(director: Paul Bogart; screenwriters: from a novel “The Little Sister” by Raymond Chandler/Stirling Silliphant; cinematographer: William H. Daniels; editor: Gene Ruggiero; music: Peter Matz; cast: James Garner (Philip Marlowe), Gayle Hunnicutt (Mavis Wald), Carroll O’Connor (Lieutenant Christy French), Rita Moreno (Dolores Gonzales), Sharon Farrell (Orfamay Quest), H.M. Wynant (Sonny Steelgrave), William Daniels (Mr. Crowell), Kenneth Tobey (Sergeant Fred Beifus), Jackie Coogan (Grant W. Hicks), Bruce Lee (Winslow Wong), Christopher Cary (Chuck, gay hairdresser), George Tyne (Oliver Hady), Paul Stevens (Dr. Vincent Lagardie), Corinne Camacho (Julie), Roger Newman (Orrin Quest), Reed Morgan (Gumpshaw), Warren Finnerty (Hotel Manager), Orphels (Singer of theme song); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Gabriel Katzka/Sidney Beckerman; MGM; 1969)
“A thoroughly enjoyable Philip Marlowe mystery.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A thoroughly enjoyable Philip Marlowe mystery. Paul Bogart directs Marlowe with stylish aplomb. It’s based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “The Little Sister,” with the richly textured screenplay provided by Stirling Silliphant. This is the first new Marlowe in the last 20 years, and James Garner as the legendary gumshoe turns out to be a perfect fit. He has the proper large body frame for the part as was written by Chandler and easily pulls off the wise guy attitude that is essential for the character. The others who played Marlowe ranged from Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery and George Montgomery. There were several changes from the novel, as Chandler wrote about the movie studio moguls in less than glowing terms. He referred to the moguls as venal figures and their stars as a bunch of high-maintenance creeps. MGM didn’t want to deal with that, so the movie stars were turned into TV stars. Also, the movie was transported into the fast paced world of the 1960s and calls attention to the drug and hippie culture notable at the time in LA.
After Marlowe is hired for $50 by the demure blonde from Kansas, Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), to find her missing brother Orrin (Roger Newman), he tracks him down to a hippie hotel called the Infinite Pad. The dump is secretly owned by Dr. Lagardie (Paul Stevens), who also runs a clinic for disturbed young people. Marlowe’s search comes up empty as he finds another man, Grant W. Hicks (Jackie Coogan), occupying the room where Orrin was registered for. When he is about to leave, he finds the junkie hotel manager (Finnerty) stabbed to death with an ice pick in his back. He recognizes that as the signature style of killing used by the notorious gangster Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wynant). But the detectives who question him, Lieutenant Christy French (Carroll O’Connor) and Sergeant Fred Beifus (Kenneth Tobey), don’t buy into that.
The next day Marlowe receives a call from Hicks, who hires him for a $100 a day because he’s in trouble over some photos. When Marlowe arrives at his Hotel Alvarado room, he is conked on the head by a woman who flees disguised in a black felt hat, black shiny raincoat, and wearing white gloves. After discovering his new client has also been stabbed to death with an ice pick and finding in Hick’s toupee a stub for the photos in question, he retrieves the photos and realizes his client was horning in on a blackmailing scheme that Orrin had going for him. The pictures are of hot comedy TV sitcom star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt) and the gangster Steelgrave embracing, as it dawns on him that she was the one who conked him on the noggin and was there trying to retrieve the photos from the blackmailer.
When Marlowe visits Mavis’s penthouse pad, he’s greeted by her best friend Dolores Gonzalez (Rita Moreno). She’s a sexy stripper, whose ex-husband was Dr. Lagardie and she was Steelgrave’s moll before he dumped her for Mavis. Mavis calls Steelgrave to tell him that Marlowe has the photos, as his henchmen rough him up outside in the parking lot of her building and tear his suit to shreds in an attempt to get them. Marlowe has mailed the photos to himself and now takes them to Mavis’s TV producer, Mr. Crowell (William Daniels), who says the photos are not lurid but could be damaging to her career if the newspapers got a hold of them and the stories started coming out linking her to a mobster. Crowell then hires Marlowe to protect his hot property.
The plot line starts getting more complicated, as the case has grown to murder from its start as a missing person one. A karate expert, Winslow Wong, is hired by Steelgrave to put the heat on Marlowe. He is played by none other than renown martial arts expert Bruce Lee in his pre-star days. He offers Marlowe money to forget looking for Orrin. When Marlowe refuses, Wong tears up his office karate style in an hilarious scene. It’s a classic in physical comedy. Meanwhile the cops return to question Marlowe and start harassing him about being around when the two ice pick vics were eliminated.
To make the murder case even more murky, when Marlowe goes to meet Mavis in Steelgraves’ mansion he discovers the gangster dead and Mavis confessing to killing him. In this intriguing maze of corruption and deceit, Marlowe tries to make things add up in an ethical way. Everyone either seems to be not who they are (like his first client Orfamay being the sister of Mavis) or they want him dead. The one thing he’s sure of, is that his client didn’t do the killing (there was no gun powder on her hands) and he therefore goes to the trouble of making the gangster’s death look like a suicide to keep her away from the cops and her name out of the newspapers. But the cops don’t buy into this clumsy attempt to coverup a murder, but let him go because he convinces them he’s on the trail of the killer and won’t leave town. As for the blackmail part, he keeps the cops in the dark and decides to burn the photos.
By the concluding scene, everything comes together: the missing Orrin is found dead (Orfamay learns of her brother’s death in a coffee shop at the railroad station as Marlowe tells her by projecting his voice over the lady sitting at the counter next to her), all the killers get killed, and the blackmail scheme is hushed by the tight-lipped Marlowe. Marlowe wraps up the case with the charm of a smooth gumshoe who doesn’t have a care in the world, even though he almost got killed, was almost arrested, and almost had his private eye license removed. But in this modern version he loses some of the existential qualities of the previous ones who played Marlowe, as by the 1960s a corrupt modern world is no longer a shocking discovery for the anachronistic detective. Garner’s sense of chivalry and acting for what is right, can no longer be fully appreciated by his new breed of clients. With the Vietnam War in full progress and society in a social revolution at the time the film was made, the modern Marlowe sticks out like a sore thumb for his virtuousness and incorruptibility and belief in family values. This version pleased me immensely, as it was an engaging update even if it differs in mood from the other versions and is not the definitive Marlowe as was Bogey’s.
REVIEWED ON 2/25/2003 GRADE: A