THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE BRASHER DOUBLOON”

BOOTLEG FILES 140: “The Brasher Doubloon” (1947 B-Movie based on Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window”).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Fairly obscure, with no star power.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Don’t bet on it.

Raymond Chandler’s cynical detective Philip Marlowe is arguably the finest protagonist in the history of American crime fiction. His tough, world-weary attitude is strangely attuned to his bulldog-worthy tenacity in solving mysteries – he’s neither impressed nor concerned about the weirdness and violence around him, yet at the same time he won’t slack off in his pursuit of the elusive culprit.

Film versions of Chandler’s novels ride the make-or-break wave of the actor cast as Marlowe. The first adaptation was perhaps the most startling, if only for the casting: lightweight crooner Dick Powell, who was considered washed up as a musical-comedy leading man, scored an astonishing career turnaround as the aggressive Marlowe in the exceptional 1944 “Murder, My Sweet.” Audiences seemed to love Humphrey Bogart the most in his Marlowe turn in “The Big Sleep” (and having Lauren Bacall as his leading lady didn’t hurt). My vote for the best Marlowe was Robert Mitchum, who kept his own screen persona completely intact when he took the role in “Farewell, My Lovely” in 1975; Mitchum tried it again with the 1978 remake of “The Big Sleep,” but the film was a subpar effort that even the unsinkable Mitchum couldn’t save.

Those were the “makes” of make-or-break. The “breaks” are another story: Robert Montgomery was the nearly-invisible Marlowe in the gimmicky but tiresome “Lady in the Lake” (that film, directed by Montgomery, was shot from Marlowe’s POV and the character was only seen in mirror reflections). Having Marlowe as a hipster anti-hero subverted the point of the character when James Garner (“Marlowe,” 1969) and Elliott Gould (“The Long Goodbye,” 1973) tried the part on – both films are a chore to sit through. And no one but trivia show-offs can recall Philip Carey in the short-lived 1959 TV series “Philip Marlowe.”

So where do we find George Montgomery (no relation to Robert) as Philip Marlowe in the 1947 “The Brasher Doubloon”? This is a strange one since Montgomery is terribly miscast, yet the film itself is actually entertaining. If one looks at this as a typical low-budget mystery potboiler and not the further adventures of Raymond Chandler’s legendary private eye, “The Brasher Doubloon” is perfectly fine. But as part of the Chandler cinema canon, it doesn’t belong.

Unlike the Powell-Bogart-Mitchum interpretation of the role, Montgomery’s Marlowe is energetic, almost to the point of being puppyish. He is tough only when the situation calls for it – for the rest of the time, he is buoyant and bouncy. Clearly this deviates substantially from the Marlowe of Chandler’s book “The High Window,” the source material of this movie.

“The Brasher Doubloon” finds Marlowe being hired by a rich old widow named Mrs. Murdock, who lives in a spooky mansion. The title refers to a gold coin valued at $10,000 that was stolen from Mrs. Murdock’s safe. Only two people had the key to that safe: her wanton son Leslie, who has a hefty gambling debt, and her secretary Merle, who is loyal but seems a little bit off-kilter (she doesn’t like being touched by men – and, no, there’s nothing Sapphic about her).

Marlowe is on the case, but someone wants him off the case: Vince Blaire, the mobster who runs the Lucky Club. Needless to say, it takes more than a gangster’s stooge to dissuade Marlowe from his work.

Marlowe gets in touch with a local fence named Elisah Morningstar, who has a client claiming to possess the coin. Elisah won’t say who the client is, but Marlowe finds out fairly easily by eavesdropping on a phone call in Elisah’s shop. Marlowe locates Elisah’s client, but the man has been killed. Marlowe, however, finds a locker ticket where the coin is located. Sure enough, he gets the coin and returns to Mrs. Murdock, who oddly declares the coin has already been found.

