Detective Philip Marlowe (George Montgomery) is hired by a little old lady from Pasadena, Mrs. Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates), to find her missing Brasher Doubloon, a rare and valuable coin. She soon dismisses Marlowe, but his continued snooping gets him to the bottom of old man Murdock’s “accidental” death during the Rose parade years ago, and the reason his secretary Merle (Nancy Guild) was so deeply traumatized and still lives firmly under Mrs. Murdock’s thumb. The ladies are being blackmailed by a movie cameraman who photographed the incident, son Leslie Murdock has a gambling debt that gives both him and the mob motive for coin theft and murder, and the deeper Marlowe gets, the more bodies start piling up, including a coin dealer and another private eye.
Marlowe first comes to the Murdock home on a windy day, and it instantly establishes this movie’s moody, ominous atmosphere. Yes, it can be this gusty in Pasadena, but as Marlowe soon learns, there’s a particularly nasty cloud sitting over the Murdock mansion. Sweet, pretty Merle lives in a constant state of terror, is cruelly treated by her boss and prohibited from having callers, but she isn’t too timid to strategically apply feminine wiles and pull a gun on Marlowe when Mrs. Murdock commands it. Merle also has a phobia of physical contact, and Marlowe, smitten from the moment he lays eyes on her, eagerly volunteers to provide unlimited personalized therapy sessions until she’s cured.
Director John Brahm (Hangover Square, 1945, The Locket, 1946) makes this a lean, light and stylish adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel The High Window. George Montgomery makes an entertaining Marlowe, a more pleasant take on the character that fits the soft-boiled feel of this movie. He does a fine job with this Marlowe’s curiosity, quick thinking, self-serving schemes, and smooth, quippy charm. He’s great with the funnier moments, like shaking Merle to get her to “relax,” tricking her into thinking she’s holding an unloaded gun, running rings around Police Lt. Breeze (Roy Roberts) and getting out of tight scrapes and gangsters’ cellars.
It was also fun to see Conrad Janis, a familar face from Mork and Mindy, tons of other shows, and The Cable Guy (1996), looking and acting a lot like a young Leo DiCaprio, as the surly, spoiled and highly suspicious Leslie. The villains and other shady players (Marvin Miller, Alfred Linder, Fritz Kortner and Houseley Stevenson among them) come in memorably distinctive shapes and sizes, always a plus in a twisty mystery.