Robert Mitchum is just one of many terrific performers in ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ from 1975

Farewell, My Lovely/1975/Embassy Pictures/97 min.

If you get a chuckle out of Patty and Selma Bouvier of “The Simpsons,” the Laramie-puffing, big-haired sisters with terrible taste in men, you’ll enjoy the raspy-voiced alcoholic widow Jessie Florian of 1975’s “Farewell, My Lovely.” Actress Sylvia Miles earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of this sad and seedy lady.

Charlotte Rampling

Miles is just one of many superb performers in this movie, notably Robert Mitchum as private investigator Philip Marlowe and Charlotte Rampling, a judge’s wife, bored to tears in their May/December relationship.

Having starred in many stand-out noirs as a younger actor (“Out of the Past,” “Angel Face” are two of the finest noirs ever made), Mitchum once again lends his sexy, sleepy indolence to the part of a burned-out and baleful detective at the end of his career.

Directed by Dick Richards and written by David Zelag Goodman, “Farewell” is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, published in 1940. Director Edward Dmytryk brought the book to the screen in 1944 as “Murder, My Sweet,” a seminal noir starring Dick Powell and Claire Trevor. (The title was changed because Powell, a song and dance man, was playing off-type and studio execs didn’t want audiences to think it was a musical.  It was also filmed in 1942 as “The Falcon Takes Over.”)

“Murder My Sweet,” with its sordid criminals and Expressionist sensibility, was a triumph for Dmytryk and his team. Even so, the film only skimmed the surface of Chandler’s darkness; by 1975, topics like prostitution and racism, in addition to garden-variety crime, could be addressed on the big screen.

The movie opens with David Shire’s luscious score and shots of 1940s Los Angeles at night, bathed in neon light. There we see Mitchum in a dumpy hotel room (you were expecting the Four Seasons?) reflecting over the past few months — rotten weather and rubbing elbows with lowlifes and deadbeats.  Weary of “ducking police” and apparently needing to confess, he calls Det. Lt. Nulty (John Ireland), who agrees to come to the hotel. While waiting for Nulty to arrive, Marlowe begins a second flashback, in which Nulty is a participant, and we get to the meat of the story.

On a boring bread-and-butter case, Marlowe bumps into Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), long on brawn, short on brains and just out of jail.  Moose wants Marlowe to find his girlfriend, a one-time showgirl named Velma, whom he describes as “cute as lace pants.”

The pair head to Florian’s nightclub in search of clues. Nothing turns up, though, and the frustrated Malloy kills a guy with his bare hands. Back to the slammer for the ungentle giant? Well, since the victim is black, the cops aren’t going to do much about it. Next stop for Marlowe: A visit to Jessie Florian’s, with a big bottle of cheap booze in hand. Upon seeing Marlowe, Jessie dons her best bathrobe and turns on the charm.

Meanwhile, a very different client, the posh and effeminate Lindsay Marriott (John O’Leary) hires Marlowe to be a bodyguard during an attempt to retrieve a stolen jade necklace. You’d think the fact that Marriott shows up in a disco suit much like John Travolta’s in “Saturday Night Fever” might put Marlowe off.  Instead, the job opens the door to a circle of unsavory mover/shaker types.

There’s elderly and insipid Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle (a cameo role for Jim Thompson, a famed noir writer of the ’50s); his much younger wife Helen (Charlotte Rampling), ravishing, shrewd, brash and, like Jesse Florian, very fond of strong cocktails; the mannish madame of a high-class whorehouse Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh); and the suave but slippery Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe). As Brunette puts it: “All I do is run towns, elect judges and mayors, corrupt police, peddle dope, ice old ladies with pearls.”

Also in the mix are some heavies (a young Sly Stallone) and several sold-out cops (Harry Dean Stanton for one). Marlowe unravels every ugly secret and, after being seduced, drugged, deluded and shot at, he seems to age before our eyes. Unlike Dick Powell in the 1944 version, this Marlowe is utterly and completely alone. As he puts it: “Everything I touch turns to shit. I’ve got a hat, a coat and a gun. That’s it.”

A perfect finish to a neo noir that recreates a retro vibe without glossing over any of society’s ills, as Chandler saw them. And Mitchum, 57 at the time, is the perfect actor for this part. Some critics argue that he was too old to play Marlowe, but I disagree.

This tattered and tired portrayal is truer to Chandler’s character than any other previous incarnation, including Powell, Humphrey Bogart and Elliott Gould (“The Long Goodbye,” 1973).  Mitchum’s raw humanity shows us a burned-out lonely man, privy to the lowest depths of greed, perversity and corruption, yet still capable of sincere kindness and sympathy.  He looks and acts exactly the way you’d expect of someone long exposed to cheaters, thieves, blackmailers and other assorted crooks.

Rampling has never looked, well, lovelier, and she inhabits her character with an icy precision that borders on the robotic. Ireland, O’Halloran, O’Leary, Zerbe and Murtagh all shine; but it’s Miles who steals the show. Besides great acting, “Farewell, My Lovely” is neatly written and nicely paced, though the flashback construction seems needlessly clumsy and slightly confusing.  

Unfortunately, the richness of “Farewell, My Lovely” was not replicated in 1978, when Mitchum again starred as Marlowe, in a British version of  Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” directed by Michael Winner, set in London instead of Los Angeles and boasting a supporting cast that included James Stewart, Joan Collins and John Mills. The NY Times called it a “gauche blunder.”

“The Big Sleep” probably was a mistake, but Mitchum wasn’t in the habit of taking himself too seriously. Perhaps because he considered acting to be easy money he saw no reason to pass up another paycheck.

I sometimes wonder if Mitchum was ever hungry for recognition of his fine, understated acting.  He definitely deserved it.

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