Film Noir Review: The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

“Rule 1 for private detectives: always deposit retainer before client changes mind.”

We all love Philip Marlowe. He’s the essence of film noir distilled to a single character, and he’s responsible for more classics than most screen detectives combined. The roster of actors who have played him is staggering as it is star-studded: Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, Danny Glover and James Caan. Each of them brought a specific aspect of Marlowe to the fore, proving just how versatile and multi-faceted the character has been.

That being said, Marlowe is not an automatic boon for a film. While his screen adventures have fared better than, say, Mike Hammer or Lew Archer, there have been instances where an adaptation completely drops the ball. Case in point: 1947’s The Brasher Doubloon. A film that flirted with greatness at nearly every turn during pre-production, and somehow wound up with the least compelling final product imaginable.

The film’s promotional poster.

Let’s backtrack slightly. Raymond Chandler, the author behind Marlowe, was the hottest ticket in Hollywood circa 1945. He landed an Oscar nomination for co-writing Double Indemnity (1944), and adaptations of the novels Murder, My Sweet (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) resulted in critical and commercial success. 20th Century Fox took notice, and they dusted off the rights to Chandler’s novel The High Window with the hopes of churning out yet another hit. What could go wrong?

It turns out, a lot. Fasten your seatbelts, because the number of legendary actors that were connected to the film at one point or another is whiplash-inducing. The first official word on The Brasher Doubloon came in May 1945, when it was announced that Fred MacMurray would be playing Marlowe. Before the ink had dried on said report, MacMurray was out and John Payne was in. Curious to see Payne step into Marlowe’s well-worn shoes? Too bad, he got axed two months later to make way for Victor Mature. 20th Century Fox became so committed to making Mature the next Marlowe, in fact, that he was taken off the musical Three Little Girls In Blue (1946) so that he could be given the necessary time to prepare.

Fred MacMurray was the first actor attached to the film.

It doesn’t stop there. Mature eventually walked, which left the door open for Dana Andrews. A report made by the studio in January 1946 confirmed that Gene Tierney would be cast opposite Andrews’s Marlowe, and that John Brahm would be brought in to direct. One part of the report turned out to be true, and it had nothing to do with the stars of Laura (1944). Pressed for options, and with no committed stars in sight, the studio turned to Robert Montgomery. On paper, the actor was as good a choice as any, but he had already committed to a different Marlowe adaptation for RKO, Lady In the Lake (1947), and the double-dip proved too big a hurdle to overcome.

I’ve spent so much time on the casting possibilities of The Brasher Doubloon because any one of these actors would have made an excellent Marlowe. MacMurray and Mature would have harnessed the detective’s steadfastness, Payne would’ve tapped into his underlying tenderness, and Andrews could have given us a steely, slightly uncharacteristic take (akin to the aforementioned Lady In the Lake). There is a fascinating film to be with each of these men, especially when one considers the fact that each of them were in their commercial prime.

Nancy Guild and George Montgomery struggle to get their footing.

What we got instead was George Montgomery and a 1947 release. Now I’m not one to criticize actors outright, and Montgomery was a likable cowboy in Cimarron City (1958-59), but he has no business taking up the mantle of Marlowe. He’s an open book and it shows. He’s too broad and chiseled, and he communicates none of the internal problem-solving that a character like Marlowe requires to make compelling. He’s also too broad-minded. From the opening scene, he aggressively flirts with his client’s secretary (Nancy Guild), despite her making it clear that she has more pressing matters on the brain. Granted, Marlowe has always had a tendency to romance the women he encounters, but Montgomery’s unrelentingness makes the whole enterprise feel, well, creepy. Less Spade and more Archer if you catch my drift.

Guild, who took on the role of timid secretary after Tierney and Ida Lupino (!) passed, is given little to do but look frightened. She fares decently with what she has, but her chemistry with Montgomery is stiff at best, making them easily the least electric pairing in any Marlowe adaptation. Noir enthusiasts will perk up whenever bit players like Roy Roberts (Force of Evil) and Houseley Stevenson (Dark Passage) appear, but they’re gone before they’re able to spike the momentum of the film in any significant way.

Montgomery as the only mustachioed Marlowe to date.

The screenplay doesn’t do the cast any favors. Dorothy Bennett and Leonard Praskins attempt to stay faithful to Chandler’s novel by incorporating narration, but they wind up overexplaining the plot to such an extent that all tension is removed. Marlowe figures things out in record time, and the unconvincing performances make it clear when a particular character is lying. The moment where Guild’s character pulls a gun on Marlowe should be a shocker, but Guild has played all of her previous scenes with such exaggerated innocence that the whole thing feels telegraphed. Even the shamus looks unsurprised.

It’s not all bad. John Brahm is one of those directors who’s only as good as his material, but he manages to stage some interesting visuals nonetheless. Marlowe gets knocked down at one point, and when he looks up, the camera assumes his POV as his captors stand above him. It’s a neat shot, and one that captures the grittiness of the novel. I also like the use of architecture to communicate the gothic ties of Marlowe’s client, the Murdock family.

“You better go easy on that whiskey, Miss Davis. That sounded like a direct answer to a direct question.”

At the risk of making a correlation sound like a causation, the Marlowe adaptations slowed down after the release of The Brasher Doubloon. The film received mixed to negative reviews, and the character wouldn’t be seen again on the big screen until 1969’s Marlowe. The character has obviously survived, leaving this subpar release as little more than a curiosity for noiristas and Raymond Chandler completists. It’s one of those rare, unfortunate films that’s more interesting to read about than it is to watch.

TRIVIA: The film was released under its original title, The High Window, in the UK.


You can find all of Danilo’s Film Noir Review articles here.

Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.

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2 Responses to Film Noir Review: The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

  1. Betty says:

    The actor playing Marlowe, in this movie, is George Montgomery and not Robert Montgomery.

    • Annmarie Gatti says:

      Yes, in this movie, George Montgomery. Apologies for the late acknowledgment, but we get so much spam that sometimes it’s difficult to sift through and keep up.

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