Neil Jordan is just the latest to take a stab at Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, the noir detective with one of the richest cinematic legacies of any film character.
A quick-witted and cunning private eye who navigated the seedy underworld of post-war Los Angeles in seven of Chandler’s hard-boiled novels, Marlowe has come to life via a murderer’s row of all-timers like Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks, 1946), Elliot Gould (The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman, 1973), Robert Mitchum (Farewell, My Lovely, Dick Richards, 1975) and James Caan (Poodle Springs, Bob Rafelson, 1998).
The Academy Award-winning Irish director joins the pantheon with Marlowe, which is out now on VOD and stars Liam Neeson. The film sketches many classic motifs that will satisfy crime aficionados, yet avoids most of the common pitfalls of the genre by reconfiguring Chandler’s labyrinthine storytelling into an engaging story that never overstays its welcome.
Neeson uncorks a signature performance, injecting all his usual charm and grit into the role, only to be upstaged by the scene-stealing Diane Kruger and Jessica Lange.
Following the film’s world premiere at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, I had a chance to sit down with Neil Jordan to discuss everything from Raymond Chandler and Liam Neeson to ’40s noir to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner to Matt Reeves’ 2022 The Batman. We also talked about Jordan’s legacy and what he’s doing next.
Guillermo de Querol: It’s been over twenty years since we last saw detective Philip Marlowe on television or film.
Neil Jordan: I think so, yeah.
Guillermo de Querol: That’s quite a long time. John Banville, who wrote the novel the film is based on, is a dear friend of yours. So, how did Marlowe come about?
Neil Jordan: Well, the [Raymond] Chandler estate hired John Banville to write an authorized Marlowe novel (The Black-Eyed Blonde, 2014) and they hired somebody else, a guy called Lawrence Osborne (Only to Sleep, 2018) before that, so they obviously had an interest in keeping the character alive. I mean, it’s not that I bought the rights to the book or anything.
Liam Neeson and his producer Alan Moloney brought it to me, so in a way, it was just a coincidence that John Banville was a friend of mine. Basically, I was sent a script and I thought, this is kind of interesting stuff, you know? I just got interested and excited by the possibility of the movie, really.
Guillermo de Querol: How does it feel to take up the mantle and be mentioned in the same company as Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, 1946) and Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye, 1973) among others? Was it exciting or intimidating to meet those lofty expectations?
Neil Jordan: Well, obviously, I love the Howard Hawks and Robert Altman’ movies, you know. I kind of like the version of it that Robert Mitchum made. I forget who the director of that film is…
Guillermo de Querol: Farewell, My Lovely?
Neil Jordan: That’s the one, it was directed by Dick Richards and designed by Dean Tavoularis, a great, great designer. But, you know, it’s okay — it’s an iconic character, we all know that. But there’s really only been three good movies that have truly explored the character, the Altman one being one and the Hawks’ being the best. But I’m sure there were a few TV things that I haven’t seen.
Guillermo de Querol: James Caan starred in a TV-movie, Poodle Springs (Bob Rafelson, 1998).
Neil Jordan: Yeah, you’re right, but I wasn’t so much interested in that. I was interested in all of the presumptions of the Chandler world, you know what I mean? There’s always a detective, you know, he’s always tired and grumpy. There’s always a blond who walks into his office, asks him to do something. Marlowe is always taken in by the blond and is seduced. You know, he always goes to a bar and is given a Mickey Finn [laughs].
You know, I just thought, okay, if I can take these kinds of emblematic presumptions and make something different with them, it would be cool. That’s why I wanted to make a film, and I thought, okay, so the blond asked him to find her lover. So, it’s not about her seducing Philip Marlowe, although she tries, it’s about her trying to find this man that she wants to kill. I was hoping that’s good.
Then I thought, okay, so he goes to this club and the corrupt head of the evil club offers him a drink and he knows he knows it’s a drug. He’s not going to take that, but he pretends to take it, you know. So, I just thought, let’s go the journey where we take these things and get them to do something different than they normally do. You know, in the end, that’s why I made the movie, quite apart from wanting Liam Neeson, to explore a character that was lacking in any moral certainty whatsoever.
Guillermo de Querol: What was the biggest challenge in re-adapting this classic character that we’ve seen before and putting your own spin for it to become both modern in this day and age, but also true to the character?
Neil Jordan: Look, to be honest, I didn’t want to simply revisit, I don’t want to make a movie in the style of Howard Hawks because I don’t approximate to any aesthetic style that these movies had, whether by design or by accident. Everybody uses the term noir, you know, but this is a film in color, isn’t it? And I wanted to make it kind of drenched in vibrant color.
