Famous for revealing the dark side of American life, film noir from the 1940s and ’50s is beloved of many critics and filmmakers and has inspired more than one homage. Made in 1975, Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely goes further to become an almost obsequious pastiche. Here the evocation extends even to the casting, with Robert Mitchum, himself a veteran of noir, playing Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s detective most famously incarnated by Humphrey Bogart. (Although Lovely was first adapted as Murder My Sweet, with Dick Powell as Marlowe.) And if Lauren Bacall could no longer convince as the siren she played in The Big Sleep, Charlotte Rampling makes a first rate facsimile.
Inevitably, however, there is a difference between the forties and “the forties.” Leave aside the de rigeur color, widescreen photography, heightened violence and expletive-laden dialog that would never have passed the ’40s censor. Richards and company are burdened with the need to “remind” us throughout not just that we’re in the past, but that we’re in a movie made to feel like an artifact from the era. Marlowe’s narration interweaves his recounting of events with Joe DiMaggio’s baseball record, for example. Period products and advertisements are “caught” self-consciously by the camera. David Shire’s wah-wah trombone summons up ’40s blues. But none of these “reminders” reinforces the story the way their equivalents would in a ’40s film. Their primary purpose is not dramatic heightening, but recreating the era.
In short, there is a conceptual sophistication at work in Lovely that necessarily puts everything in quotes. Mitchum is never just Marlowe, he’s Mitchum as Bogart as Marlowe in The Big Sleep. He is quite good, but never able to do anything without ghosts hovering behind him. (When he played Marlowe again, it was in the updated Big Sleep made in 1978.) Similarly, Rampling doesn’t set off the fireworks her character is meant to ignite precisely because she looks so much like Bacall. Both actors are always evoking someone else.
This double-edge keeps Lovely from being as satisfying as it should be. It has no reason for being except in constant comparison with its models. It’s as if we’re expected to check off the macho lead, sexy femme fatale, hard boiled dialog, high contrast cinematography, suits, hats, cars and guns from a mental list of noir expectations and award an A-plus for fidelity. Did anyone involved ask if the check list adds up to an engaging detective mystery? For those who can accept arty meta-cinema, it does, even if you think that noir is overrated. For anyone without at least a modicum of film history knowledge, bemusement seems the likelier response.
Farewell, My Lovely, is, in other words, very much a product of its time, less because of the period nostalgia than in the idea of a major studio investing a big budget in such an intellectual exercise. Now there’s a reason for nostalgia.