, she hits him with the blackjack too, but only once, just enough to knock him out. She is afraid of the heat that could come from killing a private detective who might have friends in the police force.
Velma frames Jules Amthor
There is another reason Velma does not kill Marlowe: she needs him alive to tell the made-up story about the stolen jade, to distract the police and keep them from suspecting that she had anything to do with Marriott’s death. After killing Marriott, she planted a cigarette case on him, in addition to the one he already had. This one had three marijuana cigarettes in it, each one with a mouthpiece made from a business card. (I didn’t know marijuana cigarettes could be rolled with a mouthpiece, but so they were.) Each business card said, “Jules Amthor, Psychic Consultant,” whom she had visited on several occasions. The idea was to make Marlowe think Amthor had something to do with the robbery and murder of Marriott.
Anne Riordan becomes Marlowe’s helpmate
When Marlowe recovers from being sapped, a woman named Anne Riordan shows up, who just happened to be driving by. She later finds out that the jade that was stolen (supposedly) belonged to Mrs. Grayle. As a result, Marlowe makes an appointment to see her, to find out if she wants him to try to get the jade back for her. Mrs. Grayle leads Marlowe to believe that Marriott was a blackmailer of women. Marlowe suspects that he might have fingered her for the robbery.
Dr. Sonderborg keeps Marlowe doped up
Then Marlowe pursues the Amthor clue. He suspects that Amthor had a lot of rich women for clients. If they wore expensive jewelry, he might let a gang of jewel thieves know about it. Marlowe goes to see Amthor and ends up being roughed up by one of Amthor’s hoodlums and then by some crooked cops, who drop him off at a small hospital run by a Dr. Sonderborg. Marlowe is drugged, but eventually manages to escape. The hospital is a front for all sorts of illegal activity, especially drug dealing. Another activity is that of providing a hideout for criminals on the lam. That’s why Marlowe sees Malloy there. As I said, it’s a small world in Bay City.
Velma kills Malloy
Eventually, Marlowe figures it all out. He gets word to Malloy to come to his apartment through a gambler named Laird Brunette. He gets Mrs. Grayle to come there too. Malloy hides in the next room while Mrs. Grayle and Marlowe talk. Marlowe tells her he knows she is Velma, that there never was a robbery, and that she was the one that killed Marriott. When Malloy realizes it is Velma that Marlowe is talking to, he comes out of the room, still holding a gun absentmindedly in his hand. But Velma puts five slugs in him. She tries to kill Marlowe, but runs out of bullets. So, she just takes off.
Velma kills herself
She ends up working in a nightclub in Baltimore. A detective recognizes her and confronts her, but she shoots him three times, killing him. Then she shoots herself in the heart. Twice. Marlowe says she did it to protect her husband, the one man that really gave her a break. With his money, she could have beaten the murder rap against Malloy, claiming self-defense. And they could never have proved she killed Marriott. But she wanted to spare her husband the pain of a scandal.
Nevertheless, because she was the wife of a rich man, the whole business brings a lot of people down. Although Amthor and Sonderborg had nothing to do with Velma’s treachery, they are casualties in the case, with both of them leaving town, running from the law, Amthor being caught in New York. The bad cops in Bay City lose their jobs.
The Falcon Takes Over (1942)
As may be surmised by the title, the first movie version of this novel was transformed into a vehicle for a very different kind of detective than the hardboiled Philip Marlowe. Rather, he is an amateur sleuth known as The Falcon, a refined English gentleman who, in this movie, goes by the name of Gay Lawrence, played by George Sanders. He makes a good living in the bond business. The movie is part mystery, part silly comedy. If you have ever labored under the misconception that a film noir is any black-and-white crime drama made in the 1940s or 1950s, this movie will disabuse you of that misapprehension.
Lawrence has a chauffeur named Goldy, who functions as a sidekick, with the usual kind of humor that such characters are given to. Moose Malloy is played by Ward Bond, who is a big man in his own right, but made to look even bigger with padding. The nightclub that used to be Florian’s is now a high-class establishment, full of white people, and going by the name Club 13, the sort of place that Lawrence often frequents in formal attire.
By way of contrast, consider the opening line of the novel: “It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro,” referring to the street on which Florian’s was located. This alone reminds us of the times in which this novel was written, back when “Negro” and “colored” were the polite words our mothers told us to use rather than those preferred by our fathers. Or preferred by Philip Marlowe, for that matter. Though he uses the polite word “Negro” here, Marlowe uses a variety of racial slurs throughout the novel. In a movie made today, if a character used the words Marlowe does, we would know that he was the bad guy, and that we were supposed to dislike him. But when this novel was written, those were the days when one could be a racist without fear of censure; for we are supposed like Marlowe, and his racist remarks were just supposed to be the sort of thing a hardboiled private eye would say. The reference to “mixed blocks” tells us that this part of town was becoming undesirable on account of all the African Americans that had been moving in. But what would a man like Gay Lawrence be doing in that neighborhood? Hence the transformation to a nightclub in the nicest part of town, catering to café society.