I’m not interested in homages. Perhaps one could take Banville’s novel as an ironic take on the Chandler character, and this movie as an ironic take on the novel. But by then perhaps you drown in irony, won’t that be rich?
In the end, I just wanted to go on a journey with these elements — to make a film about somebody who has resigned himself to the fact that there are no secure moral categories in the world. And in the course of that journey, obviously, you revisit these things that are common to all of those classic movies.
The femme fatale, the detective drug drink, a corrupt kind of financial environment, a police force that has resigned itself to its uselessness, you know, that kind of thing. And I suppose a movie studio that was a facade for a drug dealing operation, which I thought would be an interesting element for the movie.
Guillermo de Querol: You’ve cited Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) as a visual inspiration for this movie, even bigger than ‘40s noirs, can you expand on what drew you to the dystopian classic?
Neil Jordan: Just put it this way: I’m working with the designer, the cinematographer and costume designer actors. And you have to find some approximation for what I’m working on — which is essentially inventing a city that doesn’t exist anymore, you know, and you have to find an approximation for what it should look like.
And I just used Blade Runner because I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful movie. It’s set in a future that will never exist, and I was dealing with the past that doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t want to get too complicated about this, but there was a chiaroscuro aspect to that movie that I like, and I thought it would work here. So, I mean, to me, it was more like making Blade Runner in a way, you know, than making a version of a Howard Hawks movie.
Guillermo de Querol: How do you make sure the twists and turns work in your movie?
Neil Jordan: I mean, the point is that the central character is someone who has to find his way through this maze. And, in the world of Raymond Chandler, the Marlowe character always finds himself in a dark wood, and he has to look through the tangled undergrowth to find out what is the reality of things.
So, it’s a similar journey to the one Liam Neeson takes along with the audience in this movie. I do think that audiences are so used to reversals and surprise endings by now, that I’m not sure you can fool them anymore. But I’m not interested in doing that, fooling an audience, really. I’m interested in the central character being fooled.
Guillermo de Querol: Speaking of the great Liam Neeson, who you’ve worked with four times already. It seems to me that he always imbues his characters with a lot of depth and layers, even in his action films. How would you describe him as an actor?
Neil Jordan: Well, he’s obviously a great actor. You know, I knew Liam, years ago, from the stage, and he always wanted to play an action hero. It’s the truth. I remember he made a movie called Darkman with Sam Raimi in 1990. It was not a success. But Raimi is a great director and Liam played a great character, it was a comic strip character, a bit like Batman.
I think he always wanted to occupy that space, you know, and there’s more than one dimension to Liam, you know, there’s two dimensions to him. He’s the actor that you see in Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1985), he’s the one you see in Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), and he’s also the actor you see in the Taken movies, isn’t he? I think one of the best things he did actually lately was in Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016).
Guillermo de Querol: That’s easily my favorite film he’s been in.
Neil Jordan: I thought he was remarkable in that. Well, I felt he was the only one who understood the realities of the moral plight Marty was trying to work with. I don’t know why or how, but he made sense of the movie to me whereas none of the other performances did. Liam is a very complex actor, and part of that complexity is entering into very simplistic things and characters and making them live, you know?
Guillermo de Querol: So, you always had him in mind for the role of Philip Marlowe?
Neil Jordan: Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, essentially, Liam brought this to me.
Guillermo de Querol: Film noir is always associated with the postwar fatalism of the ‘40s. Do you think this movie could open the floodgates for a new influx of film noir or noir-adjacent types of mysteries that could resonate with today’s audiences, now that we’re in uncertain and cynical times?
Neil Jordan: Wouldn’t it be great if it did? But I’m not sure. I mean, did you see the last Batman movie (The Batman, Matt Reeves, 2022)?
Guillermo de Querol: Yes, I did. That felt like watching a 3-hour-long, $200 million David Fincher thriller.
Neil Jordan: That was a film noir, wasn’t it? And I don’t love the term film noir. I mean, that was it. It was great. Similarly, the character I wanted Liam to explore in this film is someone who has to resign himself to the fact that there are no moral certainties anymore, you know, and there can’t be, even for him. If he’s a knight in shining armor, his armor is corrupt, it’s tarnished, it’s rusty, very rusty.
And he’s resigned to the fact in the end, when he lets Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) walk free, and talks to the cops, he says, “it doesn’t matter what you find there”, you know, whatever you find may be of no consequence to me. And so, he’s resigned himself to it, to the shades of grey, rather than black and white.
