Review: Director Neil Jordan Models Marlowe on the Masters of Noir Storytelling

A key element to most film noir crime dramas is that the plot is almost always impossible to follow (at least upon a single viewing), and in the end, it usually doesn’t matter because the true enjoyment of the film is meeting an array of devious, bottom-feeding, sometimes-deadly characters on your way to solving whatever mystery is afoot. One of the architects of this style of writing is author Raymond Chandler, whose most iconic character is Philip Marlowe, the protagonist is such classic books turned into movies as The Big SleepFarewell, My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye. In 2015, Irish-born writer John Banville wrote a crime thriller called The Black-Eyed Blonde (under the pen name Benjamin Black), featuring Marlowe as its lead character, a private detective for hire solving crimes in late-1930s Bay City, and that novel serves as the basis for Marlowe, directed by the great Neil Jordan (The Crying GameInterview with the VampireMona LisaMichael Collins), working from an adaptation by William Monahan. I haven’t even talked about the story yet, and I’m guessing you’re already confused. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter.

Marlowe’s Marlowe (Liam Neeson, doing everything in his power to look a bit younger than his actual age of 70) is a sharp, self-serious, observant, somewhat down-on-his-luck detective, who is hired by heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) to find her lover until recently, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). Clare is the daughter of a well-known movie star (Jessica Lange) and married to a studio head who was once a bootlegger and major player in organized crime. As is often the case with femme fatales, Clare isn’t above flirting with Marlowe to get him to play along, even when he begins to question her motives after he discovers that Nico was neither a good person or good in bed.

Nico turns up dead but Marlowe immediately suspects the body found wasn’t Nico’s, since his head was squished beyond recognition. This is only the first in a series of shocking and confusing events that eventually finds Marlowe tangled in a web of lies that all lead back to the decadent early years of Hollywood, the mob-controlled drug scene, and a host of other secrets that our hero is determined to bring into the light, while others are willing to kill him to make sure that never happens.

In addition to Neeson appearing to have the time of his life inhabiting this character, Marlowe features a fully loaded supporting cast that includes Alan Cumming, Colm Meaney and Ian Hart as a pair of frustrated police detectives, and Danny Huston as another prime example of a rich guy in charge of everything, possessing all of the answers but still unable to outwit the world-weary but whip-smart Marlowe.

As the book does, director Jordan carefully unfurls his story with patience, studying masters of the crime drama in terms of how to slowly reveal one piece of his mystery at a time until just the right moment to throw the curtain back and show everything. This isn’t the first time Jordan has used noir storytelling in his work, but he’s rarely done so with such abandon. Cumming and Lange are the true scene stealers, but everyone knows exactly how to play these roles, when to make them feel familiar and when to add something cleverly modern to the subtext. Jordan isn’t reinventing anything; quite the opposite, he wants us to remember just how sleazy and creepy these stories could get, and he mostly succeeds with a great deal of help from his very game cast.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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