The Brasher Doubloon (US 1947)

This film offers a second adaptation by 20th Century Fox of Raymond Chandler’s third novel, The High Window (which was also the title for the film’s UK release). The first use of Chandler’s story was as the basis for a B Movie series film featuring Lloyd Nolan as ‘Michael Shayne’ and titled Time to Kill (US 1942). It was the second time that a Chandler novel was adapted for a film featuring a different character than Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was used for The Falcon Takes Over (US 1942) at RKO. Even though Fox saw only B movie material in Chandler at this point they reputedly paid him $3,500 for the rights. But this meant that they could re-use the material four years later in a more faithful adaptation at a time when direct adaptations of Farewell My Lovely (as Murder My Sweet, 1944) and The Big Sleep (Warner Bros, 1946) had been A movie successes for RKO and Warner Bros.

A studio publicity shot of Mrs Murdock (Florence Bates), Marlowe (George Montgomery) and Merle (Nancy Guild)

The High Window is probably less well-known than the first two famous novels listed above and it isn’t by any means the best Chandler adaptation, but it is entertaining and it does have some interesting features. Fox took a purely commercial decision to re-use the story material, but still in something of a B movie operation, to produce a 72 minute film. I’m not sure that it could be labelled a B simply because of its length but George Montgomery, who was a Fox B leading man, was the youngest and arguably lowest-ranked actor to play Philip Marlowe in the film adaptations. Montgomery was still only 31 when he played Marlowe. He’d been a boxing champion, stunt man and then a minor supporting player in films of the late 1930s. He’d grown up on a ranch in Montana and was seen as a good fit for B Westerns at Republic before signing a contract at Fox where for a time he continued in B Westerns. He did have several good selling points for the studio, including his stature as a 6′ 3″ athletic figure who also happened to be very good-looking. Fox did cast him in lead roles in A features with Maureen O’Hara, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney and Betty Grable during 1942-3 but then war service intervened and on his return he found himself back in the Bs.

Nancy Guild, Fox ingenue?

Montgomery was an athletic Marlowe leaping over fences and cutting a dash in fights with hoodlums. At this time he sported a pencil moustache, giving him a connection to earlier male stars such as Clark Gable. In The Brasher Doubloon his Marlowe is summoned to a large house in Pasadena where he first meets a young woman working as a secretary for the wealthy widow Mrs Murdock. The young woman is Merle Davis played by Fox’s new starlet Nancy Guild (which studio publicists claimed ryhmed with ‘Wild’). Guild had signed a 7 year contract at Fox in 1946 aged just 21 but in this film (and seemingly in others) she first appears as a nervous young woman who nevertheless attracts Marlowe (remember that Montgomery is playing a younger Marlowe). The suggestion is that she is somewhat under the control of Mrs Murdock but she will assert herself later in the narrative. Marlowe discovers that his task is to find a rare coin, the doubloon of the title, which has been stolen from a locked safe in the house. The only obvious suspects are Merle and the widow’s son Leslie (Conrad Janis). Marlowe’s investigation will involve various shady characters played by Fox’s supporting players (several interesting character actors) and he will have time to pursue his attempts to seduce Merle before a final showdown with a twist that will reveal the secret back story.

Marlowe discovers plenty of corpses . . .

