Wednesday, February 03, 2021

The Brasher Doubloon

There. No-one can say I haven't reviewed all four Philip Marlowe movies made in the 1940s despite how I've occasionally mentioned how weird it is that four different studios did one, each with a different lead actor, in such a short span of time. I have finished something during the pandemic!

I've put this off in part do to format snobbery; as a relatively early adopter of Blu-ray (thought that came after my HD-DVD player) and then excited fan of 4K presentations who has been fortunate enough to live near theaters that often show this sort of thing on 35mm film for the past twenty-odd years, it's been pretty easy to look at this film only being available on DVD-R and figure I'd wait for something better. It's not even necessarily a deliberate decision; I just don't pay attention to the DVD-only section of release lists and always had enough reasons to go out or enough coming in that I didn't need to go looking for more. Occasionally I'd do something like follow links on IMDB from something else, be reminded this exists, and hope I had a chance to see it in something better than standard-definition.

I finally pulled the trigger on it a couple months ago, and it was a pretty good impulse. I don't recall consciously thinking that Disney would probably pull the plug on the Cinema Archives manufacture-on-demand line if they hadn't already, or that it would be harder for the Brattle or Harvard Film Archive to book this one for a theoretical Chandler and/or Marlowe series (note to anyone reading: A Chandler/Marlowe series would be fantastic), but that's probably the case, right? I'm not sure how much they've been letting deep Twentieth Century Fox catalog titles show up in other places (from TCM to KinoLorber Studio Classics) despite not really having a place for them in-house. Stuff like this doesn't really fit on Disney+ and Hulu is still sort of inching its way toward being "the Fox/Touchstone things that don't fit on Disney+" (which is also what I presume Star is going to be outside the States), but as a result of the merger, Disney has a whole massive library of cinema that stretches back to the silent age that they're really not positioned to exploit. Although, I suppose, now that they've more or less reverted the brand to "Twentieth Century" - thanks, Murdoch, for making the Fox name that toxic! - they'd be in pretty good position to launch classic-film/TV service by that name that includes both the TCF catalog and the less-beloved parts of the Disney library.

Anyway, for what it was, the disc didn't look bad on my TV at all. I don't know how much of that is a really nice transfer/encode and how much that is my UHD player doing a really nice job of upscaling, but the end result was that after an FBI warning screen that did not scale well at all, but it was good enough for me to maybe start paying a bit more attention to what sort of catalog stuff is available on DVD, because that format still owns a huge chunk of what's left of the home-video market, and with the folks who own most of the movies seeing streaming as the future but not necessarily seeing catalog titles as worth the effort to have at the ready, that may be the only way you can both see some of these movies now and be able to recommend them to a friend next week. Heck, this one's just barely available at Amazon and doesn't show up on JustWatch at all, so if you're curious, grab it now.

The Brasher Doubloon

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off-the-shelf, DVD)

There was a period in the mid-1940s when four different studios adapted four of Raymond Chandler's novels featuring private eye Philip Marlowe in as many years with as many actors, which from a modern perspective seems absolutely bizarre. Even more so, two were remakes of a sort, as the studios had purchased Chandler's novels when they were thought of as mere pulps to use their plots in B-movie series, making new versions when Chandler became more famous and respectable. That's the case with The Brasher Doubloon; Fox's second adaptation of The High Window isn't quite a half-hearted cash-in, but even as an okay B-movie it's certainly the least interesting of the four Marlowe movies.

It opens with Marlowe (George Montgomery) being called to Pasadena; secretary Merle Davis (Nancy Guild) pulled his name from the phone book to recover a coin stolen from the collection of her employer Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates), although Florence's son Leslie (Conrad Janis) assures him that it's not necessary. He's already on the case, though, so he starts following what leads there are - and finds his first corpse on his second stop.

The plots were never the most important pieces of a Marlowe story, and this one in particular is a scavenger hunt that Marlowe never has to work terribly hard to figure out. It's got the usual pieces - the thing hidden in a locker, the apartments and offices conveniently left unlocked after their occupant has been murdered, Marlowe just pocketing any gun he finds and creating a real chain-of-custody mess for the district attorney to deal with later. Fortunately, one can still at least see some of what made Chandler's stories stand out (aside from the delightful language) - the hard shell over a soft and gallant night, the way the city grinds some people to a paste but doesn't make them stop hustling, the nastiness hidden behind privilege. That it doesn't always hold together is not a big deal, because concentrating on the details would mean losing sight of the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, the studio isn't throwing its A list at this movie the way Warner did with The Big Sleep, and while George Montgomery shouldn't necessarily be trying to imitate Bogart's Marlowe, he never seems to get the character on more than a surface level, making for a clean-cut detective whose corner-cutting and cynicism often comes across as bullying rather than a shield for how he cares too much. A little comes out in narration, but though Montgomery is capable enough, it doesn't do much to deepen his character. He's also got to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting for his co-star, describing how Merle is supposed to be timid or shy because Nancy Guild doesn't really get that across (except, ironically, in a scene where she's supposed to be trying to play the femme fatale). Neither of them really sink their teeth into their roles the way that the side characters do - Florence Bates gives Elizabeth Murdock a meanness that could easily give rise to the sneer with which Conrad Janis plays Leslie, while Houseley Stevenson and Jack Overman are memorably disreputable in small parts.

It's capably-enough made, at least, with relatively little fat in its 72-minute running time, keeping things moving at a nice pace that allows a viewer to marinate in Chandler's seedy Los Angeles without feeling like one is mired there. The simple, low-budget staging plays into that, even if it does sometimes look a bit generic. It's got a bit of studio polish, just not a lot of flair.

Of the four 1940s Marlowes, The Brasher Doubloon is justifiably the most obscure and will likely stay that way, as the 70-odd years of studio and library consolidation since has left it in a different place than the other three. It's just good enough that curious fans of the character won't be too disappointed, even if it's not terribly interesting on its own.

Also at eFilmCritic

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