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. As is often the case with some of those hard-boiled detective novels of the 1930s and 1940s, this one has a convoluted plot, which lends itself to variations in the adaptations. I suppose one could begin with the novel and then catalog all the ways in which each version deviates from the original, but that would be as tedious as it would be unnecessary.
Let’s begin with Murder, My Sweet (1944). This movie not only follows the novel’s plot reasonably well, but it also has the same tone. More to the point, it is as good an example of film noir as one might want.
An earlier version of this novel is The Falcon Takes Over (1942). Even though it is a black-and-white detective movie from the 1940s, it absolutely does not qualify as film noir. The detective is Gay Lawrence, known as “the Falcon,” rather than the novel’s Philip Marlowe. The Falcon is an English gentleman who is an amateur sleuth, whereas Philip Marlowe is a hard-boiled, American, professional private eye. Moreover, the Falcon has a sidekick who is supposed to provide comic relief, whereas Marlowe works alone, the only humor being his wisecracks. As a result, the tone of this version is most decidedly not film noir.
The third adaptation, made in 1975, is the only one to take its title from the novel. The movie has elements of the 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 helped 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 the trench coat and the fedora, we check them off, as if they were items 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, and those too we know to be a self-conscious choice. And so, the self-conscious choices that must be made by producers and are recognized as such by the audience are 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 bar. When Murder, My Sweet was made, they kept the bar white, possibly to avoid upsetting the 1940s audience on such matters as 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 to satisfy the need for affirmative action, 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 Murder My Sweet in order to reflect the zeitgeist of 1975. An extraneous mixed-race couple is added to the plot. That’s not so bad, but they have a child for Marlowe to worry about. It was around this time that children started gratuitously showing up in movies that would have been much better 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 become Frances Amthor, a butch lesbian madam.