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Friday Noir: The Brasher Doubloon

 

Written by Dorothy Bennett, Leonard Praskins
Directed by John Brahm
U.S.A., 1947

Philip Marlow is arguably author Raymond Chandler’s most famous, recognizable creation. The anti-hero of a series of detective stories published during the 1930s and 1940s, Marlowe sifted his way through cases of murder and theft, always encountering a bevy of colourful characters along the way. His literary exploits were so resoundingly popular with the public that it didn’t take long before Hollywood came calling to adapt his misadventures for the silver screen. A few of the cinematic translations have gone on to resonate in film noir lore, most notably Murder, My Sweet (the title of which was changed from Farewell, My Lovely), The Lady in the Lake (notorious for the first person POV from which the entire story is relayed), and The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Among Chandler’s lesser known stories is The High Window, published in 1942, which found its way to cinemas in 1947 under the name The Brasher Doubloon.

Directed by John Brahm and adapted for film by scribes Dorothy Bennett and Leonard Praskins, Doubloon introduces the audience to Marlowe (George Montgomery) in the opening scene as he arrives at the lavish, awe-inspiring house belonging to Mrs. Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates). It is a hot, extremely windy Californian day (“you can taste the sand for weeks,” complains Marlowe in his narration) when Marlowe meets the young lady who made the call to his office, Merle Davis (Nancy Guild). Merle is Mrs. Murdock’s personal aid of sorts, the elder lady reduced to spending her days at home mostly. The necessity for the private detective’s skill set stems from a precious coin missing from the proprietor’s collection, a Brasher Doubloon, a mint infamous for its violent history and much sought after by collectors. A fiendishly tempestuous personality, Mrs. Murdock claims to know who stole it, but won’t divulge the info, an early sign that something is amiss. The women’s son, Leslie (Conrad Janis), proves just as disagreeable, if not more so. The only sane one in the house is Merle, which is saying a lot given that a major trauma in her recent past has resulted in her suffering from a mild mental derangement!

Taking in director Brahm’s light, frothy picture makes for a curious experience. On the one hand, the film is rarely, if ever mentioned in the same sentence as the aforementioned, iconic Philip Marlow cinematic escapades, and there may be some fairly obvious reasons for its lack of gravitas in film connoisseur consciousness. On the other hand, it makes for a surprisingly enjoyable, amusingly serpentine investigation that tickles one’s funny bone on a few occasions. Great strengths and a couple weaknesses fight it out for supremacy, the contest ultimately ending slightly in favour of the pros.

Few viewers sitting down to engage in a Marlow film should expect a simple plot. Nay, it seems as though Chandler and the screenwriters that accepted to challenge of morphing his novels into screenplays saw fit to make the ABCs as convoluted as possible. The reasoning may be that, the more complex the plot, the fewer questions seeking logical explanations the viewer will ask given that wrapping one’s head around the plot points is headache too inducing to begin with, so why even bother? When prompted to provide insight into The Big Sleep’s story, Chandler has been quoted as saying he never really figured it out himself. This came from the chap who wrote the novel. The Brasher Doubloon falls comfortably into that very category, with Marlow zipping across Los Angeles and its surroundings quicker than one can count sand pebbles, crossing paths with a collection of nutty, neurotic folk who sometimes assist the private eye, other times set out to thwart his sleuthing.

Therein lies one of the film’s strengths; the very people that Marlow must contend with, both friends and foes. Taken as a collective, Doubloon may have one of the stronger supporting teams in any Marlow movie. Virtually every scene introduces a new face, each one perfectly cast to play their parts to the hilt, relishing the opportunity to portray things that look like human beings, but whose behaviour is more akin to zany cartoon characters. In all honesty, that’s not a negative, far from it, even. The film’s great joy is witnessing their introductions and reappearances. The responses these people have to Marlow’s questions or threats (when the protagonist is under duress) regularly paste a huge grin onto one’s face. Chief among them is a lowly collector named Vannier, played by Fritz Kortner. Highly obsessive over obtaining the Doubloon, he is as offbeat and silly as he is dangerous towards Marlow’s safety. Director Brahm just keeps these societal freaks coming, rolling them out depending on the plot’s fits of fancy, and Doubloon is all the better for it.

The film’s glaring weakness is also a piece of bitter irony. Of all the bizarre denizens the viewer gets to acquaint themselves with, the least appealing is Philip Marlow. Seeing the anti-hero played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell is one thing, but George Montgomery, pretty face aside, cannot hold a candle his thespian colleagues. His is a strange performance. Just as everyone is playing their roles up to 11, Montgomery appears to be dialling his down a few notches. One could understand that Marlow is trying to play things cool amidst the hoopla, yet the performance never seems sufficiently calibrated with the rest of the picture. What’s more, Montgomery simply lacks the effortless charm and hard-nosed bravura that Powell and Bogey can exude whilst barely flexing an acting muscle. A pity, really, seeing as virtually every character is awesome save for the one named Philip Marlow.

The Brasher Doubloon may be considered a mixed bag insofar as its chief protagonist is a bit of a bore. That would seem unfair however, because many other elements work wonders. So the quest to locate a missing coin is not the most inspiring smoking gun to call in a private eye, but that doesn’t prevent The Maltese Falcon from being a lauded masterpiece and in that film Sam Spade is after a small bust. Disappointing incarnation of film noir’s most famous anti-hero aside, The Brasher Doubloon is well worth the viewer’s time. It’s a little crazy and filled with plenty of oddball faces, but one shouldn’t expect anything less from a Chandler adaptation.

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