Guillermo de Querol: Maybe I am way off base here, because you’ve mentioned you don’t like homage, but there’s a scene in the movie where they find a dead body zipped in a plastic bag by the river. Considering how you frame and shot that scene, I couldn’t help but think about Twin Peaks (David Lynch, 1989). Was that a deliberate nod from your part?
Neil Jordan: Oh, you mean when they find Laura Palmer? That’s a beautiful scene, seeing the girl, such a beautiful actress, be pulled out of the river zipped in a body bag. But no, that was not a conscious thing. I don’t like homages. Do directors do that? I never understand when people say “oh, homage”. Would it make the movie better if it was a homage? I don’t think so. I do like the scene you’re referring to, though.
Guillermo de Querol: So, in the same vein, did you actively try to avoid using previous Marlowe adaptations we’ve discussed, like The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye as thematic touchstones or inspiration for this movie, in terms of watching it with the cast and crew?
Neil Jordan: Basically, I sat up and said to the cast “look, we’re not going to try to approximate ’40s style dialogue. We’re not going to try to pretend we’re on the soundstage with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall”. It’s not something I would do anyway. And there was wonderful dialogue written by William Monahan, and some of it by me. I said, look, these characters are realistic characters. That’s the way we’re going to treat them.
Guillermo de Querol: About Diane Kruger, did you also have her in mind for the role of Clare Canvendish?
Neil Jordan: No. Basically, I wanted somebody who would go to 100% of the manipulative end of things, you know? And Diane was very happy to do that. I’ve admired her as an actress for a long, long time, and she was willing to go on this cold-hearted journey, which was good.
Guillermo de Querol: The cold blond.
Neil Jordan: She was pretty cold, wasn’t she?
A Los Angeles That Doesn’t Exist Anymore
Guillermo de Querol: You shot the film in Barcelona. How come?
Neil Jordan: Well, first of all, I couldn’t make it in Los Angeles because it doesn’t exist anymore, and there’s only one area of Los Angeles that looks like it’s Hancock Park. You know, it’s very small. And due to the number of streets that people use when they try to recreate the thirties and forties, they generally go out of town down to Pasadena based on that. But it doesn’t, it’s just not there, you know.
So, when the producers brought in this project, I said, ‘Look, why don’t you look at Barcelona and see if we can make it work for Los Angeles?’ The architecture is not too dissimilar to Spanish, to Mediterranean architecture. And we could also find a country club that seems to be like what we call the Cabana Club. I just thought we could make it, re-reinvent 1930s L.A. in Barcelona. La Floresta is very similar to Benedict Canyon and Laurel Canyon.
Guillermo de Querol: I think it worked.
Neil Jordan: Well. At least it worked, I hope. Yeah. I mean, most of these movies you see set in the thirties and forties, they always show the movie studios, they shoot at the Paramount Gate, you know, because that’s the one feature that’s left from that period, and I was like, Okay, so am I supposed to go all the way to Los Angeles just to shoot at that gate? I don’t think they would have let me do that anyway, even if I wanted to. Movie lots then, they kind of built them in deserts.
Guillermo de Querol: What do you see as the future for this type of films that may not be in such hot demand, do you think there might be an audience for them in the future?
Neil Jordan: I just made this movie because I wanted to explore it and I liked the elements that were there. I’m not in a campaign to bring back the kind of cinema that existed in the thirties and forties, but I’m sure there could be other versions of the same kind of complex things. Absolutely. This movie is set to be released in December in America, so we’ll see how it goes. If people go, maybe there’ll be more films.
Guillermo de Querol: You certainly don’t see detective stories so often in theatres nowadays.
Neil Jordan: Well, I mean, there’s detective stories all over TV, isn’t there. I mean, if you look at British television, you’re drowned in detective stories. And they’re generally finding somebody who’s been abused, found in a rubbish bin, and they have to investigate.
The Batman with Robert Pattinson was almost like Blade Runner. It was a detective story. Do you understand? I mean, I thought it was interesting that they constructed the movie, you know, in that way, you know, but I actually really enjoyed it for that.
Guillermo de Querol: I hate to ask, but would you be interested in doing a superhero film?
Neil Jordan: Me? [Laughs.] You mean people in costumes and all that stuff, flying all over? Oh, I love green screens so much. [Laughs.] I don’t have to worry about that. I mean, if they asked me to write and direct a film, I would perhaps think about it.