. . . and as usual antagonises the police

Overall, if I’d been offered this as a B picture in a 1947 double bill I think I would have enjoyed it and found it entertaining. It’s only because I’m looking back as part of research into Raymond Chandler in Hollywood that I’m disappointed in the adaptation. I don’t have criticism of Montgomery as Marlowe or of Guild as Merle. I find them both attractive characters and she reminds me of a less cynical and deadly version of Cathy, the Jane Greer femme fatale character in Out of the Past (also 1947). As directed by John Brahm, The Brasher Doubloon isn’t particularly ‘noirish‘. Brahm was another German emigré and he had already had some success with The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945) and The Locket (1946) and his work on The Brasher Doubloon is fine with some interesting angles as the stills here suggest, but nothing too ‘disturbing’ in the way of other noirs of the period. The DoP was Lloyd Ahern, who was credited on his first film in that role after more than 20 years as a camera assistant. One of the problems might be that Chandler’s novel was adapted by Dorothy Bennett, a studio writer who was paid over $1,000 a week for the work. She cut out some major characters for the novel, making for a less complex plot. Perhaps this could have been a good thing? She cut out Mrs Murdock’s daughter-in-law and it strikes me that  if the novel had been adapted ‘faithfully’ we would have had Marlowe investigating a case in which, as in The Big Sleep, he visits a wealthy household with two young women, one of whom is a potential flirt and one who he finds attractive. The scene in which Marlowe first meets Mrs Murdock is very similar to the scene in The Big Sleep in which he first meets General Sternwood. Chandler is, after all, a writer more interested in characters and descriptions than in plotting. He repeats himself and is often not too worried about the coherence of his narratives. The Brasher Doubloon seems almost as interested in the romance as it is about the disappearance of the titular coin.

Is Merle a femme fatale? Here she attempts to make Marlowe strip to see if he has the doubloon.

6 comments

  1. john David hall

    I remember seeing this years ago when the BBC, always anxious to conjure up a film season to excite interest in sometimes quite diverse material, had a Raymond Chandler film season and showed all these films over several weeks. It introduced me to a couple of Montgomerys who had played Marlowe, and George was by some distance the least interesting being overshadowed by Robert in ‘Lady In The Lake’ with its eye-of-the-beholder cinematography and the spiky Audrey Totter. Possibly the most uncomfortable looking Marlowe until a slightly too old James Caan emerged in the role in ‘The Poodle Springs Affair’ (which was a novel completed after Chandler’s death by Robert B Parker).

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    • Roy Stafford

      You have a good memory John. I don’t remember that BBC season. I suspect I wasn’t watching much TV at the time. My own Chandler material dates back to the 1970s and I’m just augmenting it now. The Lady in the Lake is on my list to watch and I agree with you about Audrey Totter. I’ve not read Poodle Springs but I used to read Robert B. Parker’s crime novels. I’ve only just acquired Playback so my Marlowe is basically the character who features in the six novels up to The Long Goodbye. I’m currently exploring Chandler’s scriptwriting and what happened to the earlier novels in adaptation.

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  2. john David hall

    I was a big Chandler fan at one time and even have ‘Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler’ and also Al Clark’s comprehensive review of Chandler in Hollywood. Weirdly I started with a paperback of ‘Playback’ (not the best novel) bought on holiday in Ibiza when I ran out of reading material. Although not really a fan of Poodle Springs, either book or film, I can recommend late Marlowe work by Benjamin Black (John Banville) ‘The Black-Eyed Blonde’. I believe this is a title that Chandler himself came up with and either rejected or put aside for the future.

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    • Roy Stafford

      I have the Al Clark book and Frank MacShane’s biography of Chandler. I have only a few of the short stories and there are thousands of letters I understand. I’m not sure I’ll read them all. The more I find out about Chandler the more I see his unpleasant side but his work is still interesting. Thanks for your recommendation.

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      • john David hall

        I have Tom Williams’ ‘Raymond Chandler – A Life’ as the biography, also titled ‘A
        Mysterious Something In The Light’. You are correct in that Chandler, divorced from his work, often comes across as argumentative and self-obsessed. As I recall, most of the letters were between him and his literary agent at the time but there was one very moving one he wrote shortly after the death of his wife who was somewhat older and had been an invalid for some time.

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      • Roy Stafford

        Yes, there are several Chandler biographies. MacShane’s is useful because he was a literary scholar and he deals in detail with Chandler’s writing. I think Chandler probably suffered from undiagnosed PTSD after his experience on the Western Front in 1918. He married relatively late aged 36 to Cissy Pascal who was 18 years his senior. When he began to write for a living in the early 1930s she was already in her 60s and though he loved her, his drinking and work habits and her own reluctance to go out and socialise caused problems in the marriage.

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