The Brasher Doubloon: No Small Change
|Marlowe offers to help Merle with her "man" problems.|
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.