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Caan’s Marlowe Steps Into ‘Poodle Springs’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Are you ready for James Caan as detective Philip Marlowe? It’s a role that’s already been handled by Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum and James Garner, among others. So why not Caan?

The difference is that the Philip Marlowe of HBO’s “Poodle Springs” moves through the world of the early 1960s--a decade or two and a cultural eon away from the seedy, postwar world of pimps, grifters and lowlifes that was characterized so well in the Raymond Chandler mysteries. Add to that the fact that “Poodle Springs” was only partially written by Chandler, and eventually completed by Robert Parker, and the connection with the Marlowe whom mystery addicts know and love becomes even more diffused.

Still, if anyone can be convincing as an aging detective who has enough sex appeal to attract a young wife, Caan is the one. And, yes, that’s right, this Marlowe has just gotten married. It’s 1963, and his betrothal to a wealthy and beautiful young lawyer has taken him into a world of luxury and privilege in the desert town of Poodle Springs, far removed from his usual L.A. haunts.

The extraordinarily complicated plot leads Marlowe through a series of murders, risky confrontations and unexpected deceptions, underscored by the possibility that Laura, his new wife (played by Dina Meyer), and her wealthy father (Joe Don Baker) may be inextricably involved.

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Caan plays Marlowe with a kind of bleary uncertainty, obviously trying to portray a man out of his time, still wearing a gray fedora, suspicious of car phones and electric toothbrushes. It works, up to a point. Caan is professional enough to make the most of scenes that repeatedly have him discovering dead bodies, and dialogue that obliges him to make quick switches from romantic husband to hard-boiled private eye.

But the picture is not well served by a convoluted script, filled with far too many overly coincidental events. And the final payoff, with its convenient historical association, does a disservice to the rich sense of irony that makes Chandler’s novels so satisfying to experience.

A powerful battery of production support bolsters “Poodle Springs.” The script was written by three-time Tony Award winner Tom Stoppard, Bob Rafelson (who won an Academy Award for writing “Five Easy Pieces”) directed, and Sydney Pollack was one of the producers.

But Marlowe has always been elusive--vastly different in the Bogart, Mitchum and Powell portrayals. And neither Caan’s worthy efforts nor the production’s high-powered talents quite manage to capture a character who has always been more compelling on the printed page than on the screen.

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* “Poodle Springs” airs at 9 tonight and again Tuesday at 8 p.m. on HBO.


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