If this isn’t strange enough, a would-be blackmailer tries to get the coin from Marlowe by using a gun. The blackmailer, it seems, has incriminating film of the circumstances that led Mrs. Murdock to widowhood (it seems Mr. Murdock was given a healthy shove out an upper floor window). It also turns out Vince Blaire (remember him?) is the guy that Mrs. Murdock’s son Leslie is in debt to, hence his attempt to get Marlowe off the case. And then there’s that neurotic secretary Merle, who suddenly discovers her phobia of being touched doesn’t apply to Marlowe’s embrace.

Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense – even Chandler was often uncertain of just what he was writing (when asked to explain the plot of “The Big Sleep,” he couldn’t). Yet at a crisp 74 minutes, “The Brasher Doubloon” moves with a fast, snappy pace typical of the old-time gangster/crime flicks. These are the type of films where all of the men wear fedoras, all of the young women are too gorgeous for words, and everyone pulls guns on each other in five minute intervals. Mindless and silly, to be certain, but still a lot of fun.

So why is George Montgomery in this role? Montgomery was under contract at 20th Century Fox and in the early 1940s he was being groomed for major stardom: he was the leading man opposite Ginger Rogers in “Roxie Hart” (the non-musical forerunner of “Chicago”) and Betty Grable in “Coney Island.” However, he was drafted during World War II and his career was interrupted for military duty. After the war, he returned to the studio but discovered he was no longer on the fast track to stardom. Instead, the Fox hierarchy relegated to the lower-budget B-Movies; those films had relatively care put to them and casting was a case of whichever contract player was available to go on camera. No thought was given to Montgomery’s casting – he was a body with nothing to do, so he was assigned to the film.

“The Brasher Doubloon” actually had a major send-off theatrically – Fox premiered it at New York’s Roxy Theater, where Jack Benny was the stage act accompanying the movie – but poor reviews doomed “The Brasher Doubloon” to the lower berth in double bills around the country. Montgomery’s career never recovered from the film’s poor reception and wound up doing cheap Westerns and cheaper Philippine-lensed war movies before leaving the business in the early 1960s.

Actually, “The Brasher Doubloon” is a lot more interesting for its talent line-up than its own substance. Director John Brahm was a German-born filmmaker who usually worked in B-Movies. He scored back-to-back A-level classics with “The Lodger” (1944) and “Hangover Square” (1945), which should’ve elevated him to a higher level. Yet he never found the knack again and wound up helming junk along the lines of “The Mad Magician” (1954) and “Hot Rods to Hell” (1967).

Florence Bates, who plays Mrs. Murdock, earned her own place in history as the first woman lawyer in the history of Texas (she achieved that in 1914). Marvin Miller, who played the gangster Vince Blaire, would gain a degree of immortality in the 1950s as the star of the goofy dramatic series “The Millionaire.” Conrad Janis, playing the reckless son here, would find public recognition three decades later playing Mindy’s clueless father on “Mork and Mindy.”

But perhaps the most unusual person associated with this film is Joe Palma, who has a bit role as an attendant. Palma earned his own place in Hollywood history as one of the Three Stooges. Well, sort of – after Shemp Howard died in 1955, Columbia Pictures needed to fill its quota of Three Stooges shorts in a hurry. Rather than bring in a new Stooge, the studio decided to recycle old Stooges shorts and use some brief new footage of the team. Since Shemp was dead, Palma was given a Shemp wig and was directed to imitate Shemp’s slapsticky walk without making his face visible to the camera. This took place in four short films before Moe and Larry officially objected and forced the studio to bring in Joe Besser as Shemp’s replacement.

“The Brasher Doubloon” has never been on home video, and a DVD release is not likely in the near future due to the film’s relatively obscurity and lack of star power (the faux-Stooge Palma isn’t enough, sadly). The film has been on cable TV, which is the source of its bootleg visiblity; I have a video sold by a collector-to-collector service that taped it from American Movie Classics.

“The Brasher Doubloon” is best for Raymond Chandler addicts and rabid fans of old gangster films. For everyone else, wait until “The Big Sleep” or “Farewell, My Lovely” returns to TV – if you’re going to watch a Philip Marlowe flick, go for the real classics.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on July 28, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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