In this movie, as well as the two that follow, we pretty much encounter the same dramatis personae, but with variations. They each want different stuff, do different things, serve different functions, and have different relationships with one another. Some characters are added, combined, or deleted. There are even variations on their names. It would be tedious to enumerate and analyze them all, only a few being worthy of comment.
For example, as noted above, the racism of the novel is eliminated in this movie by changing the clientele of Club 13, formerly Florian’s, from black to white. Although there was plenty of racism in movies made back in those days, it was seldom as stark as that in the novels.
Another difference is the treatment of homosexuality. In the novel, Marlowe refers to Marriott as a “pansy” on account of his mannerisms. But in this movie, Marriott (Hans Conried) merely comes across as weak.
Then there is the matter of motive, Velma’s reason for hiding from Moose Malloy. In this movie, Malloy took a manslaughter rap for his boss. But that means Velma didn’t turn him in for the reward money, so it is not clear why she is paying off Jessie Florian not to tell Malloy where she is, or why she changed her name. All we can figure is that Malloy is the kind of guy who could kill a woman out jealousy and would be too strong for anyone to stop him.
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
The second movie version of this novel is Murder, My Sweet, made a couple of years later. This is a genuine film noir, and it closely follows the novel in plot, style, and tone, though with some simplifications that are usually necessary when bringing a novel to the screen. Raymond Chandler used the words “sleep,” “farewell,” and “goodbye” in three of his novels, each a metaphor for death. However, the studio executives decided they needed a title with a literal meaning. Dick Powell had been chosen to play Philip Marlowe. Previously, he had starred in musicals, singing and dancing. The producers were afraid that if they used the same title as the novel, people would think it was another musical.
This movie is told mostly in flashback, which mirrors the first-person narrative style of the novel. In addition, flashbacks are common in films noir, for they can give a movie a fatalistic tone, inasmuch as the events of the past cannot be undone, especially when the flashback begins after something bad has happened. In The Falcon Takes Over, there is no flashback. Everyone seems to have free will, and anything can happen. But when Murder, My Sweet begins, Marlowe is being interrogated in a police station, accused of murder, and his eyes have bandages over them.
In the story that he relates, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hires Marlowe to help him find Velma (Claire Trevor), unlike in the previous version and in the novel, where Lawrence/Marlowe just accidentally encounters Malloy in front of Club 13/Florian’s. Instead, they go to Florian’s together. This time the place is white, but low class.
The next day Marriott shows up to hire Marlowe, saying he wants his company when he is supposedly going to buy back the stolen necklace. The elevator operator comments that he is a cute, little fellow, and that he smelled nice too. Later on, Mr. Grayle refers to him as a “foppish” man. This counts as a queer flash, about as close as the movies could come to homosexuality in the days of the Production Code.
Once again, Velma’s motive for hiding from Malloy is unclear. There is no reference to her having turned him in for a reward. In fact, we don’t even know why he was in prison. Nor does she seem to be afraid of him. Toward the end of the movie, she tries to get Marlowe to kill Amthor for her because he was blackmailing her, since he knew of the affairs she had had. But she does not ask Marlowe to kill Malloy.
Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
In this third adaption, made in 1975, Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran) says he was sent to prison for robbing a bank, returning to the reason for his incarceration in the novel. And Velma (Charlotte Rampling) turned him in for the reward, just like in the novel. Therefore, she once again is afraid of Malloy, and she has a strong motive for trying to keep him from finding her.
This adaptation takes its title from the novel. By this time, Chandler’s novels had come to be revered as classic detective fiction, so the title was too valuable to just set aside as it was in the first two movies. The movie has elements of the film noir style, unlike The Falcon Takes Over, but it does not qualify as film noir, primarily because there is a self-conscious aspect to it, which is what distinguishes neo-noir from film noir proper. Unlike the traditional film noir, this version was made in color. But it would not have changed its category if it had been made in black-and-white, because the day had passed when studios made black-and-white movies to hold down the cost. By the 1970s, movies that were made in black-and-white were done so for artistic reasons. So, we would have been saying to ourselves, “Oh, it’s in black-and-white, just like a film noir.”