Neil Jordan on Noir
Guillermo de Querol: Besides The Batman, is there any modern film or director that has caught your eye lately by integrating noir elements in a new, refreshing way?
Neil Jordan: [Pause] Can you think of them?
Guillermo de Querol: I feel like Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) can be seen as a The Long Goodbye spoof of sorts. Sarinui chueok (Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho, 2003). Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), obviously. I guess a few De Palma and Denis Villeneuve’s movies fit the bill too in that they tap into that morally grey area we talked about.
Neil Jordan: I can only think of that kind of exploration of things on television. Really, that’s the truth, you know, like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. Where these characters are stuck in an absolutely intriguing set of moral circumstances where every choice to make is the wrong one. I don’t see that much in movies these days. You definitely don’t see it in superhero films, do you?
Guillermo de Querol: Do you think it is inevitable for filmmakers like yourself to transition to television or streaming platforms?
Neil Jordan: I mean, I did make a series, I don’t know how long it went on for three seasons, but I did love doing it. But I think there’s something about the individual movie that is incorruptible, you know, you set out to do something, and at the end of it, either you’ve achieved it or you failed.
Guillermo de Querol: Big mysteries never seem to be solved in TV shows.
Neil Jordan: We’re doomed, aren’t we? They seem to be obsessed with intellectual property too, you know. How many times will we see Lord of the Rings?
Guillermo de Querol: Do you have an idea in mind you’d want to tell for your next project?
Neil Jordan: Oh yes, many. I’ve written so many scripts, but nobody will finance them. I would bore you to tears if I told you [Laughs]. It’s very difficult to make an independent movie. I suppose the kind of movies people know me for, like Interview with the Vampire (1994), Mona Lisa (1986), they’re not expensive, but they’re kind of complicated, you know.
It’s possible for younger directors to make a movie if they get a budget of $2-3 million, you know, that kind of thing. They do make some great movies in that way. But it’s very hard to get the finance together for a challenging subject, you know, and get enough money to make the film properly. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do that.
I’ve written a script called The Josef Roth Cafe, which is set in the thirties, you know, in Berlin. And I have to send it to a studio. They say, “Oh, yeah, it’s really great, but we don’t want to do that.” That’s what happens to me all the time, “Oh, we love the script, but we’re not going to do that.”
Then you try to set it up independently and they say, “Oh, okay, let’s not shoot it in Berlin, let’s shoot it in Sofia, that looks like Berlin, doesn’t it?” And I’m like, “Not really.” [Laughs.] And something that should cost maybe 15-20 million ends up costing six, you know, that kind of thing. And you end up saying, “Well, actually, I can’t make this film.” That’s and that’s the situation I find myself in.
Guillermo de Querol: Are there any actors you would love to work with next?
Neil Jordan: I’d love to work with some that I’ve actually worked with before again. I’d love to work with Saoirse Ronan again. I’d love to work with Julianne Moore again. Stephen Rea. Let’s do another movie. At the moment, I feel like making a film with older people, with old people, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just because I’m 72 years old, but I would love to make a film with Stephen Rea and Julianne Moore, you know about the sexual complexities of people of my generation.
Guillermo de Querol: I’ll be there on Day 1 if that movie ever sees the light of day.
Neil Jordan: You promise? Okay.
Guillermo de Querol: Does age make you look back fondly at your career and everything you’ve accomplished?
Neil Jordan: I don’t know. I find it very difficult to watch movies I’ve made again because I criticize them. I’m like my own worst critic. I say, ‘why didn’t I do that there?’ Oh, I didn’t. I do that. We don’t live in a perfect world, do we?
Guillermo de Querol: Which films do you think you’ll be remembered for the most?
Neil Jordan: Interview with the Vampire (1994). Crying Game (1992). The Company of Wolves (1984). Nobody ever wants to talk about The Butcher Boy (1997). Beautiful movie I made years ago. I don’t know why nobody wants to talk about it. I made a complex, quirky little movie for Warner Brothers, who don’t make complex quirkiness. I had enough money to make that beautifully and extravagantly. And I showed it to them, and they went, ‘What the hell is this?’ You know what I mean?
Guillermo de Querol: We’re looking forward to your next project. Have we seen the last of your Philip Marlowe?
Neil Jordan: I hope not. If they ask me to do the sequel, I would do it. Believe me, I wouldn’t mind revisiting this world and these characters.
Neil Jordan photographed by Alex Abril, courtesy of the San Sebastián International Film Festival.