In true, neo-noir fashion, it begins with the protagonist caught in a problem of him being blamed for two murders. It starts with the voiceover summing up in a roundabout way until he picks up the phone to the police. “Come alone” is the last thing said to the policeman so he can explain it all; it’s when he meets the policeman that he begins to tell us his story.
It’s 1941 and we’re in Los Angeles, we have Robert Mitchum playing Philip Marlowe, a detective who has been hired by ex-convict Moose Malloy (Jack O’Hallorhan) to find the love of his life, a stripper/hooker from a seedy bar named Velma but it obviously escalates from there. While investigating this for Moose, he also investigates the theft of a jade necklacke and the cases start to connect. The story is always twisting and turning, the less you know the better with a satisfying conclusion in a standard way but a bit of a disappointment in a way too. It’s a bit conflicting in that sense.
Director Dick Richards maintains the ambience set up from the beginning which is one of its strong points. It holds the ambiance of the sleazy, smokey, racist 1940s to great effect, feeling it like a noir and not a camp rip-off or parody that it could easily become. The seriousness is infectious, it holds true throughout with Marlowe’s witty character that cracks wise at great opportunities. The script is written in the true dialect with many a great line like “[whilst being shaken] …quit trying to make a milkshake out of my insides, will ya?!” which is a funny line but it maintains its foggy tone which is a feat.
What aids this is Robert Mitchum’s performance. It feels as though he was almost built for the part alone; the costume fits him perfectly and his comfort shines through as he effortlessly utters the words. It’s a brilliant performance that’s naturalistic but being varied from his other work showing his talent. His narration is another thing that tops it off; the tone that everything is said in is a true gritty, private eye way, it’s everything you expect of a neo-noir.
What you have here is a very solid film that zings as well as zigs and zags to keep you guessing. The connections come in clue by clue, hint by hint. It’s a steady progression that leads to the end of his story to the detective and the beginning of the actual ending. The competent direction assists this from becoming another average noir rip off but a must see of the neo-noir genre falling only a bit shy of Chinatown which is definitely a compliment. The sleazy lights, the lonely musical score which has an outstanding song in the form of Marlowe’s Theme to open and close it with is great. It helps set the mood necessary along with Mitchum. Thoroughly pleasing film that has a checklist of neo-noir necessities to learn from. You can also see Sylvester Stallone a year before he became a huge name with the Rocky release.