The disappointing “Poodle Springs” illustrates the pitfalls of depicting a character who is well past his prime. In this case, the lens peers in on a tired, cranky Philip Marlowe in the September of his years. He seems beaten down by life and almost bored with this private-eye stuff, as if any minute he’s going to throw up his hands and blurt, “Oy, again with the killing!” It’s like trying to imagine Superman in his declining years, quaffing Geritol to keep the gravity from pulling him down.
This surely ain’t your father’s Phil Marlowe. There’s Marlowe in bed with his naked, smolderingly sexy new wife, talking about drapes. When he’s intercepted by goons at gunpoint, his only concern is, “So how am I supposed to get home unless I take my own car?” Middle age has not treated this detective well.
It must have sounded good on paper: James Caan, starring in his first TV role in 26 years (since 1972’s “Brian’s Song”), Bob Rafelson directing, Tom Stoppard adapting from the final Marlowe book begun by Raymond Chandler and finished by Robert Parker 30 years later. One could do worse than that.
Rafelson renders the story stylishly, coaxing a sly, self assured performance from Caan, who is stepping into Marlowe shoes worn previously by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and James Garner.
Yet there is something clearly missing from the “Poodle Springs” mix. Magic, for starters. The moody, film noir quality of Chandler adaptations past gives way here to a straight ahead, contemporary approach that’s well-crafted and smartly detailed, with sparkling tech credits, but essentially bland. And while the story itself holds together well, our hero tosses a monkey wrench into the proceedings by constantly appearing on the verge of full-scale apathy.
Movie opens in 1963, three days after an aging Marlowe has left behind his life of booze and broads for the strangulating security of marriage. His new wife, lovely Laura (sharp work from Dina Meyer), is a rich, statuesque socialite, the kind of babe you figure would never go for a $100 a day gumshoe. But go for him she does, and she saves Philip’s butt at the outset when he’s framed for murder and it’s left to Laura to bail him out.
Pretty soon, Marlowe is investigating a sleazy photographer leading a double life (David Keith), becoming privy to a blackmail scheme involving a stripper named Lola (La Joy Farr) and cavorting with various hookers, thugs and billionaires. As the bodies begin to pile up, Marlowe’s facial expression grows progressively more pained, like a destitute senior whose Social Security check has been delayed a week. Except that the guy isn’t penniless, having sold out by marrying the wealthy heiress and moving into a house purchased by Laura’s dad (Joe Don Baker), on the Nevada border.
There is simply no sense of danger to “Poodle Springs,” and certainly little of Marlowe’s trademark bravado and angst. Caan’s characterization is more suave than past versions, but so haughtily world weary that he’s difficult to love. Chandler clearly did not create Marlowe with the Kennedy administration years in mind, and in transferring him to that era he looks a little lost, not to mention a bit long in the tooth.