Robert Mitchum was a legendary screen tough guy, somewhat like John Wayne. Both were skilled natural actors who mastered the heroic roles in Westerns and action-adventure films better than very few others. More uniquely than Wayne, Mitchum could do a wider variety of parts, from romantic leads, like “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison” and “Two for the Seesaw;” creepy psychotic villains, like “Cape Fear” and “Night of the Hunter” and the 1940s private eye detective in crime films like, “Out of the Past.”
Even when Mitchum approached later middle age in the mid-1970, he wowed audiences with his hard-boiled crime heroics in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “Yakuza,” and this week’s hidden gem “Farewell My Lovely” (1975). This was director Dick Richards’ very effective adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel with Mitchum playing the definitive private investigator, Phillip Marlowe. While Humphrey Bogart may have been the silver screen’s most effective Marlowe from the mid-1940s adaptation of “The Big Sleep”, Mitchum makes the part his own.
Famed critic Molly Haskell noted, “Mitchum’s age and iconographic wrinkles that he brings to any role, are in a sense, the keys in which ‘Farewell My Lovely’ has been composed.” In his original review, Roger Ebert called the film “a great entertainment and a celebration of Robert Mitchum’s absolute originality.”
Ebert further states, “Farewell, My Lovely” never steps wrong. It is, indeed, the most evocative of all private detective movies (except for Polanski’s “Chinatown”) we have had in the last few years.” Through the film’s opening credit sequence, the neon-lit, dark Los Angeles streets, stylishly complemented by David Shire’s jazzy trumpet score, takes us into Marlowe’s crime world of the 1940s.
Within minutes we see a tall figure of Phillip Marlowe, looking out the window of a sleazy hotel room, with a whiskey glass in hand and holding a lit cigarette on his lips. Then we hear the trademark voice-over narration of the private eye films, as Marlowe reveals, “This past Spring was the first that I felt tired and realized I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in LA. Maybe it was the rotten cases I’d had, mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives, once I found them, in order to get paid.” Then he admits maybe he was growing old.
Richards puts loads of period detail in adapting the novel and sets the film in 1941. This was unlike the more recent Chandler adaptations, like the 1969 “Marlowe” which starred James Garner or the 1973 “The Long Goodbye” with Elliott Gould, both films received updated modern settings, with much younger leads. David Zetag Goodman wrote the screenplay with a fine ear for crime world dialogue. Using Marlowe’s voice-over narration, he guides us throughout the complicated plot twists from the world-weary private eye’s unique perspective. Also, Richards used the “Chinatown” cinematographer, John A. Alonzo, which added the effective color film noir visual style, with lots of shadows.
The plot concerns Marlowe being hired by Moose Mallory (Jack O’Halloran), a paroled con who wants the detective to find his girlfriend, a former nightclub singer, name Velma, who he hasn’t seen in seven years. Along the way, Marlowe gets beaten up by several shady tough guys, shot at a few times, drugged and held hostage by a nasty high-class Hollywood madame and led on a wild goose chase of false leads. All along, he keeps steps ahead of LA policemen Detective Nulty (John Ireland) and Billy Rolfe (Harry Dean Stanton), who continually give him legal grief. After finding someone he thought was Velma in a local mental hospital, Marlowe encounters the mysterious Mrs. Grayle (Charlotte Rampling), a woman who is connected to several wealthy businessmen who have an interest in Moose Mallory. The seductive Grayle thinks she can manipulate Marlowe with her sexual prowess.
When Marlowe first meets the slender, Ms. Grayle, we hear his initial perceptions of her in voice-over, “Her hair was the color of gold in old paintings. She had a full set of curves which nobody had been able to improve on. She gave me a look I could feel in my hip pocket.”
Glance, as Richards cast the famed 1940-50’s crime novelist Jim Thompson in as the elderly Judge Grayle. Sylvester Stallone also makes a brief appearance as a thug named Johnnie. But it is Mitchum who owned this film and made Richards’s “Farewell, My Lovely” such an exceptional improvement of the original film version of Chandler’s novel, “Murder My Sweet” (1944), which starred the awkwardly miscast Dick Powell.