Then there is the setting. Just as a choice had to be made about color versus black-and-white, so too did a conscious choice have to be made between the original setting and a contemporary one. The 1970s just do not have the same cultural feel as the 1940s. For example, if a private detective in the 1970s wore a trench coat and a fedora, we would think he was some kind of Don Quixote who had seen too many films noir and was trying to be like those romanticized detectives of fiction. For that reason, perhaps, the movie was set in the 1940s. But now when we see Robert Mitchum as Marlowe in a trench coat and a fedora, we check these items off, as if they were on a list of things that every film noir private detective must have.
Furthermore, there are a few elements from the 1970s that work their way into this movie, which we know to be deliberate choices made by the producers. These 1970s situations and values retrojectively put into a story supposedly set in the 1940s are also what place this and other movies like it in the neo-noir category.
One such choice consists in adhering more closely to the novel than the earlier versions. In the novel, Florian’s has become a “Negro” nightclub. In the two previous movie versions of the novel, the studio executives kept the nightclub white, possibly to avoid upsetting the 1940s audience on matters of race. By 1975, showing Florian’s as being a black establishment was not only more acceptable, it was almost hip. Movie producers were by that time looking for ways to have more blacks in their movies, and so following the novel in this regard was made to order.
Other stuff is thrown into the movie that was neither in novel nor in the previous versions in order to reflect the zeitgeist of 1975. An extraneous mixed-race couple is added to the plot. That could hardly have been a commonplace in the 1940s, so it calls attention to itself as rather forced. Jessie Florian says that it ruined the career of the husband, who was white, for “marrying a nigger.” In this way, the movie allows its audience to feel smug, regarding itself as superior to the past as it deplores the racial prejudices of those times. In the novel, it was Marlowe, among others, who used racial slurs like that. In this movie, other people use racial slurs, but Marlowe uses only the polite words of the 1940s, “Negro” and “colored.”
If putting a miscegenous couple into this movie seems forced, the fact that they have a child for Marlowe to care about is even more so. I suppose the fact that Marlowe is friendly with a mixed-race child lets us know we are supposed to like him, as if we needed a push in that direction. In any event, it was around this time that children started gratuitously showing up in movies that would have been better off without them. Sappy sentimentality simply does not belong in a film noir, but I guess this is another difference between that genre and neo-noir.
Then there is Jules Amthor, who has become Frances Amthor, a lesbian. With the end of the Production Code, it was now possible to feature homosexuality explicitly. However, there was no felt need to treat such characters sympathetically. Instead, she is a huge woman, portrayed as the stereotypical butch dyke. Her presence in the movie might be indicative of the fact that there was less censorship in 1975 than in the 1940s, but it is in no way an expression of tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. In fact, whereas Marlowe refers to African Americans with polite words only, he refers to Marriott as a “fairy.” The movies of the 1970s showed more deference to African Americans than they did to homosexuals.
A Future Remake
It’s about time for another remake, one suitable for the twenty-first century. It will probably have to have a simpler plot in order to make room for all the CGI action sequences. But more important than that are the issues of homosexuality and race.
A gay character will be required, of course, for that is one of the boxes that need to be checked off when making a movie like this today. But that does not mean having a homosexual like Marriott or, in the case of the last remake, Frances Amthor, both of whom are portrayed by means of negative stereotypes. Rather, having Philip Marlow himself be gay should meet with approval from today’s audience.
Actually, this has already been done in a way. In the movie Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Michelle Monaghan grew up reading hardboiled novels about a private eye named Jonny Gossamer. Robert Downey Jr. is in love with her, and he also knows a lot about those novels too. He tries to understand the mystery he gets involved in by reference to things that happened in those novels. Jonny Gossamer is the equivalent of Philip Marlowe, and the movie is divided into chapters named after Raymond Chandler’s books, the last one being Farewell, My Lovely. The real hardboiled private eye that Downey meets is gay. In fact, his name is Gay Perry. So, he has the same first name as Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, though with a different connotation, of course. Since Perry is played by Val Kilmer, he is a real man, not like the effeminate Marriott of the novel and the movies. Also in keeping with the sensitivities of the twenty-first century, Perry doesn’t like secondhand smoke.
Another box that must be checked off today is the miscegenous couple. As noted above, there was such a couple in the last remake, but they were minor characters. In a twenty-first century remake of Farewell, My Lovely, Moose Malloy and Velma Valento should fill that slot. However, it will have to be Velma that is black and Malloy that is white. It simply wouldn’t do to have Moose Malloy be a big, hulking black man looking for his white Velma, who is desperate to get away from him. That simply would not bespeak of the enlightened, progressive attitude that a mixed-race couple in a movie is supposed to represent nowadays.