The Runt of the Marlowe Litter

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Over the years “The Brasher Doubloon” has gained the dubious honor of being regarded as the least of the four Philip Marlowe films, each produced by a different studio, in the 1940s. I’m not at all certain that this evaluation is just.
To be sure, it is the briefest of the Marlowes at a mere 72 minutes. That fact alone makes it seem to be a “B” picture trying to pass as an “A.” Also, most critics of the film don’t have a lot of good things to say about George Montgomery’s performance. Too lightweight. Too young. Too breezy, Lose the moustache. Then too, He’s Not Humphrey Bogart. (And he plays golf–something no one could imagine Bogart doing!)
I suspect that the running time was due to studio interference. I’ll have more to say about that shortly. As for Montgomery, I think he was passable in the role. It’s true that his Marlowe comes off as a bit of a smart-ass, but he’s definitely not lightweight. He plays Marlowe as a typically resourceful ‘Forties private eye if not the “soiled Galahad” of Chandler’s novels. He’s quick thinking and he negotiates the legal niceties of his job with flair. Yes, he lacks the gravitas of Bogart, but he is playing a younger Marlowe, and he’s looking for a stolen coin, not dealing with a case of blackmail and murder.
Coming off of the twin triumphs of “The Lodger” and “Hangover Square,” director John Brahm drenched the film in mood. He was the first director to take advantage of Raymond Chandler’s description of the Santa Ana winds as being conducive to violence and crime. The hot, dry wind is in evidence for much of the film, especially in the scenes set in the forbidding Murdoch mansion. As opposed to patently artificial, studio-bound look that Robert Montgomery relied upon for his subjective-camera Marlowe film “The Lady in the Lake,” “The Brasher Doubloon” is mostly filmed on location and this is a definite plus. Neither does Brahm’s Marlowe operate in the Expressionist wonderland of the Dick Powell/Edward Dmytryk “Murder, My Sweet.” Brahm’s Marlowe lives and works in 1947 Los Angeles.
Another point worth noting: I think that “The Brasher Doubloon” is the only one of the classic Marlowe films to actually show where Marlowe lives. Dick Powell’s Marlowe appeared to live in his grubby office, and Bogart’s Marlowe was constantly in motion barely showing up even at his office. Robert Montgomery’s Marlowe had an office, but appeared to spend a lot of time in Adrienne Fromsett’s plush apartment. But George Montgomery’s Marlowe actually has an apartment of his own–and lives in it. It’s nothing fancy, comfortably middle class, but far from the dingy dive that the less successful (and later murdered) private detective Anson inhabits in the Bunker Hill section of the city. (Once the choice place to live according to Montgomery’s voice-over, now the place to live when you have no choice.)
Now about that suspected studio interference. At 72-minutes the film definitely feels rushed. At one point, as Marlowe escapes from some hostile gangsters, he flees through what looks like a left-over set from “The Lodger.” It sure doesn’t look like anything you’d expect to see in 1947 Los Angeles. It’s clear that this sequence was shot after the fact to patch up some holes in the continuity. Why would Fox have done this–especially with Brahm coming off of back-to-back successes for the studio? I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that the film’s leading lady was a hot young Fox property, actress Nancy Guild (“It rhymes with ‘Wild’!”). I doubt that the powers that be at Fox wanted Guild to appear as a mentally disturbed possible murderess. That might lead to a fatal case of type-casting, and Fox already had Hope Emerson to play female psychotics.
Generally studios produced lobby card sets to highlight key scenes in a film. They were like Coming Attractions printed on 11×14-inch paper. If you were to view a lobby set to “The Brasher Doubloon” then plunked down your 25 cents to view the film, you would disappointed, to say the least. Four of the eight cards depict scenes that don’t appear in the finished film–and Guild is in every one of them. This suggests to me that the Fox execs saw Brahm’s first cut of the film, and didn’t like what they saw. Thus wholesale cuts were decreed and some hastily filmed pick-up shots were executed to try to pull things together. The cards suggest that Guild was initially playing a harder, perhaps more neurotic heroine than the Matt Helm-ish sex kitten that she became in the release cut of the film. Stephen Pendo’s book Raymond Chandler on Film: His Novels Into Film quotes from the script suggesting that in fact Marlowe’s escape from the gangsters was a late addition. In the script he simply leaves the coin with a cashier at the coffee shop, then goes back and retrieves it–all very 1947 L.A.
But even with this tampering, Brahm still managed to release a moody, entertaining “B” mystery with an “A” cast. Noted character actors Florence Bates, Roy Roberts, Jack Overman, Marvin Miller, Alfred Linder, Houseley Stevenson and the great German émigré actor Fritz Kortner all appeared in the cast. Each contributed something to the whole. Yes, Bates’ climactic breakdown is a bit over the top, but that’s not usual for a “B” movie where subtlety had to be sacrificed for speed. Roy Roberts gives a delightful display of petulance when, as Lt. Breeze, he realizes that Marlowe has been stringing him along. Jack Overman is the ultimate slob-landlord, Marvin Miller exudes sleepy menace as a nightclub impresario and Alfred Linder sports a deformed right eye and oozes sarcasm as his enforcer. Houseley Stevenson is properly devious as coin-dealer Elisha Morningstar. At least one critic has groused that replacing Chandler’s blackmail photo with a spool of blackmail film was mere artifice, but I prefer to think that Brahm was perhaps thinking of all those talented Germans reduced by Hitler and his regime to begging for work in Hollywood. Like the cameraman Rudolf Vannier in fiction, in real life even the great Eugen Schufftan was unable to get a union card to be a Hollywood cinematographer and often had to work, as he did in Edgar G. Ulmer’s “Bluebeard” behind made-up titles that concealed his real contributions. Adding to the effect was the casting of Kortner who offers a sad portrait of crushed dignity and a certain glimmer of madness when Montgomery allows him a brief glimpse of the coveted doubloon. Reed Hadley also appears in the lobby cards at least, though his part as a friendly neighbor and psychiatrist who is asked by Montgomery to watch Guild is reduced to a wordless walk-on in the release cut. It’s a pity there were no DVD’s and Director’s Cut features in the 1940s. I would SO much like to what John Brahm had originally intended for us to see. But even in its present reduced state, “The Brasher Doubloon” is still worth a sympathetic viewing.

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