Premise: Bruce Lee makes his Hollywood big screen debut with a small but memorable part in this Raymond Chandler noir meets swinging sixties scene, starring James Garner as the wisecracking, Detective Phillip Marlowe.
Although not technically a Martial Arts film “Marlowe” is significant in that it marks Bruce Lee’s first appearance in a Hollywood feature film. And in fact Lee’s performance, as the charming but dangerous mob henchman, Winslow Wong could be considered one of his best. “Marlowe” was adapted from The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler and scripted by Bruce Lee collaborator/friend/student, Sterling Silliphant. The film stars James Garner, taking an amusing turn as Phillip Marlowe. Filmed in Los Angeles of the late 60s, “Marlowe” is something of a collusion between classic 40s noir and a kind of hokey-Hollywood idea of hippie counter-culture.
The plot follows the convoluted thread of a girl from Kansas trying to find her dead brother, and a starlet trying to get a hold of some risque photos of herself, that have fallen into Marlowe’s hands. As in seemingly all RaymondChandler stories, the thread of course leads to murder. Or in this case, a string of ice pick murders. As the ever wisecracking, Marlowe blunders closer to the truth, the baddies dispatch Bruce as, Winslow Wong, to buy him off the trail.
Striding in some thirty-one minutes into the film, looking cool and laidback in his modish attire, Bruce’s Winslow Wong has an instant onscreen appeal that only multiplies when he suddenly sidekicks a hole in the wall of Marlowe’s office and does a lightning quick karate chop that splits a hat stand in two. Still somewhat boyish, and known mainly from his stint as Kato on the Green Hornet, Lee is a diamond in the rough. With his immaculate mod gear, and pixie haircut, he is on screen for only a few moments yet still manages to exude cool the whole time. Smiling pleasantly but menacingly, he trades barbs with Garner’s Marlowe and attemps to buy him off with $500 cash.
But it is only after Marlowe has smugly refused the bribe that Bruce’s truly dynamic screen potential is revealed. In what has become the films most famous scene, Bruce pockets his refused bribe, turns to leave and without warning explodes into a dazzling display of kicks, punches and strikes. In a matter of seconds he destroys Marlowe’s office: smashing a bookshelf, the desk, the door, even leaping up and shattering the overhead light fixture with a well placed and astonishingly fast kick. He then strikes his trademark fighting pose, puts on a pair of wraparound shades and pushes his way out of the building. To say a “star is born” woud not necessarily be an exaggeration. Exit Kato, end the Dragon.
Bruce’s second and last scene comes less than ten minutes later. He appears in yet another immaculate mod outfit, and lures Marlowe onto the balcony of the Los Angeles Occidental Building, high above the street at night. Leading him outside with a charming smile that rapidly gives way to icy cold menace, Wong tells Marlowe to take the money or face certain death. He then lashes out wildly with a series of vicious kicks, a couple of which are as wreckless and unfocused as anything Bruce Lee ever did on camera.
Then, in a death scene truly befitting his comic book villain status in the film Wong is fatally insulted by the fast talking Marlowe, who is cornered on the ledge of the balcomy. Backed into a corner, with nowhere left to go Garner’s Marlowe makes a crack at Wong, insinuating he might be gay. Wong at this point looses all his cool, unleashes a demonic scream and launches into a wreckless flying sidekick. Marlowe, of course, debonairely sidesteps it, and Bruce Lee’s Winslow Wong goes plummetting to his death. Unfortunately it is at this point that the energy in “Marlowe” seems to takes somewhat of a drop as well. Though it is certainly no fault of Garner’s.
Throughout the film, his Marlowe is extremely likable and amusing. The role certainly serves as a good warm up for the Jim Rockford character that would be the high point of his career. Also on board are Rita Moreno as the show girl with the heart of gold, and Carole O’Conner as the requisite long suffering police captain. Aside from the laugh factor of the films establishment take on drugs & counter culture, Marlowe is mostly unremarkable, a little strange, but not at all unamusing. Though, again it’s hard not to feel like the film takes somewhat of a dive after Winslow Wong’s perhaps too early demise. Still the makings of Bruce’s smoldering charisma and unparellelled onscreen fighting skills are all well revealed in this film. Aside from the fact he was basically cast as a comic book villain, Lee manages to make his performance as Winslow Wong one of his finest.
Certainly more interesting, acting wise. than some of the rather one dimensional characters he later portraryed in his more famous Golden Harvest films. His role in the movie is small, granted, however it remains significant as a cinematic snapshot of a man in transition from 60s B-television actor to 70s movie star and international screen icon. Also it’s really not a bad little detective film. But if you count yourself a Bruce fan, it’s certainly a must see for his two scenes alone. Unfortunately,”Marlowe” is still available only on VHS. Why someone has not put out a DVD with Bruce-centric extras on it is a question worth asking.
-by Alex Baker