A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Los Angeles, 1941. A run-down street of seedy shop fronts and blinking neon signs. Music from somewhere features a lonely horn. The camera pans up to a second-story window of a flophouse. In the window, his hat pushed back, his tie undone, Philip Marlowe lights another cigaret and waits for the cops to arrive. He is ready to tell his story.
These opening shots are so evocative of Raymond Chandler's immortal Marlowe, archtypical private eye, haunting the underbelly of Los Angeles, that if we're Chandler fans we hold our breath. Is the ambience going to be maintained, or will this be another campy rip-off? Half an hour into the movie, we relax. "Farewell, My Lovely" never steps wrong.
It is, indeed, the most evocative of all the private detective movies we have had in the last few years. It is not as great as Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," which was concerned with larger subjects, but in the genre itself there hasn't been anything this good since Hollywood was doing Philip Marlowe the first time around. One reason is that Dick Richards, the director, takes his material and character absolutely seriously. He is not uneasy with it, as Robert Altman was when he had Elliot Gould flirt with seriousness in "The Long Goodbye:" Richards doesn't hedge his bet.
And neither does Robert Mitchum, in what becomes his definitive performance. Mitchum is one of the great screen presences, and at 57 he seems somehow to be just now coming of age: He was born to play the weary, cynical, doggedly romantic Marlowe. His voice and his face and the way he lights his cigaret are all exactly right, and seem totally effortless. That's his trademark. In a good Mitchum performance, we are never aware he is acting. And it is only when we measure the distances between his characters that we can see what he is doing.