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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Blogger Guillaume said...

I read The High Window, I didn't find it that memorable to be honest. Maybe I was not in the right state of mind.

2:38 PM, December 31, 2012  
Anonymous Ron DeSourdis said...

It's probably been 35 or 40 years since I saw it, and all I remember liking about this flick was Florence Bates (an actress always worth watching) as the formidable Mrs. Murdock. Most other memories are unpleasant: in true 1940s Hollywood style, all man-shy Nancy Guild has to do is remove her specs and, presto-changeo, she's a sexpot. And I think George Montgomery would have fared poorly enough as Marlowe without the Errol-Flynn mustache, thank you. That alone smacks of one of the biggest movie betrayals of Chandler (prior to Altman, that is).

Still, maybe I'll watch it again and pay more attention to the location work.

By the way, John Brahm may not have been a top drawer Hollywood director, but he does have 1944's "The Lodger" and the following year's "Hangover Square" to his credit.

11:29 AM, January 01, 2013  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

THE HIGH WINDOW isn't one of Chandler's best, but even sub-par Chandler is miles above most of his contemporaries. As for the film, Ron, I think it's the casting that really impressed me, not just Bates but Guild (who I thought was hot even WITH glasses) and several of the crooks were so well cast there was little acting required.
Although Montgomery was definitely miscast. His Marlowe was too glib, too geeky, too upbeat.
I'm not sure you could tag Altman's portrayal as any more of a betrayal, though, than Hawks', who turned repressed, virtuous Phil into a wink wink nudge nudge horn dog on the prowl in THE BIG SLEEP. Chandler's Marlowe would never have boinked the bookstore clerk just to kill time.

12:27 AM, January 04, 2013  
Anonymous Ron DeSourdis said...

Oh, you'll get no argument from me on that score. I am forever mystified by the number of people who seem so feel Bogart is actually playing Philip Marlowe, let alone that his performance is one of the best portrayals of that character. In fact, I have for many years been nominating the original "The Big Sleep" as the Most Overrated Hollywood Film Ever. In fact, I had that scene with Dorothy Malone in mind when I mentioned the cliche about the woman removing her eyeglasses.

But how anyone can think of the 1973 "Long Goodbye" as reflecting any truth other than its director's overinflated opinion of himself, let alone having any connection to Chandler, is beyond me.

Sorry. I will definitely see "The Brasher Doubloon" again on your reccomendation (besides, I recently re-read the book for the umpteenth time, and must admit I enjoyed it.)

10:09 AM, January 08, 2013  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Hi Kevin,
I was re-reading your entry on Richard Boone’s Paladin, remembering his 1968 TV movie Kona Coast, which was based on a John D. MacDonald story. What I remembered most was how Boone (in Kona Coast) & Travis McGee had the same romantic streak as Ray Chandler. Except … while Chandler is the romantic, we never forget that behind that romantic veneer is a cornered snarling animal. Hope all is well is sunny So Cal!

7:40 PM, January 09, 2013  
Anonymous Joel Lyczak said...

I watched THE BRASHER DOUBLOON on Youtube. Not great, not horrible. Boy, if they had put Mitchum in this as Marlowe it might have been thought of in a better way. I did like the outside shots of L.A. and the Santa Ana wind being referenced; I bet the screenwriter read RED WIND. Definitely worth a viewing. Youtube also has WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL, based on the MacLean novel. Anthony Hopkins playing a Bond-like character the way Fleming's novels portrayed 007.

10:50 AM, August 17, 2014  

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