Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has been played by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. To many, Humphrey Bogart remains the definitive Marlowe, based on his performance in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, but film noir afficianados will often cite Murder My Sweet’s Dick Powell, or later iterations, like Robert Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely or Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye as the best. Indeed, Liam Neeson is stepping into some mighty big shoes with his new movie, Marlowe, but if anyone can go toe-to-toe with Mitchum or Bogart, it’s Neeson, right?
To help bring Marlowe to the big screen, Neeson recruited one of his most frequent directors, Neil Jordan. The two famously worked together on Michael Collins, as well as the earlier High Spirits and the more recent (underrated) Breakfast on Pluto, and are set to reteam again on a new prison break thriller filming this year. I recently had the chance to sit down with Jordan, who explains what made him take on the legendary noir hero.
As it turns out, Marlowe was unique for Jordan, as he typically writes or develops his movies himself. Here he was more of a hired hand. “I didn’t develop the script myself. It was written based on a novel by a friend of mine called John Banville, and it was brought to me (by Liam). and I said, okay, I’d love to see you play this, play this role.”
However, Jordan noted that to many, Neeson, who’s seventy, might seem too old to play Marlowe, saying, “I mean, what age was Marlow? 46 perhaps?” To that I noted that Neeson doesn’t look much different at seventy than Bogart did at 45 when he made The Big Sleep, and looks younger than Mitchum was when he made Farewell My Lovely (the hard-living Mitchum was fifty-nine). According to Jordan, Neeson himself was inspired by Mitchum, to the point that elements of his portrayal almost made their way into his performance.
“When Liam started, when he came on and was wearing those costumes, he says, he said to me, look, I’m thinking of doing the Mitchum walk (with this big stride) And I said, no, no, no, no, no. You’re Liam Neeson. You’re not playing Robert Mitchum. You’re not playing, Humphrey Bogart. You’re not playing Dick Powell. You are Liam Neeson playing Marlowe.”
Despite featuring Raymond Chandler’s classic hero, Philip Marlowe, the film isn’t based on any of the author’s stories. As previously mentioned by Jordan, it’s an adaptation of a novel by John Banville, The Black-Eyed Blonde. “In a way, the fact that it wasn’t a book by Chandler gave me a lot of freedom. So it wasn’t a remake of Murder My Sweet or Farewell My Lovely which is the same book actually, isn’t it? And it wasn’t a remake of The Long Goodbye. So there was a freedom to that, to me, it was a gift.”
The book was adapted for the screen by The Departed’s William Monahan, which was unusual for Jordan, as typically he’s a writer-director rather than simply a director. “Bill had written these wonderful dialogues, you know I’m a writer director. I very rarely work with other people or on other people’s work, you know? And I thought, oh God, this is a bit scary now I’m just a director, doing this stuff. And there were these enormous dialogue scenes. So I had to fill them with movement and I had to kind of work with the camera, kind of gliding around these conversations. Every film demands its own language.”
Notably, Jordan cast Danny Huston as one of the villains. His father, the legendary John Huston, directed one of the greatest private eye movies of all time, The Maltese Falcon, and played a noir villain himself in Chinatown. “I could hear his father speaking sometimes. It was actually kind of unsettling. And Danny knows and loves his father’s work. Danny knows how to carry him on his shoulder and carry that voice as well…so it was cool.”
To note, the film takes place in Los Angeles of 1939, but was shot in Dublin and Barcelona. The film is beautifully shot by DP Xavi Giménez in a way that’s unique for a period noir movie. “I didn’t want gunfire coming out of a dark alleyway where you don’t know what the hell is going on. I said, look, this is a hot, hot place and we’re going to shoot it like it’s been shot in a hot place. We’re going to use blazing kind of color, you know? I mean, there will be shadows of course, you know, and there are some every time we go into an in interior, you know. There are, blinds on the windows and all those kind of things. But I really just wanted to shoot a Noirish movie in blazing color. It was simple as that, really, you know?”
Marlowe is out in theaters now. Read our review here!
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