Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Brasher Doubloon: No Small Change

Marlowe offers to help Merle with her "man" problems.
Long considered the redheaded stepchild of all the films to feature Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, The Brasher Doubloon (1947, 20th Century Fox) is usually dismissed as inconsequential. Usually from people who haven't seen it.

Not that you can blame most folks for jumping to that conclusion -- the movie's been notoriously hard to find, never officially released on VHS, as far as I know, and rarely shows up on television. Nor is the Chandler novel it's based on -- 1942's The High Window -- generally considered one of his best.

Most reviews, meanwhile, go back to when it was first released, and following as it did Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep and Edward Dymytryk's Murder, My Sweet, two certifiable classics, it was definitely found wanting. It didn't help that what few stills and publicity shots existed have seemed less than encouraging. Most feature George Montgomery (who?) as Marlowe, sporting a cheesy moustache and a shit-eating smirk -- or a look of bland consternation. In fact, if you're looking for big stars or name directors or acting fireworks, this isn't the film you're looking for. So it's safe to say there wasn't a huge demand -- except perhaps among Chandler obsessives -- for this obscure B-film to be released on DVD.

What home video versions have been released over the years have been of dubious legality and technical quality, if you could find them at all.

And yet, there it was under the tree yesterday, The Brasher Doubloon, all wrapped up with a nice bow on it. A complete surprise, I wasn't even aware it had finally been released as an officially sanctioned DVD -- a mere 65 years after its theatrical theatrical debut. Even better though, is that the film, while slight, is a pleasant surprise.

No, really. It's not bad at all. I'm fortunate, I guess, that Mrs. Thrilling (aka "Santa") is as big a Chandler geek as me. We sat down to watch it tonight, a Boxing Day treat.

And yes, Montgomery does have that annoying caterpillar on his upper lip, and his Marlowe is way too upbeat and perky (although he handles the action scenes well enough, and the disdain with which he tosses a downed goon's now empty gun at him is priceless). Nor will the thespian skills of Nancy Guild, as Merle Davis, the sexually repressed secretary to a bullying, Jabba the Hutt-like dowager, have anyone but the morbidly curious scrambling to find her other films.

But that Bambi-in-the-headlights look is just what the role calls for and Guild nails it. Adam over at OCD Viewer describes her as "a little like a softer-featured Margot Kidder," and he may have something there. Guild has a slightly unhinged vulnerability here that, combined with a watery sensuality, makes her a whole new -- and possibly even more dangerous -- type of femme fatale. No wonder Marlowe generously offers to help her overcome her intimacy issues.

But hey, this is a B-film, after all, and any limitations of dramatic range among the leads (or psychological plausibility in the script)  are more than covered by some truly great character bits and some shrewd casting. Among the best: Mrs. Murdock, the wealthy, overbearing, eccentric harpy of client, possibly airlifted from a Charles Dickens novel, and her foppish weasel of a son Lesley (portrayed by a very young, pre-Mork and Mindy Conrad Janis). Toss in a crew of tough-as-spit bulldog LA cops in need of distemper shots and a parade of grotesque thugs and you've got a show. My faves included the long tall drink of polluted water in the straw boater who confronts Marlowe early on and the twitchy blackmailer who can't quite bring himself to look Marlowe in the eye and instead rubs his finger back and forth on the desk. It makes for one of the best rogue's galleries of geeks and freaks this side of Huston's The Maltese Falcon.

And this is all in service of a clean, relatively straightforward screenplay by Dorothy Bennett (who?) that leans heavily on Chandler's penchant for wisecracks. She took some liberties, naturally, and some of it seems "borrowed" from other, better films, but it follows a more-or-less logical progression, and some strong, sure-handed direction by John Brahm (who?) brings it on home.

And, oh, those camera shots! Some of the location shots of 40s Los Angeles and environs -- from the opulently decadent Murdock mansion in Pasadena to the seedy apartment buildings of an already decaying Bunker's Hill -- are eye-popping. This is not some sterile, carefully reconstructed period piece with all the warmth of a LEGO brick -- this is the real deal.

Were this a better known film, some of those images would be almost downright iconic.

As it is, although the film is not in itself particularly noir (it's alternately too glib and too cheesy, and the too-cute-by-half ending would be more at home in a screwball romantic comedy), the oddball camera angles, stark lighting and freak show characterizations (not to mention some true ugliness that comes slithering out when the true villain is revealed) suggest what might have been.

Don't get me wrong. We're not talking any lost classic here -- it's just a good, solid B-flick -- but The Brasher Doubloon is far better and far more entertaining than I -- or possibly even you -- ever thought it would be. 

Take a chance.  You've got a movie here.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Kiss from Montreal

I'm currently reading River City by John Farrow (real name Trevor Ferguson).

It's a big pretentious messy historical fiction/crime novel about Montreal, the river city of the title, that has -- so far-- included Jacques Cartier, the Maurice Richard riots, Samuel de Champlain, stories of the "Open City," Pierre Elliot Trudeau, politics, the bold theft of a priceless artifact, Hurons, crazy priests, kidnapping, hockey, the Sun Life Building, corruption, Mohawks, French-Canadian nationalists, de Maisonneauve, murder, the founding of Montreal and even Farrow's own detective from two previous novels, Cinq-Mars, appearing as a young kid. It jumps all over the place, from the beginning of time to about 1955 (so far), and its universe is still expanding, even as other stories and characters and subplots play out and then disappear. Suffice it to say it's a heady trip.

And, as I said, it's big, pretentious and messy. It's a whopper -- it's close to 1000 pages, and it's bold and audacious. And I'm loving every minute of it. Which may be why I'm going on about a book I haven't even finished.

Oh, I'm sure there are those who will quibble (or be out right pissed off) with Farrow's interpretation of some sacred incident or beloved figure in our shared but fractious history (I know I squirmed a few times), but hey, we're Montrealers. That's what we do -- we argue and debate and discuss politics and history and hockey and art and life with heat and passion. Preferably over great food and drink.

I'm not even sure if anyone who hasn't truly loved Montreal will really "get" this book (it's not even available in the States -- my kids sent it to me for my birthday). But for anyone who's ever wandered too far from home, but still burns with memories of standing amidst the swirl of Ste. Catherine Street and breathing in the heady perfume of a city that's truly alive, walked into a taverne and held up two fingers to some waiter known simply as "Chief" or stood on the lookout on Mont Royal and gazed out with awe and affection upon the St. Lawrence and the River City and a forest of church steeples rising up from an endless sea of tenements toward heaven, this is like a French kiss from home, all unexpected passion and love and sloppiness; a warm, lingering kiss that hits you hard in all the right places.

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