Philip Marlowe (James Garner) is a private detective who is on a case, checking out this rundown hotel where the hippy dropouts stay as he searches for a young man whose little sister Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell) has hired him to find. He bluffs his way in and wakes up the snoring owner who is not pleased to see a private eye, ripping up and spitting on the card Marlowe gives him by way of introduction, but persuades him to hand over the key to the brother's room. Inside is photographer Grant W. Hicks (Jackie Coogan) who tells him his quarry is long gone - is Marlowe on a wild goose chase?
As this was based on a Raymond Chandler novel, you could reasonably expect the plot to wrap itself up with some satisfaction by the end, but while there were readers who found the mystery writer's storylines impenetrable even with the explanations at the close it seemed director Paul Bogart and adapter Stirling Silliphant were among those who had trouble conveying just who had done what to whom and why in a Chandler novel. Many's the late night television viewer who has stumbled across this and wondered if it was just the late hour or if this really didn't make much sense, and indeed whether there were pieces of the puzzle missing.
Still, while you could be flummoxed by Marlowe, you had to agree the cast was a good one and they kept you watching as the film started out murky and built to a definite opacity. Fans of spotting character actors and hey, it's that guy type of actors (and actresses) would have a feast here as not one scene passed by without a neat bit of business by a seasoned or capable performer, all anchored by Garner's typically laidback charm. The appeal of this would appear to be simply watching the 'tec negotiate his way through the minefield of doublecrossers, and though nobody would judge this a classic, it did prove surprisingly influential as many a thriller during the next decade would take its lead, just as it had from Harper.
Which was perhaps ironic as Chandler had penned The Little Sister after his sojourn in Hollywood as a thinly-veiled critique of the people he had to deal with there, and here they were drawing inspiration from his work and making profits on it. You notice early on in the film, never mind at the finale, that it's difficult to trust anyone in Tinseltown according to this, but if they had exploited Chandler at least there were some very decent entertainments to be taken from it, including Garner's very Marlowe-esque TV series The Rockford Files where he played the same sardonic, prone to being beaten up and otherwise taken advantage of private detective, only with a more sympathetic approach.
Marlowe has integrity, but much like in Robert Altman's take on the character damn few else do, so even though he's developed a thick skin (thicker than Elliott Gould's version) he remains the most likely character to be taken advantage of. Among those doing so were one Winslow Wong, who aside from the TV connection is probably the reason this is remembered as he was played by burgeoning martial arts superstar Bruce Lee, presumably brought in because he was a friend of Silliphant's. He only got two scenes but made them count as a rare villain, smashing up Marlowe's office with his bare hands then encountering him on a penthouse restaurant balcony, a scene which has had Lee's fans grumbling ever since because of the silly way it resolves itself. Rita Moreno also made a strong impression though again could have done more, though her nearly-nude burlesque act may have been enough for her fans. Structurally, this was a mess, but as long as the actors seemed to know what was up, it was watchable enough. Music by Peter Matz.